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‘You Learn Something About Yourself’: How Holy Holy Embraced Collaboration on ‘Cellophane’

Timothy Carroll and Oscar Dawson tell Rolling Stone about the freedom involved in creating their fifth album

Holy Holy

Michelle Grace Hunder

It’s not every day a journalist will get a real-time insight into the logistics of planning a tour, or, in this case, the listening parties being planned around the country to launch Holy Holy’s fifth studio album, Cellophane.

But working remotely has become second nature for bandmates Timothy Carroll and Oscar Dawson, who live in separate states – so, for a moment, they seem to forget why they’re on this particular Zoom call.

“Have you booked your flights yet?” Carroll asks Dawson.

“So now this Rolling Stone interview has bloody degenerated into a Holy Holy planning meeting,” Dawson interrupts himself as the pair begin discussing their plans. “Alright. We’ll come back to that later…”

Although the pair spend copious amounts of time together on the road, finding time to write new material is a conscious effort. Towards the end of the tour for [2021 album] Hello My Beautiful World, Carroll and Dawson spent some time at The Plutonium in Brisbane for their first writing session for Cellophane.

“Oftentimes those first sessions are so fun because there’s nothing there yet,” Carroll says. “Oscar and I have this process of just being really free with the ideas and trying a bunch of different things, and not taking it too seriously in that opening kind of expressive moment; and when it goes well, a lot of great ideas can come out of that.”

The band didn’t set out to work with any collaborators, Carroll explains, but as the “diamonds in the rough” began to take shape, the pair could naturally see space to bring other artists in.

“I guess we dabbled with a bit of collaborating on Hello My Beautiful World; we worked with Kim (Moyes) from The Presets, and we had our old pals Clews on a song, and Queen P., and so that sort of opened the door to what that’s like,” he says. “We love not just writing in the studio, but oftentimes it then leads to going on tour with these artists; and going on tour with someone is a really amazing way to get to know someone because you’re traveling around the country and sharing this artistic expression, this kind of intense experience of being on the stage in front of people and performing, so you end up making these really strong friendships.”

When the pair had “spitballed” and decided on a potential collaborator, Carroll says, they would simply slide into the artist’s Instagram DMs and send them the demo.

“Oscar and I tend to have this guiding principle that if someone’s really keen, then that’s the direction we’ll go,” he explains. “People who come back and they’re like, ‘I love the tune – I’ve going to be in Sydney this week,’ or they send back a demo straight away. We kind of allowed that to guide the process.”

One of the artists Holy Holy reached out to was Gumbaynggirr MC Tasman Keith, whose impressive vocal range is showcased on the track “This Time”.

“I fell in love with Tasman Keith’s record, A Colour Undone, and I was over in Sweden listening to it and just was really impressed with how elegant and tasteful and smart it was, and moving and musical,” Carroll says. “We had a song that we felt like could work with his style of spoken word performing and rapping, so we reached out to him and he was keen, but he’s a really busy guy… but serendipitously we got booked on the same festival in Sydney, so we reached out to him and were like, ‘Do you want to come the day after the festival and we’ll just write something together?’”

In the studio, Carroll and Dawson spoke to Keith about the songs they had in various stages of development and mentioned reaching out to people for additional production features – like Jack Glass from Bag Raiders – as well as vocalists like Tia Carys, Medhanit, and Many Voices Speak.

“I didn’t know, but Kwame was the executive producer on [Keith’s] album,” Carroll says. “And Tasman suggested that Kwame could be a good person to just have his ears on the record, so originally it was more that we thought Kwame might be more involved on the additional production side, but once he had the Dropbox with all our ideas, there was one idea just sitting in there which was an instrumental called “Messed Up” with no vocals – I had vocals, but for some reason they just weren’t in that folder, and Kwame liked that song and recorded an idea and sent it back to us.”

After composing his verse and the chorus hook based off the instrumental in that Dropbox folder, Carroll and Dawson worked Carroll’s vocals in, and the song became the album’s lead single. Critics quickly noticed the single sounded nothing like anything Holy Holy had released in 12 years – which was never their overarching goal, Dawson says, but when you have this many collaborators working on one project it’s bound to avoid being pigeonholed, right?

“There’s another thing that I’m conscious of, and that maybe Tim is too, and that is that over the years our sound has changed as well,” Dawson insists. “That’s as much just a function of our interests and what we’re feeling when we come around to each writing moment or album production session or whatever, just as much a function of us changing as people as it is of us trying to think about how we are perceived, I suppose.”

Sometimes, Dawson explains, it’s important for an artist to adopt a singular approach, in order “to be really focused on their message and their vision and their words or their tone of their voice or whatever.” And other times, he says, it’s simply fun to hear other people’s ideas on things.

As a producer himself, Dawson has worked on many projects outside Holy Holy’s (beautiful) world, including Alex Lahey, Didirri, Bakers Eddy, and Busby Marou. He also worked on the titular single from Grinspoon vocalist Phil Jamieson’s debut solo record, Somebody Else, which was released last year.

“The reason I’m on my phone [now] is because Phil took the USB cable from my laptop yesterday, so my laptop’s run out of charge,” Dawson laughs. “I’ll see him again today; hopefully he brings it back.”

At the time, Jamieson spoke of the metamorphosis the single took under Dawson’s guidance, saying, “It started life as a slinky Rolling Stones-tyle jam – with a bit more strut. Then Oscar Dawson of Holy Holy got his hands on it and changed it around, then I redid it as a dream pop major seventh sort of thing…”

It’s a fact I remind Dawson of now. He was able to reflect from a similar perspective, he tells me, when Jack Glass got hold of Holy Holy’s track “Pretend to Be”.

“You get attached to songs in a way, I suppose, when you’re working on them hour after hour, day after day, and so when someone presents a new idea sometimes it can be kind of an affront,” he says. “So, someone like Jack Glass sends through some ideas, and at first, I’m like, ‘Oh, he’s taken my baby out of its cot and dressed it differently and, like, what’s he doing?!’ But then a week or two, or three or four, later, I’m like, ‘Hang on, my baby’s looking a bit better now.’”

Dawson says there were some elements he initially thought would never make it to the song’s final mix, but he was relishing the creative process of collaboration.

“And then months later, I was working on the final mix, and I realised that I loved those things,” he says. “And that’s part of the beauty, I think, of collaborating – you learn something about yourself. It changes us as well. I know that sounds a bit esoteric and deep, but that’s kind of how it feels.”

This is the point that attention turns to the band’s upcoming listening parties and becomes an impromptu band meeting, as Carroll remembers Jamieson had mentioned the possibility of coming to one of the launch events in an Instagram post.

“Yeah, he might do if he’s in town, I think,” Dawson replies.

“Should we bloody get him to come up and sing a song for people?” Carroll asks. “We should just be like, ‘Oh, well, this is an off the cuff thing.’ We can do what we want with this show… yeah, we should do that.”

Dawson points out the pair had wanted to go everywhere for the events, but because Australia is so vast, Perth had been left off the itinerary… for now.

“You may notice another fellow, Pat Davern, commented on that post saying, ‘No Byron show?’” he tells Carroll. “That’s the guitarist from Grinspoon – he was having a bit of a laugh.”

Carroll makes the connection. “Oh, was he?” “I was prepared for the plethora of ‘No Perth?’ comments, but when I saw, ‘No Byron?’ I was like, ‘You’ve got to be kidding!’”

The listening parties are something the band wanted to do with the release of Hello My Beautiful World, but with the pandemic kicking up a notch around the same time – and the amount of planning that goes into making such intimate and interactive shows happen – those dreams were crushed.

“It is definitely a little bit daunting, but I think it’ll be fun,” Carroll says. “Obviously the format of a show is something that we know well, but with this we’re stepping off into talking and potentially playing the recorded works, and we’ve committed to taking questions from the audience… I think that it’s possible that people will really remember this little run maybe more than other shows, because it’s a bit different – and maybe it’ll be a bit awkward.”

On the eve of the album’s release, Carroll says he doesn’t feel any pressure to follow up on the success of the band’s previous two albums, My Own Pool of Light [2019] and the aforementioned Hello My Beautiful World.

“Sometimes there’s a funny thing that happens where we’ll make a record and I tend to go through a process where while we’re writing it, I’m obsessed and I love it and listen to the demos relentlessly,” he explains. “Then as it becomes finished, I lose all sense of perspective – probably due to the mixing process, which is crazy-making, and I’m in this purgatory where the record’s finished but it’s not out yet and I forget actually what we did. Then sometimes it’ll be two years later or something and for some reason it’ll come on or I’ll put it on and be like, ‘Woah, that is actually good.’”

The overarching theme of this record, he says, is freedom – and Cellophane is the result of some “wild, creative choices” that have resulted from that freedom.

“The record has these slick kind of high BPM dancey tracks, but then also acoustic ballads where you can hear the cicadas out at my farm in Tassie,” Carroll explains. “And then for some reason, the title track is this sort of Flaming Lips meets Sgt. Pepper’s-era Beatles meets Oasis kind of sing-along.”

Given the freedom allowed by their label, by the nature of streaming – which no longer requires a body of work to necessarily be cohesive, because singles reign supreme – and given the point they find themselves at in their careers, “we just felt that we could allow the songs to be what they felt like they wanted to be and follow each idea to its logical conclusion,” Carroll says. “Or maybe not logical conclusion.”

Holy Holy’s Cellophane is out now via Sony Music Australia. 

Holy Holy Cellophane Release Events

More information available via holyholymusic.com

Friday, September 22nd
Altar, Hobart, TAS

Saturday, September 23rd (SOLD OUT)
The Royal Oak, Launceston, TAS

Sunday, September 24th (SOLD OUT)
The Triffid Beer Garden, Brisbane, QLD

Monday, September 25th
The Lansdowne, Sydney, NSW

Tuesday, September 26th
Howler, Melbourne, VIC

Wednesday, September 27th
Lion Arts Factory, Adelaide, SA