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MUCH OF THE EXQUISITE new album from Tiny Ruins, Hollie Fullbrook’s band of four, exists on the shores of Manukau Harbour in Auckland. Not just set on it, but sprung from it, immersed in it and, in the end, speaking to it.

The natural world is at its most intimately connected, working in many ways as teacher in the eyes of Fullbrook, who has said of this quasi-spiritual home, “it’s beautiful but also muddy, dirty and neglected. It’s a real meeting of nature and humanity.”

Which sounds noble and all, and in the earthy basslines, shimmering backing vocals and naturalistic, old-school folk-like lead voice of this record, Ceremony, you do find a knowing grasp of humanity even before you delve into stories that explore crushing grief and our fractured routes out of them. But is it blasphemous to ask what does nature teach us that we don’t already know?

As she says on this record, “the body knows what the body knows”, so what does being exposed to nature tell us about how we will deal with distress, trauma, indeed, any experiences in our lives?

“It’s a big question and I suppose it is one of the big questions of the album,” says Fullbrook in bed with a laptop, her one-year-old faintly heard crying in the background, a room away. (I can wait if she wants to attend to her daugher, I tell her, but she says no. “I think she is okay. She is with her dad so she is going to be alright.”)

“As a young person and a young songwriter I think I probably had some arrogance, some feelings that I could do anything I wanted: you are the master of your own universe. Not that I was blustering about in a super confident way; I had all the neuroses you have as a young person. But there is a centredness to your feeling of your problems and your struggles and your hopes and dreams revolve around you. As you go through different experiences I think increasingly to feel like you are completely subject to your environment and nothing else.”

There’s some natural context to these thoughts and songs, Fullbrook writing them in the early days of the pandemic and in the wake of watching the summer-long, murderous Australian bushfires. But there’s a personal context as well that we have been dancing around a bit, something that in fact predates the plagues years.

“I’ve struggled to know how much to talk about the more personal feelings, physical loss, that kind of informed a lot of the album. I’m still kind of struggling: how much do I talk about this and I want people to come to this on their own terms and read into at what they want,” Fullbrook says. “But essentially, yeah, I had a really devastating loss and for me, going through a grieving process was like a huge part of the making of this album. A lot of people are like ‘songwriting is therapy, and making music is therapy’, but I’ve never really felt like that’s true for me. There’s definitely a kind of processing, but I think I approach it more like a puzzle to solve than a psychological venting, or catharsis.”

At least that’s how she had previously approached things. But a devastating loss changed everything.

“Around the time that we were finishing [her 2019 album] Olympic Girls I had this experience and Olympic Girls was interesting because it was a little bit of a foreshadowing. There was something kind of ominous in the songs of Olympic Girls that really freaked me out a little bit at the time,” Fullbrook says.

“Basically, I lost a daughter, a baby, halfway through pregnancy and there are a couple of songs on Olympic Girls that seemed kind of about that: Kore Waits In The Underworld is kind of about the story of Persephone in some ways, a daughter going into the Underworld. At the time that I wrote those songs I had no idea this was going to happen.

You could understand how this might shake someone. Block them even.

“So there was something about Olympic Girls where I was in the experience of grief while we were releasing that album and I started writing the lyrics for Ceremony during that time, but I just couldn’t put them to music. It was like a physically too difficult thing to do, to sit down with a guitar and actually find melodies for these lyrics,” says Fullbrook. “I’m saying to our drummer, Alex [Freer], I think for the next album the lyrics are done but I don’t know if I can turn them into songs. They might just be like poems that could accompany an instrumental album. It really was like a division in my mind, between the music and the words.”

This was when the properties of Auckland’s west harbour, where Fullbrook grew up from the age of 10, the reconnection with a natural world, came through.

“But it was a couple of years later, after touring Olympic Girls really heavily and getting buried in work while trying to play as much as possible, then coming home to the pandemic and suddenly having a lot of time on my hands, that’s when I returned to this area,” she says.”It’s a familiar environment and I came home to it and did a lot of walking around various inlets and bays, which is also what I’d done when I had been writing these lyrics on their own, and it was my way of projecting the inner into the outer. So while a song like Dorothy Bay is inspired by being pulled along by the dogs to the day – I also adopted two dogs during that whole period of time – it’s also about this bigger physical powerlessness in the face of something as huge as a tide or tidal system.

“So back to what you originally said, I think with age and experience you learn your insignificance, your physical insignificance and powerlessness, and it’s freeing. And so, with the music I was very open to it being free and doing whatever it needed to do. I didn’t have a lot of sonic rules or anything.”

What I find interesting with this idea of seeing how being exposed to nature reveals how insignificant you are, how the world moves on around and without you and you could disappear without consideration, is how birth and loss in your own life does the same thing. That is, it makes us accept that centring yourself in the world is pointless because those will happen around you and to you irrespective of your “plans”.

The weirdest part about art approaching these ideas is that art in itself centres your experience while writing about not being centred. In some ways art is about controlling and making something from it. Did she feel like writing songs about this experience was one way, may be the only way, that she would control her world?

“I feel like it was maybe the only …,” says Fulbrook her voice trailing off. “I’m a pretty controlled person. I remember during that time people would be like, ‘she’s coping really well’, and I was feeling like I was coping so well, so composed [she laughs, not at all bitterly] in the turmoil that was going on, like, ‘I’m doing all the right things’.

“I do like a feeling of control, absolutely, in my music, in my band. We are very independent, we don’t have any other people in the studio with us, just the four of us in the group, and part of that is control, for sure.”

Is the making of art an attempt to control or is it letting go of control?

“I think it’s an attempt to actually let go of that, because I think I was so tightly wound with keeping it all together, continuing to work and make something meaningful out of horrible experience. To kinda say, well at least I will now release Olympic Girls and we’re going to tour that and it’s going to be great. A feeling of like, I have to make this make sense, was definitely pervasive in my day-to-day life,” says Fullbrook. “But actually I think when I was writing the lyrics it was my way of being like, no, this is really lonely and I was struggling.”

She argues that when you are writing songs it’s not really conscious, you don’t think necessarily that you’re centring yourself, “they kind of emerge”, as she puts it. For a start she wasn’t even sure these early ideas, these words without music, would become songs.

“I actually remember one of the songs, Daylight Savings, one of the really early ones, we actually workshopped it to potentially go on Olympic Girls, so it was really early. We started to record it and it felt really like I was out of control, I couldn’t keep it together,” Fulbrook says. “I would say the songs were a way of dealing what I was going through but they needed time to be harnessed and put to music. I needed time to get through some of the processing of that grief and when I could look at them clearly it was less erratic a feeling.”

Even then she still had to play them to her band who, as close to her and as trusted as they were, presented an emotional barrier she needed to clear. It was necessary though – “It was a letting go, definitely.” – even an unusual environment for her as a writer.

“It feels strange to talk about lyrics and music separately, but for about seven or eight of the songs that’s probably how they came about,” she says. “Then with that period of maybe two or three years I left them in Notes files and didn’t look at them, but I was able to come back with maybe more of a critical eye and turn them into songs that I knew would be cryptic enough and not as uncontrolled as they probably were in their earliest forms.”

What she seems to be saying is that the understanding had to come first, before the songs could. The uncontrolled, the overwhelming, could not hold the story together, until she could no not just know what it was she was feeling but what it meant. After that the music would come.

“That’s pretty much bang on. Olympic Girls is interesting because it came from a real happy and settled time in my life. I don’t know, maybe songwriting gives you permission to almost play with expectations of the lyrics, and I think that’s why my band are quite good at. A song like One Million Flowers on Olympic Girls, the lyrics are quite light-hearted, a playfulness to them, but the music is actually ominous and epic and heavy in some ways. A lot of the songs on Ceremony, my bandmates know me very well and they probably knew these lyrics were difficult, but nothing was really said, we just went in this direction that was light and rhythmic, being playful.”

And playful is a crucial element with this Tiny Ruins album, which plays against the hurt and crushed souls of its characters. It is not a “sad” album; it is an album of joy amid grief, what Fullbrook calls “more of a holistic reading what it is to go through grief”, one that covers grief, its complex and varied aftermath.

“I think by the time I play them to the band I was healed enough through time to know that grief and that experience wasn’t just sadness. I had found there is humour and ridiculousness and playfulness,” Fullbrook says, adding with a laugh. “In our worst moments there is still going to be funny shit that happens.”

Ceremony is released on Friday, April 28.


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