Tiny Ruins' new album Olympic Girls is a complicated beast. It's the band's most technically expansive to date, and the songs manage to balance opposing emotions - it's bright and joyful, but not without moments of acute darkness.
The album is representative of some tumultuous, unpredictable times in frontwoman Hollie Fullbrook's life. Four years ago, the singer found herself running on empty, sapped dry from a marathon tour supporting Sharon van Etten and promoting Tiny Ruins' second album, Brightly Painted One.
Returning home from the Australian tour, she was exhausted: "I remember just being like, 'I'm empty. I'm completely empty'."
It was a dark time during which things Fullbrook had once lived for no longer mattered. "It took a few months to find stuff that I was excited about again," she says. "Like, see a painting and actually feel something, or listen to a piece of music and actually enjoy it.
"Numbness is the worst. I really think it's worse than feeling in pain."
Fullbrook and I are chatting down at The Lab, a recording studio in Mt Eden, oblivious to the scorching summer day outside. Tucked under the Crystal Palace theatre, natural light is scarce down here, while a faintly musty smell only adds to the studio's character. It's a labyrinth of hallways and recording booths, including a particularly small one near the back, where Olympic Girls was recorded.
Fullbrook and her band – Tom Healy, Cass Basil and Alex Freer – have spent a lot of time in here over the past few years. After trying for months to make some sort of creative breakthrough, Fullbrook finally found inspiration via a photo shared by a friend in Japan during the cherry blossom season. Fullbrook later visited, and soon, she'd written One Million Flowers – a kaleidoscopic colour burst that elevates her songwriting to new heights. "It was a real step forward for me musically, as a writer," she says.
Recording for Olympic Girls began around August 2016, and continued intermittently for about a year; as Fullbrook gradually collated more songs, she and the band would jump into the studio to record them in increments. "Coming back from tour, everyone needs to get their jobs back again," says Fullbrook. "[We were] working around four people's schedules – instead of being like, 'let's block off a month to record this record,' it was like, 'when are we next all available?'"
One Million Flowers was the "visual template" from which Fullbrook began building Olympic Girls - "writing from a place of happiness," she says. But that period of inspiration was followed directly by a traumatic event – one that, for now, Fullbrook is keeping close to her heart. "One day I will talk about it at length," she says, but for now, "I don't feel like the songs are about that."
Suddenly, Fullbrook and her band were recording the songs on Olympic Girls through a far more intense time than when they were written. There's an emotional dichotomy on Olympic Girls as a result; the songs are awash with rich notes of springtime and colour, but they're countered by minor chords and moments of gloom - sometimes, in an "eerie", prophetic way. "It's quite weird when you write something and then it teaches you a lesson in a way," says Fullbrook.
There are songs about Auckland's housing crisis (My Love Leda) and Fullbrook's life as a touring artist (How Much) – the latter of which references the all-too-real moment she broke down in a supermarket. "We'd just landed in LA, and I was a quivering wreck ... I had the most terrible wisdom teeth pain, and I went into one of those big US pharmacies, and I didn't know what to look for to just get the pain to go away. And I just lost my shit. I did literally just break down in tears."
It's an album that charts some extreme highs and lows in Fullbrook's life – and it cracks a new realm of her songwriting.
"I find it a really intense body of work – definitely the most intense that I've made," she says. "Way more intense than the breakup album [Brightly Painted One] – probably by 100 times."
Who: Tiny Ruins
What: New album Olympic Girls
Tour: Te Auaha Tapere Nui, Wellington, March 10; Pt Chevalier RSA, Auckland, March 16