Holy Holy: 'If You Travel Outside Australia & Come Back, You Realise How Interesting Australian Music Is'

21 September 2023 | 10:41 am | Cyclone Wehner

"I worry that we sometimes dumb ourselves down a little bit to try to not stand out from the bunch..."

Holy Holy

Holy Holy (Credit: Michelle Grace Hunder)

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Holy Holy are not the same band that broke out with the neo-psychedelic opus When The Storms Would Come. No longer folk revivalists or alt-country, the dynamic Australian duo have since experimented with electronica and hip-hop. But Holy Holy's latest album, Cellophane, is their most radically hybridised, with Western Sydney MC Kwame letting rip on the drum 'n' bass lead single Messed Up, as well as audacious guests like Tasman Keith, Brit rapper Tia Carys, and Swedish dream-popster Many Voices Speak. Crucially, Holy Holy are embracing serendipity over strategy or staged reinvention.

The beardy Timothy Carroll, Holy Holy's frontman, and Oscar Dawson, multi-instrumentalist and producer, are Zooming from Sony Music's Sydney HQ, preparing for the Cellophane roll-out. They have a simpatico relationship, uncannily finishing each other's sentences.

Despite being seasoned musicians, the pair are romantically sincere about their craft. Holy Holy enjoy spinning yarns. Yet they're also candid, alluding to anxiety. Ironically, Holy Holy are releasing an altruistic LP at a time of flux and insidious polarisation.

The restive Holy Holy are themselves astonished that they've reached album five. "I never really thought of that far in the future," muses Carroll. Dawson concurs, "I didn't think it wouldn't happen either – I just didn't imagine it would." His bandmate picks up, "Each record is like this epic undertaking of so many different pieces, and I almost consider it like writing a novel or climbing a mountain or something. Sometimes thinking about more than one ahead is just a bit daunting."

Holy Holy weren't fated to be a typical indie-rock band. Originally from Brisbane, Carroll met the Melburnian Dawson when both were young volunteer English teachers in Thailand, but then, each pursuing music careers in Europe, they reconnected in Stockholm. Indeed, Dawson was a guitarist in the aughts electro-rock outfit Dukes Of Windsor – responsible for the monster hit The Others, remixed by TV Rock – and Carroll a singer/songwriter.

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The friends established a creative rapport working on Carroll's 2011 solo album For Bread & Circuses. Subsequently, they launched Holy Holy with the hazy single Impossible Like You before signing to Sydney's Wonderlick Recording Company. In 2015, they aired When The Storms Would Come, leaning into '70s retro-dom. But, even then, Holy Holy were no purists, deploying synths and digital post-production. The triple j raves were increasingly exploratory with successive LPs – Japanese Wallpaper, a programmer on 2019's My Own Pool Of Light.

Recorded remotely amid the COVID-19 pandemic, 2021's transcendental and transformative Hello My Beautiful World saw Holy Holy veer into anthemic synth-pop – akin to RÜFÜS DU SOL colliding with Bon Iver. They brought in guests, among them South Sudanese-Australian rapper Queen P.

Holy Holy's enduring quandary remains distance – Carroll long based with a young family in Tasmania's wilderness, and Dawson living with his musician wife Ali Barter on Victoria's Mornington Peninsula, where he's latterly opened a studio, Eddie's, named for their French Bulldog.

"We basically communicate all the time on all platforms at once ceaselessly, but the important stuff just happens in person," Carroll drawls. The two often jam on the road. "We just make these little writing moments happen all over the country in any kind of space." That arrangement has advantages, Dawson adds. "We put more focus into the times when we actually can get together."

In pressers for Cellophane, Carroll talks about Holy Holy pretending they were running a "songwriting factory". But their process doesn't involve planning. If Cellophane is Holy Holy's most expansive and collaborative, work, then it's fortuitous. "We didn't decide to do that; we didn't decide anything about the record, really," the singer admits bashfully. "When you do these interviews, sometimes there's a temptation to be like, 'Well, the decision was this…' But it's more about trusting our instincts and our hearts 'cause music is all about how sound makes you feel. We try to be very sensitive to that, and it makes us feel a lot – that's why we do what we do."

Initially, Holy Holy booked a Brisbane studio, improvising with gear – Carroll recalling "a kind of slightly, mostly in-tune piano, which is to say a-not-in-tune piano really." Again, they had no objective, he insists. "We were just fucking around, to be honest, which is kind of an important stage in writing. The 'fucking around' is actually the most important bit – the bit where you're recording seriously is actually the less important." Dawson quips, "That is boring!"

Holy Holy only contemplated potential collaborators after demoing tracks, generating their own sonic ecosystem. And Cellophane rivals The Avalanches' cosmic We Will Always Love You with its diverse cast (easy to miss, Bag Raiders' Jack Glass co-produced Pretend To Be).

Arguably, the most inspired cameo is Gumbaynggirr prodigy Tasman Keith, who, having previously elevated Midnight Oil's First Nation alongside Jessica Mauboy, raps on the funky This Time. Carroll had nerded out over Keith's 2022 debut, A Colour Undone ("I thought he was so cool") and introduced himself at BIGSOUND, touting an album collab.

"I remember I said to him, 'Some of it's a bit poppy, so I'm not sure if you'd be into it.' He was like, 'Nah, I fuck with that shit.' It turned out that that was really what he wanted to do. Now I know him a bit more, and he's a huge Prince fan and a huge Michael Jackson fan."

Keith acquainted Holy Holy with Kwame. The band would scope the polymath for his production prowess, sharing a Dropbox of instrumentals. But he latched onto what became the Rudimental-esque banger Messed Up – returning the completed tune in under 24 hours, leaving Dawson "dumbfounded".

Holy Holy discovered Tia Carys, West London's self-proclaimed "local princess", online while searching for a vocalist with a specific timbre – culminating in the spoken word Two Minds, Two Days, Two Mornings.

Still, even arriving after Hello…, Cellophane could be deemed risky – and Holy Holy were surprised how chill A&R reps were, with zero apprehensions raised about 'brand'.

"We've been really lucky with our team," Dawson reveals. "Our label has been really great, basically. There might be one or two moments from our last album, but maybe this one, where they were like, 'Okay, you're pushing the boat out a little bit here, but we back you.'

"I know that there's all these stories in the industry about labels blocking bands or ordering bands around – and I've never witnessed it in my life. Now, I'm not saying it doesn't happen, but I've never seen it.

"Sometimes I wonder if it's just [that] labels are like, 'We don't know – you just do it…' I think they also maybe see the value sometimes in bands evolving and doing things differently. There's a lot of risk in not changing as well, you know?"

Carroll agrees. "Yeah, we've had a lot of freedom to do what we want and so they gave us a lot of rope and this is what we've done with it."

In fact, Holy Holy have recurringly ventured out with triple j's Like A Version – boldly covering Joy Division's Love Will Tear Us Apart, Beyoncé's Hold Up, Lorde's Green Light (when playing it live, "the place goes fucking bananas," Carroll notes) and, saliently for Cellophane, Post Malone's record-breaking smash Sunflower with Swae Lee – inviting emerging electro-soul star Medhanit to join them.

"I rate Post Malone – and I think he's great," Dawson declares. "I actually love his energies 'cause he's got a positive vibe around him." Carroll affirms, "I think at the core of what he does is his voice and his stories and a lot of emotion and stuff – and so I can relate to that. I think we can both relate to that." Reimagining Sunflower prompted Holy Holy's "messing around with Melodyne," he says.

Nonetheless, Like A Versions do engender micro-controversies – Holy Holy not immune to stan culture, Carroll divulges. "I generally try to go under a rock or blanket at the time that Like A Version comes out and stay there until enough time has gone by – because nobody wants to be sleuthing through the comments of YouTube and trying to find self-gratification there. If I had any advice for a young musician doing Like A Version, I would say, 'Do Like A Version and then book yourself a camping trip in the forest and come back later.'"

"We've been lucky, but [the comments] can be really horrible for some artists – and hurtful," Dawson stresses. "So I really do think it's important for artists somehow if they've got the strength to not open the app or not open their phone and don't look – because you might have 99 really positive comments and then one troll, or even just a slightly negative one, and it'll throw you. It's not worth it!"

Holy Holy's achievements are impressive. The band's albums have consistently charted (Hello… their highest-peaking at #4), they scored a multi-platinum single in 2017's True Lovers, and have twice received ARIA Music Award nominations in the 'Best Rock Album' category (recently with Hello…). However, even these quiet transgressors experience pressure.

Dawson despairs that musicians "live in an age of metrics" – the vagaries of consumption compounding their anxiety as they acclimatise. That hyper-competitiveness applies not only to streaming stats and social media status but also to charts, Year-End lists, triple j's Hottest 100 and awards such as the ARIAs and AMP. "It's pretty different to the feeling that you get when you're on stage and you're making music," Carroll sighs. "We just went on tour [in March], and I was quite anxious in the lead-up to it – really feeling stressed. Then I remember going on stage, and we started playing music, and I was like, 'Oh, that's right – I love this. Yeah, music's great!'"

Following the pandemic, the Australian music scene has faced unprecedented challenges – but lately, the conversation has centred on the absence of homegrown releases in the ARIA charts, The Guardian investigating an "existential threat" arising from an omnipotent tech industry regulating exposure, the issue magnified after Azealia Banks weighed in. Quiz Holy Holy about the crisis, and Dawson laughs dryly. "How long have you got? Because I could speak about this all day – and it's something that keeps me up at night."

The guitarist sagely questions lingering cultural cringe – and Australians' eternal quest for external validation. "I do think cultural cringe comes into this topic in a way that we don't trust ourselves, but also in the way that we're so obsessed with what the outside world thinks of us," he elucidates. "But it's bothered me for as long as I can remember. It's like we've got an inferiority complex about our own music in this country – and it ties in with tall poppy [syndrome] where we're too scared, I think, sometimes to do something interesting, brilliant, exciting, different… because we as artists or people in the public space might get cut down.

"There's so much great stuff that happens in Australia, so much really great art, and, if you travel outside of Australia and you come back, you realise how interesting and great Australian music actually is.

"I worry that we sometimes dumb ourselves down a little bit to try to not stand out from the bunch – and Americans aren't like that at all. For whatever you think about American culture and what it does – I mean, it's so varied, you can't have a singular opinion on it. But I always admired that in America there's so many artists that are not ashamed to be exactly what they wanna be."

Paradoxically, as pop has globalised, the music business has contracted and centralised – the charts progressively homogeneous with transatlantic megastars dominating. But, hearteningly, Cellophane counters corporate channels of discoverability, Holy Holy platforming tomorrow's Australian stars – Medhanit, Tassie duo Sumner, and Perth's Darcie Haven – with their instinctive curation.

For Dawson, residing with another artist, escaping that angst may be tricky. Regardless, he and Barter separate their professional and personal lives. "I think, for some degree, when I'm stepping out of the studio – as in shutting the door and coming back into the house, and we're making dinner or whatever – we love not talking about music. We're talking about something else.

“A lot of time around dinner, we'll be listening to completely different music – music that's totally outside of the world that we commonly inhabit." Barter, who currently operates the boutique tour company Trunk India, vibes to Indian classical music. "She travels to India all the time," Dawson says fondly. "I think she doesn't like coming back to Australia."

This month, Holy Holy will host intimate listening parties for Cellophane – and they'll eventually tour behind it. Performing with a full live retinue, the band are traditional festival favourites. But they especially welcome headline shows where Carroll states they are "in control of everything" – and can be maximalists. "I feel like, this being our fifth record, maybe it's time for some slightly longer setlists," he suggests. "To date, we've always kept our sets to around an hour-and-10 plus a bit of encore and stuff, but I feel like there's just a lot of work, and people probably would like to hear a bit more."

Holy Holy’s new album, Cellophane, will be released via Sony Music Australia on Friday, 22 September. You can pre-order/pre-save the album here.