In the battle for the eternal soul of Hollie Smith, music nearly lost out to hockey. This small, tattooed, stroppy young woman was such a promising schoolgirl player that it wasn't until 2005, while performing as a guest vocalist with one of the country's hippest acts, TrinityRoots, that Smith decided to drop out of high-grade hockey to focus on music.
She didn't drop far, though Smith still plays socially, presumably with the same ferocious intensity she brings to the stage.
But music was a deeper passion. Smith began singing at 4, making up songs for her toys, and discovered at Willow Park Primary on Auckland's North Shore that she sang louder than all the other kids in the choir. By the time she hit Takapuna Normal Intermediate, she'd fallen in love with the giants of funk, soul and blues: James Brown, Ray Charles, Jimi Hendrix, Stevie Wonder, Ella Fitzgerald. Her first song, City of Sails, won the school's Rolling Composition Competition when she was in Form 1, aged 11. By 14, she began singing in bands, inspired by her father Paul Smith, a printer who played guitar in blues and rock cover bands around Auckland. At 16, her Celtic-influenced first album won her Best Female Vocalist at the 1999 National Jazz Festival.
Now, at 24, Smith is New Zealand's loudest and most distinctive voice, thanks to collaborations across the music community with artists ranging from dub maestro Recloose to genre-hopping collective Fly My Pretties and Wellington groove outfit The Black Seeds - fronted by her boyfriend Barnaby Weir, with whom she lives on the Kapiti Coast.
On Monday, Smith releases her much-anticipated debut album Long Player on her own Soundsmith Records, distributed locally by EMI. Although she rejected offers to sign direct to other major labels, the EMI connection led to Smith's big break this week - she signed with Manhattan Records, one of the labels in the New York-based, EMI-aligned Blue Note group, which is home to an historic jazz catalogue as well as the likes of Norah Jones. "We have all listened to Hollie Smith and are completely overwhelmed by her original and soulful voice", says Blue Note boss Bruce Lunvall after hearing some of Smith's songs sent by NZ EMI boss Chris Caddick. "She is unbelievable and we definitely want her for America."
Smith's first international release via Manhattan/Blue Note will be next year but it won't necessarily be the NZ-only Long Player album. Still, she hopes her homegrown effort will show she's not just the girl from Bathe in the River. "I've got no want to be famous or anything like that, she says. I'm just doing my music. Now, I've got freedom to do whatever I want with my music, wherever I want to, whenever I want to, and that's really important."
Last year, Smith had decided: no more collaborations. Time to give up being simply a guest vocalist for other acts, and focus on her own work. Then Don McGlashan rang. The offer to give voice to Bathe in the River, the key piece in his soundtrack to the film No. 2 was too good to refuse. "Don rang me and said I've got this track and it's for this movie, and I thought, it's just a New Zealand movie, it's awesome, it's great, what could happen?"
What did happen was the single spent 22 weeks in the top 10 in the New Zealand charts and won McGlashan an Apra Silver Scroll, as well as introducing Smith's voice to a mainstream audience. Initially, the vocals had been recorded by Christchurch-born session musician Bella Kalolo, and McGlashan was happy with her work. But the film's director Toa Fraser wanted a deeper, more mature voice; someone like the amazing backing singer with TrinityRoots.
"Smith flew up to Auckland, and as soon as she sang it through I knew she had an extraordinary connection with the song, and that it was going to be right for the film", says McGlashan.
Now, Smith will perform it only with McGlashan. "I get really paranoid that people just want Bathe in the River and I think, shit, I'm trying to get past that and break away and create my own thing. That's a big reason why I don't play it plus out of respect to Don. I just love performing it with him and that's our little thing together and that's the way it's going to stay."
To McGlashan, Smith is the real thing. "Her voice and her ability to really inhabit a song are astonishing. She deserves a huge audience and a long career. I guess it's possible that the industry might do what it sometimes does, and choose to overlook the real thing in favour of Crazy Frog but I don't see how anybody could overlook Hollie. She's too good."
Despite her frustrations, Smith knows Bathe in the River is responsible for the crowds who come to hear her perform; like those who packed into her two solo gigs at Taranaki's Womad festival in March. From behind her electric piano, she exposed a breadth unhinted at by her earlier work: sweet jazz temptress, soul velveteen vocalist; aspects of what she calls her schizophrenic nature.
"I do generally go on a rollercoaster every day from being really content and happy, to not happy, Smith says. I can be really pessimistic and I can go through moments of being really consumed by that feeling. But there are moments where I do realise things are simple. Contentment is something that not many people realise ... knowing that nothing's perfect but everything's the way it should be right now, and when I realise that, that's a good thing."
She writes about her mother, about keeping it real, and about looking inward rather than beyond. A favourite composition of hers, Miracles, is about the brilliance of human anatomy and simple bodily functions such as crying. "The world in general has a lot of beauty in it, but a lot of people don't realise it. I suppose my music is kind of a reminder that we can control our own destiny - it's about being more open-minded about different situations that happen around the world and not being complacent about how you live your life, and drawing inspiration from the simple things. I find lyric-writing really hard because I really do invest a lot of thought. I try to be a little bit more cryptic with things relating to politics so you can take your own meaning.
"These songs are as much a reminder for me as everyone else I know, that I don't live my life the way I should either, and I look at the faults I've got and try to write about them to remind me so it's not really [me saying] 'Hey dude, what I think is right', its sort of, I know what I do wrong, so I can write about that."
In another life, Hollie Smith would become a midwife to satisfy her obsession with babies. "Or maybe in this lifetime, if her album doesnt sell." She laughs. "Everything about giving birth - spiritual, emotional, physical fascinates me completely and I just love babies. Everything I do is for babies, all my music is related to changing the world for children in a kind of way."
For now, she's working on spending more time with Barnaby Weir in their beachside house north of Wellington. She still drives a battered dark blue Volvo and doesn't want to plan too many of the years ahead. Her loose sketch of the future would include touring overseas, raising children, and keeping her options open "so I can choose as I go. People expect an image but I don't really have one. I go [from] being completely eccentric and very stylised to being laidback, and then snob-like. I'm just who I am day to day and that changes and I don't want to be seen in any particular label or way. So I guess, she says, laughing, the enigma will stay."
Long Player - "I'm not good at naming bands, and songs, and albums and stuff" - isn't really her debut. There have been two earlier albums, including the Celtic-influenced LP Light From a Distant Shore she made at 16 with the help of her stepfather Steve McDonald (formerly with Timberjack and Human Instinct and now an internationally acclaimed Celtic musician), which saw her named best female vocalist at the National Jazz Festival. By 2000, her solo EP Hollie Smith had erased all traces of that brief Celtic vibe - a sound that never had a chance of suiting Smith. "[The first album] was my stepdad's music, so it was an opportunity in that it was the first time I'd been in a recording studio. But the music wasn't mine."
Going independent has taken Smith on a journey of bumps and hiccups and different egos flaring, including her own. I definitely have been a control freak, very protective of my music and the way I'm doing things, so that's obviously led to altercations. When you start out doing music because you don't want to be part of the corporation in the 9-to-5 [mentality] you do it because of this thing that you love to do, but there's a business that comes into it that can be pretty nasty a lot of the time, and pretty judgmental. And musically, because you get so wrapped up in all this other stuff, it's hard to find time to just sit down and write.
She has seen others burned, including friend and fellow artist Anika Moa. They'd bonded over a box of beer and a guitar, when Smith's former partner was a drummer on Moa's national tour. Moa says she admires her friend not just because Smith can out-drink her, but because her voice is truly beautiful.
"Our styles are complete opposites, and our voices, too, but we both believe in what we're singing and have a strong connection with life, love and New Zealand. That shows when we do our shows, I think. Hollie has the voice of a black woman and she's white and I have the voice of a white woman and I'm dark brown."
Like Smith, Moa is deeply possessive of her creative integrity and her public persona, and when she couldn't reconcile with Atlantic Record's glitzy plans for her, there was an amicable parting of the ways. Smith was watching, and decided to stay right away from the major labels until now. "I think I will always be enigmatic, she says. I'm not going to be a solo artist who's got that whole image thing going on. I can keep control on that."
For Holly there has been no great ambition, no master plan, just a musical lifestyle from her father and mother, Jocelyn McDonald, who loved music. Smith has recently discovered she has Apache blood, which perhaps explains the olive skin and dark eyes, along with some Dutch and English heritage. She collects tattoos on her body to mark life's turning points, she says: birth, music, protection, growth, life and family.
Her family, she says, is one of those ones: she has a full sister, two stepsisters, a stepbrother and a half-brother. Her 15-year-old stepbrother Danny McDonald is also musical and putting out some pretty cool hip-hop stuff, but just as a hobby.
Booze has been an issue. Over her years of collaborating with acts such as Concord Dawn, Shapeshifter and Solaa, Smith learned just how much fun can be had on the road. "It was a really hard thing for me to try to separate [partying from music] because I've always been a heavy drinker and as I got busier with work it had obvious repercussions", she says. "I started losing my voice because I would do silly things like go out all night after a gig. Or I would get really lazy and would prefer to drink instead of focus on music. I had a few awful shit gigs because I was feeling like shit and I thought, that's not fun. I just realised how much better it was to do a good gig."
Although she still drinks, Smith doesn't touch alcohol before any performance. She's also working on her live shows. "I'm not a fantastic performer in that I find it really hard to speak to the audience. I don't know what to say like, um 'Hi, how's it going. Maybe we should go and get a coffee sometime, you know'", she laughs. "I find that really difficult and that comes across in an awkward way between songs because I'm not sure whether to speak or just keep playing. I close my eyes a lot not because I'm trying to ignore the crowd but because I'm in my own little world."
Now that mainly drunk people approach Smith regularly, late at night, to tell her how much they love her, she's getting used to celebrity. She's still not quite sure how to deal with the sideways glances in malls in daylight hours, though.
"I find fame a really strange concept. The closer you get to it, the more you realise it doesn't exist. It's just people's interpretation of who they want you to be. I'm just human; I have good days and bad days and days where I can be a bitch but I try to do the best I can with what I'm trying to do."
* Hollie Smith's new album, Long Player, is released on Monday.