Holy Holy’s third album, My Own Pool Of Light, is the work of a duo emboldened by complete creative freedom, from the songwriting to the recording process and, ultimately, their decision to self-produce.
It’s an album that finds guitarist Oscar Dawson and vocalist Timothy Carroll incorporating new sounds and fresh ideas, in the process redefining exactly what kind of band they are without sacrificing the key elements – soaring melodies, lush instrumental textures, the beguiling mix of jubilance and melancholy, Carroll’s affecting lyrics – that have made them one of Australia’s most popular acts.
“We really wanted to feel a sense of freedom when making this record,” says Dawson, who co-founded Holy Holy with Carroll in 2013. “We wanted to make a record that was a bit more DIY and where we were happy to just have a laptop and a shitty microphone, and not do this whole grandiose big studio session with the rock band kind of vibe. Wherever we were, at whatever point in time, we could just put down an idea. We didn’t want to have to wait for a ‘studio day’. We wanted the fullest amount of freedom possible.”
True to that vision, recording sessions occurred in myriad locations, ranging from a shed on Carroll’s property in rural Tasmania to a room underneath the house of a friend’s place in Launceston; from Dawson’s recording studio in Abbotsford to Preston’s Head Gap and Brisbane’s Plutonium studio.
“We felt like the creation was occurring in the moment,” says Dawson, who in addition to co-producing with Carroll also engineered and mixed the album (with the exception of first single “Faces”, which was mixed by Rich Costey, and the atmospheric “Starting Line”, on which Grammy-nominated engineer Andrei Eremin offered additional production).
“In the past we have been fairly considered and produced and controlled, but here we wanted to focus less on takes that were really perfect and more on trying to catch interesting ideas,” adds Carroll, who credits some of his more daring melody lines to extended periods of improvisation during the writing process.
In spite of the ad hoc nature of the recording sessions – or perhaps because of it – My Own Pool Of Light is Holy Holy’s most expansive album to date. Banishing any notion of them simply being a “rock band”, it incorporates drum loops (created by the duo or by permanent drummer and bandmate Ryan Strathie), sampled beats, pitch-shifted vocals, ethereal sounds and bubbling synths, some of which were performed by Gab Strum, AKA Melbourne producer/songwriter Japanese Wallpaper. (Other guest artists include Ali Barter and Ainslie Wills, who sing back-ups on “Faces” and “Teach Me About Dying”, with Barter also featuring on “Maybe You Know”.) Throughout the album’s creation, Carroll and Dawson often found themselves writing on keyboard rather than guitar.
“If you’re writing a song with a guitar in your hand, you naturally slide into certain parameters or certain ideas,” says Dawson. “And we didn’t want to be riff rock. We didn’t want to be just another bunch of blokes onstage rocking. We’ve had enough of it.”
For a band that have enjoyed a great deal of success with guitars in hand, it was a bold move. To date the duo have over 45 million streams to their name, while their 2015 debut, When The Storms Would Come, debuted at Number 11 on the ARIA Charts. Its follow-up, 2017’s Paint, was a Top 10 hit, with lead single “Darwinism” becoming the most played track on triple j and “True Lovers” landing at Number 40 in 2017’s Hottest 100. This success propelled them to festival appearances both local (Bluesfest, Secret Garden, Festival Of The Sun, Groovin’ The Moo) and international (Primavera, The Great Escape, Reeperbahn, Dot To Dot), as well as two headline tours of Australia.
Don’t, however, assume a lack of guitars means a lack of oomph. From the relentless pulse of opener “Maybe You Know” to the propulsive bass of “Faces” (which has been streamed more than 1.5 million times to date, was the Number One most played song on triple j and received support from the UK’s BBC Radio 1); from the skittering drums of “People” and intricate rhythms of “Hatswing” to the stunning climax of “Frida”, My Own Pool Of Light buzzes with verve and intensity.
“We wanted the album to have drive to it and feel like it picks you up and pushes you along,” explains Dawson.
“Oscar works very quickly as a producer, so it was really nice to be able to have ideas and just try them,” adds Carroll. “And that meant sometimes you’d get this momentum and wildness that really did feel freeing. The outcome is that there’s chaos in the songs and I feel it comes from that way of writing.”
Just as the band entered into the project with a firm idea on how they wanted to create, so Carroll had a clear vision for his lyrics.
“I wanted to write songs that really meant something on this album, that really had something at the core of why it was being written. Each song was trying to say something.”
Whether tackling issues such as depression and suicide on “Maybe You Know” (“I’ve had a few friends over the years who’ve died at their own hand, and some close friends who are battling depression,” says Carroll); the way in which mortality imbues life with urgency and clarity (“Teach Me About Dying”); or the tragic consequences of toxic masculinity and the manner in which gender stereotypes are perpetuated in daily life, even down to the books we read our children (“Frida”), Carroll has used his personal experiences to extend his gaze outward more than ever before.
“Flight” is informed by his previous profession as a social worker in the area of refugee settlement, a job through which he witnessed firsthand the devastating impacts of government policies and how they seek to dehumanise asylum seekers. “We need to keep those stories being told and keep drawing attention to the fact that it’s not okay what’s occurring,” says Carroll.
“Flight” segues into “Sandra”, a song with which it shares musical motifs, lyrical themes and a vocal chant, to create a mesmerising eight-and-a-half minute journey.
Inspired by Melbourne transgender woman Sandra Pankhurst and her biography, The Trauma Cleaner, Carroll used certain scenes from the book as a means of exploring the way in which homophobia and transphobia is “hateful” and “succeeds only in making people feel awful about themselves”. It’s a topic both he and Dawson are clear to point out they’re approaching from the perspective of being allies to the LGBTQI community as opposed to spokespeople.
“Being a white straight guy, I would never purport to be a voice for trans rights,” says Carroll, who contacted Pankhurst to share the work and discuss its meaning before seeking her blessing to release the song in her name. “But songwriters are storytellers; we tell stories about all kinds of aspects about the world we live in and the injustices we see.”
With the album taking its name from a line in the song “People”, the manner in which it was chosen typifies the collaborative spirit of Dawson and Carroll’s co-production. The singer shared all his lyrics with his bandmate, who went through searching for a phrase that would fit.
The duo’s decision to co-produce was driven not only by the clarity of their creative vision, but by a confidence in each other’s abilities.
“Sometimes I feel like a band get a producer on board cos they don’t have the guts to make decisions themselves,” says Dawson. “Or they want someone to mediate their own disagreements. They want someone to come in and go, ‘This is the right answer.’ But I was really keen to say, we should figure this out ourselves. And when we have tense moments where we’re not sure and we’re tussling, great. Awesome. Love it. I think it’s good, because we’re both backing our ideas in a truer sense.”
Five years after their debut release, 2014’s The Pacific EP, My Own Pool Of Light is the biggest creative leap of Holy Holy’s career. It’s also an undiluted representation of their vision.
“We always want to make music that’s exciting and interesting, and that makes you feel something, and takes risks,” says Carroll. “This is the album we wanted to make.”
Press/Online - Suzy Byrne, Positive Feedback