“I think a theme in a lot of my work is the difference between how you feel internally and how you’re perceived or how the world is externally,” says the Auckland singer-songwriter, guitarist and cellist Hollie Fullbrook as we sit in a verdant inner-city park in Auckland.
The leader of the Tiny Ruins band, Fullbrook has spent the last fourteen years using this theme as a lens to explore and articulate her understanding of the human experience. “I guess songwriting is a way of extrapolating the important things from my inner dialogue,” she continues. “It’s a way of figuring out which bits are important and which are just the shit of life.”
In that time, Fullbrook and her bandmates – Cass Basil (bass), Alex Freer (drums) and Tom Healy (guitar) – have travelled extensively throughout Aotearoa, Australia, Europe and America, delivering heartfelt performances and a series of acclaimed albums that continue to smoulder slowly in the hearts of listeners. Along the way, Fullbrook has recorded equally mercurial side projects with the Belgian singer-songwriter Lieven Scheelinck, aka A Singer of Songs, the late Hamish Kilgour (co-founder of The Clean), and even an otherworldly 7-inch single with the American auteur filmmaker and musician David Lynch.
On April 28th, Tiny Ruins will release their remarkable fourth album, Ceremony, through a coalition of four independent labels, Ba Da Bing Records, Marathon Artists, Milk! Records and the band’s bespoke imprint Ursa Minor. Set against a vibrant blend of pastoral folk music, airy dream-pop and sunkissed psychedelia, Fullbrook sings in a breezy and observational tone, sharing stories of grief, joy, acceptance and figuring out how to talk about things that feel all-consuming.
Ostensibly, we’ve met to discuss this record, but we can’t do that without discussing the conditions in which it came together. After spending eighteen months touring their previous album, Olympic Girls, around the globe, Tiny Ruins returned to New Zealand on the eve of the COVID-19 pandemic. Sequestered with her partner in their home on the banks of West Auckland’s Little Muddy Creek, Fullbrook found herself revisiting a set of poems she’d drafted several years earlier in the aftermath of a private apocalypse: experiencing a miscarriage nineteen weeks into pregnancy.
Outside of her immediate family and friends, it’s something she hasn’t discussed publicly until recently. “I struggle with it a bit because I’m in this middle ground,” she explains. “Miscarriages happen to everyone, and they should be talked about more because it’s a huge amount of pain to go through at whatever stage.” She pauses for a moment before continuing. “But then I can’t even imagine what having a stillbirth at 40 weeks would be like.”
In the days and weeks that followed this profound personal loss, Fullbrook collapsed into herself. “I felt like I couldn’t trust my body,” she reflects. “The whole thing was extremely disorienting.” Three months later, a good friend of hers came to live with them for a spell. “She wasn’t scared to talk with me about it, and she wasn’t scared to just sit with me,” Fullbrook adds.
With time, numbness and grief turned into a deep inner rage. She arranged for Tiny Ruins to part ways with the record labels they were signed with at the time, pushed away everyone outside of her inner circle, and re-approached her musical career with a laser focus. “I was super angry, and I burned a lot of bridges,” she admits.
Looking back, Fullbrook remembers feeling she needed to use hard work to transform her loss into something meaningful. “I had to make this not be such a bad thing for my life,” she reflects. “So we toured the shit out of Olympic Girls, and I buried myself in work for years.”
The work didn’t stop until the end of March 2020, when New Zealand entered its first national COVID-19 lockdown. Amidst the stillness and silence, Fullbrook found herself returning to the poems she wrote after the miscarriage. In re-reading those pieces of writing and setting them to acoustic guitar, she unlocked something, and the songwriting began anew.
At the beginning of the album’s fourth song, a questioning and reflective psychedelic folk track titled ‘”In Light Of Everything”, Fullbrook sings, “I didn’t know where to begin.”
“There’s a little bit of a meta thing to Ceremony in that parts of it are about being able to talk about what I went through,” she explains. “That’s kind of the feeling of the album; how do I even start with this?” As it turns out, as well as revisiting the past, she found her way through Ceremony by walking. During the days, Fullbrook would head out to explore the shores of the nearby Manukau Harbour with her two dogs.
Amidst the landscape, which she has described as “beautiful but also muddy, dirty and neglected,” the rest of the album began to take shape. “I had these moments where I realised, yes, I’m still grieving this terrible loss,” she admits. “But look, I have these dogs, and I can make music and go on walks around this incredible environment. That’s another part of the album, realising things were pretty great, and I’d got myself to the point where things would be okay if we couldn’t have a child.”
Once New Zealand’s COVID-19 lockdown restrictions had loosened, Fullbrook gathered with the band, and they began transforming her demos into complete songs. Having played with Fullbrook since her early days, her bandmates intuitively understood how to help her flesh her demos out. “I just don’t think I’ve ever disagreed with their musical ideas,” she insists.
From the free-flowing folk dreamscapes of “Dogs Dreaming” to the earthy grit of “Dorothy Bay”, Ceremony may well be Tiny Ruins’ most accessible album yet. Although sadness and loss run through the songs like a river, they mix with happiness, humour and love. “Grief isn’t just sadness,” Fullbrook says. “Funny things happen during the worst times of your life. Lightheartedness is always there. Beauty is always there.”
Epilogue: On May 8th 2022, Fullbrook posted a photograph of herself with her three-month-old daughter on Instagram. Seven months later, Tiny Ruins released “The Crab”, the first single from Ceremony.