Tiny Ruins is the artistic pseudonym of Hollie Fullbrook, an English-born New Zealand-raised up and comer. Her eerie, haunting melodies have an insistence that renders one both relaxed and pensive at the same time. Eat your heart out Runga and Moa! The album Some Were Meant For Sea is released this week and is a must-have if you like the alternative folk sound of Joanna Newsom or Cat Power. Just take my advice and check it out. I spent a lovely evening cooking dinner (spinach and pumpkin risotto, athankyou) listening to her beats. I wasn’t stressed once.
I hate misrepresenting styles of music and I couldn’t put my finger exactly on your work, so would you mind describing your sound to us here in Dunedin?
When people ask what type of music I play, I usually say Alternative Folk. But I find that when people come to a show, they often say, “I don’t really like folk music all the time.” If that makes sense, the songs are quite delicate, they are quite lyric focused, acoustic finger picking guitar. They are quite simple. It is hard trying to describe your own music; I find it is better to play something…
And let the music speak for itself in that regard?
Yeah, I mean I think genres are good in telling people what genre music fits into. It is a way of helping people see where it sits.
What got you in to Music and this particular style?
It was around three, four years ago. I had written songs as a hobby for a long time and I had grown up playing the Cello and the guitar, but I was actually studying theatre at Vic Uni in Wellington. Because I am not confident an actor, I convinced my lecturer to let me do the music for a particular production to try and focus on what music was going to be accompanying the play. It was a production of Twelfth Night, so I ended up writing a song for the play called “The Bird and the Play” and it’s on the album. And that song was the first song I felt quite happy with. When I played that to people and got a good response to it, I decided to focus a bit more on my song writing. I bought a four-track tape recorder from my flatmate and downloaded on a tape recorder. My friend, Sam Patton, recorded a whole bunch of downloads. So I guess that is how I got back into music you could say.
Your grandfather encouraged you to pick up your Mum’s guitar at a young age; do you come from quite a musically-minded family?
My Granddad taught me my first chords on the guitar and I have always loved hearing him play because he has this beautiful, deep – because even though he is from Devon, he sings with a deep American accent, Johnny Cash-esque. So as a child I always loved hearing him play the guitar. When he came over for a visit, I took to it really quickly after he had shown me a few chords. But generally-speaking, the family is not super musical. Actually, no, I guess you could say it is. My Mum plays the cello now. She has had lessons for maybe three years.
As inspired by yours truly?
I don’t know. I think maybe she always wanted to learn the cello and she was able to learn it vicariously through me as a child. But when she was in her twenties she was in a folk band in London. She was a long-haired, 1970s gal. She played the auto-harp.
It’s brilliant. It is like a triangle-shaped, flat sound. It almost looks like a hollow little table with about 60 strings and you strum it like a guitar. And then you press these buttons and it makes these chords.
So have you been surrounded by folk music and influences throughout your life or did she put that harp away?
She put the autoharp away, but me and my brothers used to go up to the attic and find all of her old instruments. I was quite taken by folk music from an early age; I commandeered my parents’ record player. Not just folk music, I loved all kinds of stuff. But I basically had all of their old records in my bedroom once cassette tapes and CDs came into fashion and they got themselves a proper stereo system.
Who were some of the bands you were listening to on those records?
The Beatles were my favourite and that’s a little bit of a cliché. But I just loved all of their songs; I was quite obsessed for probably about three years. It is deeply engrained in my childhood. Along with that there was the standard Donovan and James Taylor, Lindisfarne; in terms of folk stuff: Stackridge, Alan Huff, a whole bunch of British folk singers from the Seventies. Cat Stevens. I think most old music I listened to I loved it. I used to listen to Solid Gold radio until I felt I should get up to date with what is going on.
Out of interest which radio station do you listen to these days?
I listen to bFm or Coast. I still do like Coast or Solid Gold.
Your songs are underscored by quite a delicate lyricism, I wondered if you were influenced by any poets as well as singer-songwriters?
Yes, I love poetry. I did a modern poetry paper at Uni which I got really inspired by. That was about the time I started writing what I consider to be Tiny Ruins songs. So I don’t know whether they influenced me, but I really like Stevie Smith, I really love T.S. Eliot, Ezra Pound. Stevie Smith is kind of like a bedside table companion, I love reading her when I can’t sleep. Her poems are so ordinary, but at the same time they are quite profound and quite dark. Even some of them, you don’t feel like they’re very good, but I think she was brilliant in how she could write about these kind of frivolous and trivial things and then have a line at the end that was heart-stoppingly eerie or dark.
You have recently recorded Tiny Ruins’ debut album, Some Were Meant For Sea in a little school hall in rural Australia, why did you choose to record there?
I wanted to record quite a raw sounding album in the same spirit as the demos that Samuel Patton recorded in Wellington. I talked to the record label, Spunk and Aaron suggested Jay Walker who lives down in South Gippsland. Mainly because he is renowned for doing quite raw-sounding records. He likes to do things quickly and without too much analysis beforehand. I just tried what Aaron said and went with Jay Walker. I just turned up in Rural Australia about an hour south of Melbourne. We got straight on to it and we were done in about a week and a half.
Only a week and half?
Yeah, it was really quick. It was in a part of the country, I don’t know if you would want to make any comparisons but it is quite hilly and green. Quite rainy and cold for Australia. It was like being in New Zealand.
That’s good and reassuring, because did you find it rooted you in a comfortable, familiar recording environment?
It was great; because I was getting anxious about how hard this is this is recording. This is the clincher. I was getting scared about recording with this producer I hadn’t met. I was envisioning a professional, scary studio, but it wasn’t like that at all. It was homely and cosy and I was really relaxed through the whole thing.
You have mentioned that you recorded in quite a live manner, did you lay down each sound separately or was it more immediately collaborative?
The vocal and guitar tracks were laid down together, that’s what I mean by live takes. I wasn’t recording the vocals separately to when I was playing the guitar. The other instruments like the cello, the violins, the accordion, and some percussive elements like the drum, a tambourine and some bells were all added later on in the studio. But the guitar and vocal tracks which were what we really wanted to get right, we wanted to get the feel of them quite natural with not too much preparation beforehand. Greg, well I call him Greg, but his professional name is Jay Walker, Greg was quite keen on me doing a limited number of takes and not thinking too much about the song beforehand, just doing it naturally like I would in my bedroom or something. That was really good, it put me at ease and then once we had those base tracks we could play around in the studio. Like you said, it was quite collaborative in terms of the arrangements. We were like what does this need? Let’s put some percussion in there or some piano, or a bit of strings. It all came together as we developed the songs, we didn’t have big plans beforehand.
The one and half week’s work you spent recording your tracks sounds like it came out of a year of travel and touring. Tell me about 12 months you spent before recording your debut album.
The album was the result of more than 12 months, some of the songs had been rattling around for about four years and the demos had been recorded about two years ago. But last year was definitely quite a busy one. I graduated in January and then as soon as I graduated, I shifted myself back to Auckland from Wellington and worked on an EP that still hasn’t been released but probably will be at some later point. I went on an OE where I recorded and did a bunch of shows with a friend of mine in Barcelona.
Cool! How was that?
It was just a really fun five weeks. There was another girl, Anna, who was also involved in the tour we did.
Did you meet some interesting people along the way?
Some very interesting people. I hadn’t been to another country that I was completely unfamiliar with before. I was surrounded by another language and it was great being with someone who was local who could show me the little alleyways. It was during the world cup so there were lots of crazy football games to watch in these tiny bars. The music was just a part of this big experience and I can’t think of a better way to see a country than playing music and travelling around with your guitar. You meet interesting people and you just see a country through a different lens than if you were a tourist or if you were just travelling on your own.