It’s not like she was lazy.
Holly Throsby made six albums in seven years including a highly praised children’s album, See!, she won’t play for her two-and-a-half-year-old daughter Alvy.
“I should play her my record but I feel weird,” she says with a look of embarrassment. “I don’t really want to listen to it together.”
All of those albums were minor gems of hushed singing and oblique but intense feelings. An English major arts graduate who did her time behind the counter of a Balmain video store, Throsby may have been a hesitant performer – admitting now that at the start singing was simply the best way she could get her songs out, not her choice of career – but she loved the craft of songwriting.
In that intense early burst, she was nominated for ARIA Awards, toured widely, recorded in the USA and on the south coast of NSW, and made an album with two other singer/songwriters whose talent outstripped their profiles, Sarah Blasko and Sally Seltmann, as Seeker Lover Keeper.
And then nothing for the next six years. Complete silence. Not just no releases but also not even the thought of making music again.
Instead, Throsby was writing her debut novel, Goodwood, a story set in a fictional South Coast town and part mystery, part coming of age and part drily humorous multiple character study.
She had Alvy and a partner, Zoe; a dog she dotes on called Joness; and she found that writing long form fit “my personality and my sensibility”. There seemed nothing else necessary.
“I found when I was writing Goodwood I was so immersed in that fictional world that I wasn’t interested in music at all,” Throsby says, stabbing at a pile of coleslaw in the back garden of a Redfern pub.
“I did for a time shut that part of myself down [before beginning the book]. I had a quite powerful feeling against music and I was at a loss.”
This sense of loss, of disconnection with the idea of making music was something which was evident to those who spoke with Throsby in the year or so after her previous album, Team.
There was no satisfaction: she was tired from touring, felt “musically quite depleted” and writing or playing or recording “was all connected for me to negative feelings”.
“I felt like I had lost my feeling for it,” is how she puts it now so perhaps not surprisingly she found herself with nothing to say in song.
“Then writing fiction I found I could say whatever I wanted to,” says Throsby. “I could do anything.”
Yet it was the completion of that novel that reignited an interest in making music. Not just an interest, but almost a fever.
Deep into a late and final draft of the book – an editing process others have found tedious but she found hugely enjoyable - with a fresh baby in hand, she started thinking about music again for the first time in years.
“I remember reading through the final edit [of Goodwood] the very, very last thing to do and when that was finished I had this wonderful sense of achievement and completion and I suddenly thought, great let’s get back to music.
“I had this dying passion to make a record … I became very excited about it and was all fired up.”
Throsby started writing to add to a handful of old songs, including the wistful-yet-hopeful Aeroplane, which became the second single from the album called After A Time.
“They all came together and just popped out,” she laughs. “It was really exciting I think that’s why was so impatient to get into the studio. I was annoying. I was calling people in the band, hurrying them along and wanting to do this. It was like recording my first album in a way.”
What had changed? “When I came back to it I found I didn’t have to think about it.”
Oddly enough for someone often seen as cerebral and a little distant, often because her minimalist singing style suggests to some her emotions are kept in check, music’s appeal for Throsby is that it doesn’t engage the brain first.
“After I wrote the book it made me think a lot about the purpose of a song, what’s the point of a song as opposed to the point of fiction or prose or poetry,” says Throsby, who is working on her second novel amid the flurry of activity in her music career. “A song to me now feels more like an offering.
“Because it’s necessarily small compared to a novel or other longer forms it’s an offering in the sense of saying here is a fragment, or a moment, or here is a feeling, and that’s it, that’s all it has to be.”
The songs that mean the most to her are those which happened quickly rather than being laboured over. What separates them is they came from a “feeling place, a sensory thing” not an intellectual place, the difference being something Throsby, who confesses she is happily prone to intellectualising in other areas, enjoys.
Unlike the novel, songwriting remains one area where she could let feelings exist without explanation or verification.
Not that words don’t matter or aren’t crafted but that they express a non-intellectual moment and usually are left untouched from first writing even, as the song itself continues to evolve on stage or in later versions or covers.
For all the talk of being at her happiest when the brain is left out of the equation in her music, Throsby is nonetheless as much a student of songwriting as she is of novel writing.
That goes back to early hushed minimalist heroes such as Will “Bonnie ‘Prince’ Billy” Oldham, with whom she sang on Would You? in 2008, and Mark Kozelek of Sun Kil Moon, with whom she’s sung on the new album’s virtual update of Would You?, the quietly powerful song of marital malfunction, What Do You Say.
But it also applies to her Seeker Keeper Lover bandmates who are working on songs for a new album.
Last time around Blasko, Seltmann and Throsby brought in songs each, sometimes having them sung by one of the others; this time they have set themselves the target of writing everything together.
It’s been something of an eye-opening experience for Throsby whose small co-writing experience doesn’t compare with that of Seltmann who has forged a very successful career between Los Angeles and Sydney as a writer of choice for people like the Bangles’ Susanna Hoffs.
“It felt like the right thing to do,” says Throsby. “We wanted to evolve the idea of being a band and being cooperative.”
Which is a final reminder of something else that separates Throsby the novelist from Throsby the musician, or maybe what appeals enough to make the novelist not want to give up being a musician: company.
“I love singing now. I love singing with other people,” says Throsby. “It’s such a great feeling.”
Holly Throsby productions
On Night – 2004
Under The Town – 2006
A Loud Call – 2008
See! – 2010
Team – 2011
Seeker Lover Keeper - 2011
Goodwood – 2016
After A Time is out now
Holly Throsby plays the Calrendon Guesthouse, Katoomba on March 9 and Newtown Social Club, March 19
Holly Throsby playing ANU Bar, Canberra, March 10; Milton Theatre, March 11; Black Bear Lodge, Brisbane, March 16; Lizottes, Newcastle, March 18; Northcote Social Club, Melbourne, March 26; Mojos, Fremantle, March 30; Babushka, Perth, March 31