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How Holly Throsby Fell In Love with Creating Music Again

Sydney singer-songwriter on finding inspiration in her fiction writing and embracing musical freedom on sixth album, ‘After a Time’.

Holly Throsby’s favourite movie as a child was The NeverEnding Story. When she sees it now she can’t quite fathom why – “That movie is so fucked up; the themes are just awful” – but as a youngster growing up in the inner-Sydney suburb of Balmain, she’d watch the 1984 fantasy epic a couple of times a week. This, let’s not forget, is a film that features a gratuitously disturbing scene in which a horse drowns. The main protagonist, meanwhile – a boy called Bastian, who’s just lost his mother and is bullied by his father and at school – is drawn into a fantasy world where he faces off against a swirling cloud called The Nothing, which effectively represents the very void of non-existence. It’s one of those WTF? kids’ movies that only fails to scar generations because they’re too young to truly comprehend the horrors unfolding in front of them. “I can’t imagine the effect the film had on me,” Throsby chuckles, swirling a straw around her Soda, Lime & Bitters in the beer garden of an inner-Sydney pub on a warm February morning.

Continue talking, though, and a pattern soon starts to appear. Though her first albums were soundtracks to films such as Stand By Me, Dirty Dancing, The Big Chill and Pretty Woman – her earliest musical memory is watching her mother, ABC broadcaster Margaret Throsby, swooning to the soundtrack to Sophie’s Choice in the driver’s seat of their Mazda 323 – as she got older and started to dig deeper, she found herself “drawn to music that scared me”. In Year 7 Throsby loved Led Zeppelin (and still does), but she found Pink Floyd and, in particular, a song like “Goodbye Blue Sky” terrifying. And though she’d obsessively cut pictures of her teen crush, Corey Haim, out of TigerBeat magazine and stick them around the house, she’d also collect newspaper articles about stories that frightened her. “My mum said when I was a really little kid, I did a drawing of a scary monster, and that I scared myself so much I ran away from it!” she laughs. “I had a lot of imagination.”

Though Throsby studied English and Political Science at university and had visions of a career as a journalist (she still subscribes to the print version of the Sydney Morning Herald), given her fertile, fantastical imagination it’s not overly surprising she ended up in the arts, first as a singer-songwriter and then, last year, as an acclaimed novelist following the publication of her debut book, Goodwood. She got her first guitar at the age of eight – she found it – and wrote her first song at the age of 10 – it was about traffic lights – and spent her high school years writing songs and recording them on cassettes. “I had a friend called Dylan, he was my boyfriend in Year 12, and we used to play music together, and just having someone to connect with musically was really nice,” she offers.

Quite what she’d do with this talent wasn’t initially clear. Prior to the release of her debut album, 2004’s On Night, she hadn’t gigged solidly – “I played at the local pub in Balmain, but it was not professional in any way. Those early performances, I was just shit scared. I had no idea what I was doing” – but she did know that she wanted to make a record. Early jobs in a video store, a book shop and programming music for various airlines’ in-flight entertainment helped her accumulate the $3,000 she needed to make On Night with producer Tony Dupé. It was a partnership that lasted three albums, and to this day Throsby credits the producer with encouraging and nurturing her talent. “I don’t know how much I would have done if it wasn’t for that,” she says. “I definitely needed encouragement in my life.”

When On Night was completed, she sent it to her two favourite Australian labels, Trifekta and Spunk, eventually signing with the latter. The contract was drawn up on the back of a poster for Canadian band the Unicorns, and signed on the spot. “I still have it,” Throsby smiles. “Aaron [Curnow, label head] wrote the splits that we’d do and the advance, which was $1,000 or something.”

Four solo releases followed in relatively quick succession – 2006’s Under the Town, 2008’s A Loud Call, 2010’s See! (in which she dipped her toes into the world of kids’ entertainment with a collection of original children’s songs) and 2011’s Team – and for a while there Throsby assumed her career would continue in the cyclical nature of a professional musician: record, release, tour, repeat. But then, somewhere in 2012, she picked up her guitar, and the inspiration was gone. It would be another five years before she’d release a record.

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Throsby grew up in Balmain (left); in 2004, at the album launch for On Night in Sydney.

It’s not as though Throsby was idle during this period. Shortly after the release of Team, she joined with Sarah Blasko and Sally Seltmann under the Seeker Lover Keeper monicker and released a self-titled album. In the touring that followed, she suffered severe stage fright. “It was really scary for me, and really messed me up for a little while. I think it’s because it wasn’t my show. If it’s my own show and I really can’t do it, I would just say, ‘I’m really sorry, I’m going now.’ [Laughs] I’m prepared to do that. If everyone needs to get their money back, that’s fine, and I’d just say sorry. But when I was doing stuff like Seeker Lover Keeper, or the Crowded House tribute, They Will Have Their Way, then it was like, there were other people I was accountable to.”

A bout of pneumonia while touring the UK in support of Team, followed by her contracting appendicitis upon returning home, left Throsby feeling “very depleted”, and once all the touring was complete, she spent much of 2012 “not really knowing what to do with myself”. She had demos of new songs, little skeletons ready, but just wasn’t motivated to finish them. “Music really disappeared from my consciousness for a long time. I still listened to it, but I wasn’t interested in creating. And it wasn’t a good feeling, I felt quite lost. I would get the guitar and sit down to write and feel upset that I didn’t like it. And I didn’t know what I wanted to say musically. I really liked Team, I was really proud of it. And for a long time I thought, I don’t really know what else to say, because the album said it.

“[I was] really questioning everything,” she adds. “I had a new partner, and we were thinking about having a baby, so there was a lot going on in terms of life change. I wrote lists: what do I want to do? What do I want in my life?”

One of the answers came in Goodwood. A mystery set in the small fictional Australian town of the same name, it essays what happens to a tight-knit community when two of its residents disappear, as narrated through the eyes of its 17-year-old protagonist, Jean. (It’s since been shortlisted in the Best Debut Fiction category at the Indie Book Awards.)

“Writing the book became more and more interesting to me, and once I went into that world I just stayed there for a couple of years until it was finished,” she offers. “I really enjoy writing. It suits my kind of sensibilities and lifestyle and personality to write for several hours a day and not have to go away from my family too much. And I also enjoyed how long it took, I enjoyed that it was such a big thing.”

Throsby had been published before. She’d written film reviews for Blunt, and the odd profile for some airline magazines. And in 2013 she wrote an opinion piece for the Sydney Morning Herald about the debate surrounding same-sex marriage. Inspired in part by former Katter Party Senate candidate Bernard Gaynor and his comments that he wouldn’t let a gay person teach his children, she wrote: “You get a thick skin with so much homophobic content in the world, but reading that, I cried on the newspaper.”

Not only was Throsby’s piece an insightful and entirely logical questioning of Australia’s reluctance to legalise same-sex marriage, it was also the first time she publicly acknowledged she was in a same-sex relationship.

“I’d never spoken about it before, and I had my own reasons for that,” says the 38-year-old. “I was so pissed off by that stage, and I was so over it. The whole debate around it became more and more upsetting. And this is the problem with having a plebiscite. When it starts to become debated and there are letters to the Herald every day and there are people on the radio talking about how it links to bestiality, by that point I was like, fuck this.”

In the piece, she wrote that she’d been “supported by the people around me”, and today says that coming out in this fashion wasn’t the big moment one might imagine. “They’re just strangers out there, if some people care or don’t, that’s fine. If it was the moment of sitting down at the dinner table and telling my family, which I never had that moment, that would have probably been more momentous. But no, personally, it wasn’t. It was more just a feeling of anger at the situation, the state of the political and social conversation around it.”

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With producer Mark Nevers and Will Oldham in Nashville in 2007.

While Throsby was writing Goodwood, she was pregnant with her first daughter, Alvy, to her partner Zoe. One of the songs on her new album, “Mountain”, with its lyrics “I’ll be mountain/I’m the first place to get the rain”, was inspired by the now two-and-a-half-year old. “It’s a song about that huge feeling of responsibility when you first have a child and… about vowing to assume that role whether I was feeling confident about it or not. And luckily I really enjoy it, I really like being a mum. And I think personally I’m better if I have to step up. I tend to respond better than if I’m allowed to collapse. If I’m in a position of having to cope, and being expected to cope, I actually cope well.”

After a Time – titled in part because there’s been such a gap between albums – became a reality when Throsby’s excitement for making music returned after finishing the first draft of Goodwood. The sense of sadness she felt about leaving that fictional world was replaced by the excitement of moving on to her next project – in this case, her sixth solo record. Assembling a band consisting of drummer Bree van Reyk, Dirty Three guitarist Mick Turner, and guests such as Marcus Whale (Collarbones), Mark Kozelek (Sun Kil Moon) and Jens Birchall, Throsby co-produced the album with Tim Kevin (Youth Group, the Singing Skies). The majority of the songs were written in the months-long gaps between drafts of her book, and as a collection it broadly reflects the changes in Throsby’s life in the years since Team. “My favourite albums are always the ones that capture something across the whole [record], it feels like a moment in time,” she offers. “That’s why I can’t listen to my first few albums, because I was a different person then. And it’s nice to perform some of those songs, but some of them I’m like, I don’t relate to that person anymore. And if I don’t relate to that I don’t think I do a very good performance of the song.”

“I still listened to music, but I wasn’t interested in creating. It wasn’t a good feeling.”

In contrast to Team, which was “95 per cent acoustic wooden instruments”, After a Time is a more electric album, with much of the recording done live. Though sonically a step removed from its predecessor, Throsby does see a throughline connecting all her work, even if it’s in part cosmetic. “My intention has never really changed in terms of what I was trying to do. So all my albums have the same font on the cover, they have the same border that’s the same width and the same colour; aesthetically there’s a real throughline. And I’m not interested in [having] some kind of breakthrough new sound every time. I think a lot of artists are driven by sonic innovation, but it’s not anything I’m interested in.”

The kind of aesthetic meticulousness Throsby applies to her artwork has been a trait for years, from her early days obsessively cutting out every picture she could find of Corey Haim to the way in which she describes her favourite past-time while working at the video store. “I was a bit OCD. And I have to challenge myself to not go there. OCD thinking is essentially a catastrophising way of thinking, which I still definitely have, but I try very, very hard to keep it in check, in terms of the way I categorise things in my brain. Like when I worked at the video store, it was a specialist store and we had everything in directors’ sections. But then I started making more and more sections; I just became this really obsessive section maker. [Laughs] So I had my ‘Hard Hitting Drama’ section – that’s what the actual tag said, I made the laminated tag – and then there was the ‘Sexual Perversion’ section – sex with your brother, sex with your sister, sex with your mother – and I had my ‘Dance-Drama’ section. Sections within sections was my favourite thing in the video store. So I definitely am particular. You kind of have to be to write a novel; you have to have a sort of organised brain to do that.”

The beauty of music, then, is that it allows her to switch off that side of herself when she’s creating. “The thing I like about music, in terms of arrangement, is it’s so loose. A song like ‘Being Born’ [off After a Time] is really chaotic in its arrangement, and I will always go for that. I love that freedom in music.”

She smiles.

“You can kind of let it all go.”

From issue #785 (April 2017), available now