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As she launches into several in-conversations as part of the Sydney Writers’ Festival this week, along with plenty more elsewhere (including Bellingen Readers & Writers Festival in June – come and join us), Holly Throsby is a writer in demand.

Two novels to the (very) good, about small towns and fractured emotions, to add to her set of six (superb) solo albums, and this year a second Seeker Lover Keeper album with Sarah Blasko and Sally Seltmann. It’s enough to keep a mind as much as a body busy.

But as this 2008 interview reveals, even when she’s not busy, her mind creates enough work for two. Or more. "I am a deeply anxious person," she said.


Holly Throsby won't choose a table.

We're upstairs in a gentrified inner city pub, the lunch crowd hasn't arrived and the room is empty save for the low burbling of music playing in the background and a stray waiter strolling into the kitchen. But Throsby, offered the choice, won't take it. Flatly refuses to with a definitiveness that surprises even the record company chap who has driven her here.

An apologetic smile flashes across the elongated face which every year seems to edge closer to the well known features of her mother, the ABC broadcaster Margaret Throsby. Then she confesses that she physically can't, that she feels the flutter of panic rising in her when placed in the situation of making such choices and is notorious among her friends for hovering in the background until someone does the deed.

For the moment we let the issue pass as the 29-year-old singer/songwriter settles into the high bench. After all she's chatting amiably, flashing the newish arrow tattoo on her right arm which seems to have its partner on the other arm with a target-like circle.

The Modigliani features, framed by loosely tied long brown hair, contrast with the deliberately casual outfit of denim dress over a white t-shirt and bright red tights. The quiet, fluid voice doesn't completely distract attention away from a gold necklace with a dangling saw and branch with which she fidgets often.

Between us on the table is a copy of her new album of intimate, quietly lush and emotionally bare songs, the incongruously named A Loud Call. It was recorded in Nashville with the producer Mark Nevers whose best work has been with similarly quiet but intense acts such as Lambchop and Bonnie Prince Billy (aka Will Oldham who duets on one track) and finds Throsby exploring a new found confidence in her singing voice.

But if the voice has new confidence and the sound more air and light, there remains such a vulnerability to the person we see in these songs that it can be quite startling. Appealing, and, because of the quality of her poetically aware lyrics a pleasure to experience, but nonetheless startling in its openness about the fragility of lives, mainly hers.

Here is someone who even when things are going right worries about what could go wrong, who declares in one song "so long, so long for now/I love someone/our love is a song, that we sing, that's been sung" but sounds all the more exposed for putting it into words.

"I am a deeply anxious person," Throsby confesses. "I grew up fretting, fretting about things happening to people I love and that has always been powerful. And I think since I experienced some death in my family when I was at quite a formative time, even though my anxiety predated that, I think that was a particularly disturbing event for me.

"I feel like with relationships I am a very romantic person. I feel a very deep sense of romance in what it means to be in love, that it is a very unique thing and that scares me in a way. Love just scares me because I feel like I lost a few things in my life."

She was quite debilitated by panic attacks in her early 20s, so does she think loss or breakdown is inevitable?

"I kind of do. I'm the child of a broken home and I think that I'm surprisingly romantic as a child of a broken home. I didn't have a very stable family life, it was quite different to some other people, and so I think it makes you either react against that in a way of becoming angry or despondent, or the opposite. It's not that I believe they will end, but I have anxiety about that. With the people around me, in my close life, I'm yet to see relationships endure in a lot of ways.

"But while I am anxious about it, I'm anxious about a huge amount of things, so that's not just the only one."

What are the other anxieties?

"Well there's the whole table choosing thing," she smiles. “The anxieties are different on this record to the first record I made [2004's On Night]. Everything came back to death with that one and I think it was a real working through of things for me. I was 17 when my brother died and I had one exam left in my HSC, I went the exam and did all that stuff because I thought you had to keep on doing that stuff and I didn't stop [doing that].

“Those things affect you. I think it has made me scared. It made me scared to travel because he died when he was in Bangkok. It made me scared to get on a motorcycle, which I've never done. It made me scared when other people travel away from me. I think that's why a lot of those songs have that fear. It's not just a fear of trust in relationship, it's a lot to do with the fear of death.

"But this record to me doesn't seem an insecure record. This record has a real up in the sky feeling, whereas the others had this very subterranean, dark feeling to them. I feel stronger in a lot of ways."

It's true that rather than a fear of things ending A Loud Call focuses more on whether it's possible to build relationships, or life, given how many things can go wrong. And both in the vocals and in her public presence, there is a greater self confidence in Throsby these days.

"I think I've always been like that in my personal life. In person I think I've always been a straight talker, and I never felt like a tiny person, but I did when I started making music because it's a very exposing thing to do and the kind of music I did was very exposing. Playing on stage I didn't enjoy very much because I found it invasive, I could hardly talk between songs and I felt like I had no clothes on in front of an audience."

It wasn't just on stage. Both at school and at university doing an arts degree (dropping out of her honours year to concentrate on music) Throsby spent much of her time avoiding attention. "I was really quiet. I had an opinion and I wanted to say something but I was really scared to talk.

Yvonne Robinson, her HSC English teacher at Hunters Hill High (where Throsby topped the school in English) remembers her as talented and thoughtful, chatty among her friends but reticent in public forums. "That was Holly: definitely had opinions, definitely had strong opinions, but very quiet."

"She was terrifically literate, she wrote extremely well, very bright, but I hadn't seen any sign of interest in music or performance," Ms Robinson says. "That's why it was a surprise when after she left school her best friend, Pippa announced it was Holly's stated intention to become the best female rock star in Australia."

If that ambition has been shelved - you don't become a rock star in Australia by making quietly beautiful records - the reticence remains, though these days it's not on-stage but off. Several topics are off the table altogether in discussions with Throsby, principally her private life and her family.

It's not a question of hiding she says, but a long-standing family view that little is to be gained and so much to be lost when the media begins to chew on the fibres of your life.

"That family stuff really freaks me out," Throsby says with a noticeable shudder. "I can remember when my brother died one of the Sunday papers took a photo of my mum at the airport, because she flew straight to Bangkok, and I remember feeling that it was so invasive and horrible.

"My mother has always been very private. She was so resistant [to intrusion] and never talked about me in interviews and was always shielding us from that. I really appreciated that and I feel the same way. Even though what I do is obviously very different from what she does, where she interviews people and it's always about the other person, because with me I know these albums beg questions. But I'm still not a willing to give those answers."

Safer talk drifts to her new dog, a chocolate Labrador called Jones, beer drinking and gnawing on ribs in Nashville. The very slim Throsby had a 10-year spell as a vegetarian but "I wasn't a principled vegetarian; I was a sook of a vegetarian" and she succumbed to the temptations of flesh during an earlier visit to Texas.

There's plenty of laughter but it's clear she hasn't shaken off the earlier conversation so in some ways it's not surprising when she suddenly offers this: "I have really, really bad dreams, like terrible nightmares, all the time. And that I don't want to have them anymore."

Throsby describes one dream where her new dog was tied to a maypole in the middle of the room, with the leash nailed to the neck. The dog was then spinning around the Maypole trying to get away. "It was just horrible, a horrible experience. It was like that Yeats poem where the falcon can't hear the falconer [The Second Coming]."

And then another she'd had only the night before, where she and friends were caught in a car sinking in water after a crash and "I came up and there was blood everywhere".

"I have these dreams and I hate them," she says firmly, dismissing the idea that it's related to the insecurities mentioned earlier.

"I think I just have a bank of horrific images that come back. That's why I don't want to watch scary movies any more, and why I don't want to read disturbing books any more. I want to only consume nice things," she chuckles. "I feel different now, like a grown-up, responsible."

As long as someone else chooses the table.

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