Hollie Smith talks to Russell Baillie about the fraught recording behind her new album — and the surprising results.

Sitting outside an Auckland cafe in her vintage soldier's tunic, white singlet and camo pattern cap, Hollie Smith looks ready for battle.

Well, she is starting a new campaign - the one for her new solo album, Water or Gold.

It's been six years since her last solo album, 2010's Humour and the Misfortune of Others and there's been collaborative efforts in between like 2011's Band of Brothers, Vol:1 with Mara TK and the 2013 joint album with musical mates Anika Moa and Boh Runga.

"That was one of the most fun times" says Smith, of what she says has been a trying recent period in her life. "Basically, you drink a lot of wine and talk rubbish, and then occasionally play some songs. It was pretty sweet."


But now it's back to just Hollie Smith on an album that comes out almost a decade after Long Player made her a local multi-platinum, Tui award-sweeping phenomenon and household name.

"It's kind of scary because obviously next year it will be 10 years since Long Player and 22 years since I started performing," says the 33-year-old.

"I was panicking and feeling a lot of pressure to do something good. If this had been my first album I would have been all right. But it's not. It is 10 years later and I'm trying to produce something that people will think is still relevant.

"There are lots of people who enjoy what I do but it's whether you can get through to them in all the noise."

Then again, it might help that Water or Gold could be Smith's most inviting album yet. In Smith's stylistic mix of jazz, soul, blues, it sounds positively perkily pop on the likes of Holding On.

Elsewhere, the title track punches out with reggae-rock rhythms and there's some very deep grooves beneath the serious sentiments of Poor on Poor and fuzzy blues guitars and swing hard behind Lead the Way.

There's less of Smith, the scorching torch singer at the keyboard. She's writing and playing guitar more these days.

"Writing on piano it becomes a lot more emotive. You get lost in chordal movements - 'I don't know what this chord is, but it sounds really pretty. what can that go to?' Playing guitar and simplifying things with basic structures and basic chords, it tends to create more simple melodies. I think on the songwriting level they are probably better songs in that regard."

An artwork of Chris's wife and Hollie's friend Helena McAlpine who died of breast cancer. Photo / Dean Purcell
An artwork of Chris's wife and Hollie's friend Helena McAlpine who died of breast cancer. Photo / Dean Purcell

The album was preceded by the release of single Helena, a song devoted to Smith's friend, Helena McAlpine, who died last September after a long battle with breast cancer.

Smith sang the song, co-written by McAlpine's husband Chris Barton, at the couple's wedding. It was recorded in time to play to McAlpine on the morning of the day she died. Smith hadn't originally intended it to be part of the album, but McAlpine was persuasive.

McAlpine's passing was part of an emotionally fraught period for Smith. Having shifted to Tauranga, she split up with her partner but has continued shared custody of his son - who gets a vocal cameo on the final track, Dream.

Smith laughs while remembering her wee small hours recording schedule, which had her in her home recording studio in between doing the school run and daytime stints as a teacher's assistant.

Coming to Auckland to help nurse McAlpine had one small upside, she says. It allowed her to get her mind off music.

"That's probably the first time in 10 years I didn't think about my job once and realising how much my brain works with music, 24-7. There is not really an off-switch. After a decade it was really bizarre."

With so much real life getting in the way, recording the album came down to a rushed three weeks in December after a November tour, road-testing some of the songs.

Smith had a deadline set by airline tickets taking her to a studio booking in New York, where producer-engineer Aaron Nevezie, an ex-Kiwi who has lived in the United States for nearly 20 years and whose credits include the Black Keys and Danger Mouse, was to mix the tracks.

"It was ridiculous. I almost had a nervous breakdown. It was just the sprint to the finish.

"By the end of it I was, 'I don't even care if this album is shit. If I finish it, it will be a f***ing miracle. Can't fail. Can't fail'.

Many of the accompanying parts were farmed out to her backing musicians across the country.

"Everything was so separated. I knew what I wanted to hear but before we left it was pretty terrifying. I was feeling pretty unconfident about how that was possibly going to turn into something. It was really different for me. On the previous records when we left the studio there wasn't much to touch."

Hollie Smith. Photo / Steve Dykes
Hollie Smith. Photo / Steve Dykes

Smith says she was never quite sure what sort of album she had until it started to take shape in Nevezie's Bunker Studios in Brooklyn.
But she soon felt the 11 songs become what she thinks isn't just a cohesive album, but her best yet.

Yes, an album. That old fashioned concept, she laughs.

"The art of the album - I can't get away from it. I've never had a radio hit. I've never been a mainstream radio artist. I still write albums."

And tonight, in the bright lights of Twizel - mainly because there was a problem with the venue in Invercargill - Smith and band start a national tour, which winds its way north from the South Island including a stop at a beer festival in Christchurch this weekend.

So will the Water or Gold songs go down well with boutique beverages?

"Yeah. These songs go well with all alcohol, " she laughs.

Who: Hollie Smith
What: New album Water or Gold
When: Out tomorrow
On Tour: Top Hut, Twizel,tonight; Alberttown Tavern, Wanaka, tomorrow; Great Kiwi Beer Festival, Hagley Park, Christchurch, Saturday; Black Barn, Napier, April 7; San Francisco Bathhouse, Wellington, April 8; The Mayfair, New Plymouth, April 9; The Butter Factory, Whangarei, April 14; The Tuning Fork, Auckland, April 15; Mauao Performing Arts Centre, Mt Maunganui, April 16