How is Hollie Stephenson different? Different from other teenage artists (from other teenagers full-stop)? Let us count the ways.
Ask the singer-songwriter about her “social media footprint”, and she’ll confess to a mixture of bafflement and embarrassment. “I don’t know how Twitter works so I never check that. On Facebook I have 7500 friends, so not many.” Instagram? “I’ve got 200 people – my friends have more than that.”
And those friends are “just” schoolmates in Hertfordshire. They didn’t play open-mic nights in Camden pubs before they were even in their teens; haven’t had YouTube clips of their live performances posted by awestruck audiences.
What else? “When I met Hollie she didn’t know anything about the charts,” says her producer Dave Stewart. “She didn’t know who any of the groups were, apart from this one artist that she loved: Paolo Nutini.”
And also: if an unknown 17-year-old being discovered, produced and mentored by a onetime Eurythmic is another key aspect of Hollie’s uniqueness, so is the reason she knew nothing about the Top 40 (apart from a retro-visionary Scotsman who also seems to be from another era): from the age of three, she’s been obsessed with jazz, blues and soul. That passion goes some way to explaining the staggering quality of Hollie’s singing skills. She’s been immersed, soaked, marinated in those musics for as long as she can talk. Blended, channelled and made fresh by this youngster, those great, iconic pre-pop and pre-rock vocalists are brilliantly reborn in a girl who won’t reach adulthood (in numerical terms anyway) till next year.
But, still. The age of three? Really?
“Yeah, really,” says Hollie with the unblinking puzzlement of a straight-up girl for whom making any of this up would be, simply, beyond her. So, OK then. But how?
“My nan’s a bit of hoarder,” she begins. “She’ll go to a shop and buy a tonne of stuff, just so she can throw it out. It’s a bit weird,” Hollie concedes with a smile. “And she’s a big Frank Sinatra fan, and she had brought tonnes of CDs that she intended going through then chucking out. So I went through them… And my dad had just shown me how to work the CD player, so I pulled out this one disc, stuck it in the drawer, pressed play – and I was just blown away. It was a Billie Holiday album, and I couldn’t believe what I was hearing. And was my keys to everything.”
At the time Hollie was – say it again – three.
“My mum and dad didn’t really know who Billie Holiday was. I just found her by myself, by chance. And I absolutely loved it. My mum was really worried that I was three and I had Strange Fruit on repeat. She’d make me listen to happier music, the good old Motown tunes. They were a huge influence on me then too.”
Hollie would be the ripe old age of 8 before discovering the brutal truth of the lyrics of the civil rights era anthem. It was a totemic point in her young life, in many ways. Having expanded out from Holiday and hoovered up Aretha Franklin, Etta James, Sam Cooke, Dinah Washington and Otis Redding – all in her pre-adolescent years – it was at 12 that Hollie wrote her first song. The simple but devastatingly affecting Stone Tears was inspired by the death of her uncle. She had always written poems and stories. But now Hollie had experienced a deep personal loss; she couldn’t help but write a song about it.
“It felt natural to put music to those words. I’d attempted to play piano quite a lot when I was younger, but I didn’t really take it in. I just didn’t like being taught how to play ’cause it wasn’t me playing – it was the teacher playing through me. So I didn’t attempt to use piano. But my dad, uncle and cousin played the guitar, so I thought I’d pick it up.” Hollie did literally that: picked up the guitar and taught herself to play. Just, seemingly, like that. “I had this really heavy book I used to guide me. It was so heavy it gave me pins and needles if I rested it on my legs too long.”
She describes her songwriting “process”, such as it is, in the same way: “I write all my lyrics myself. And melodies are just second nature to me. I’ve never even considered that as a thing ’cause melodies, they’re just how you sing it. It’s never been something I’ve had to think twice about.”
Then, again with that almost unthinking, can-do spirit, she decided to get herself a gig. So she called a pub in Camden that advertised open-mic nights. Bar Vinyl duly said she could come down and take a slot on stage. Did she tell them how old – how young – she was? Well, no. They never asked, did they? Luckily her mum spotted her heading out the door with her guitar on her back and asked her where she thought was going. When Hollie explained that she had a gig in London, after some prevarication, her mum said she could go – but that she was going with her.
“In the first few months when I started gigging, I met some really cool and talented musicians who really supported and nurtured me from day one, gently guiding me and never left my side – they’ve taught me so much and I feel very lucky and grateful to have met them as I was so young and London can be a scary place”.
“Mum thought me wanting to sing my songs was me going through another phase. I wanted to be a ballerina, I wanted be a cardiologist – honestly I knew everything about the heart – but she came with me. But it wasn’t a phase. I’m still going!” she laughs.
Hear the brace of songs that Hollie subsequently wrote in her early- and mid-teens and you’d be forgiven for thinking that she still knows everything about the heart, and the age-old musical genres that best expressed them. Old Friend is a torch-song lament worthy of Dusty Springfield. Pointless Rebellion has a ska/bluebeat sass. Dried Out Lies, Her Own Tears, Man Of Few Words – these are brand-new classics, glowing with careworn emotion, heartfelt sentiment and stonecold soulfulness. The trials of life, as essayed by a girl who only sat her GCSEs last year.
And far from sounding like an oddly – or even disconcertingly – precocious talent, Hollie Stephenson feels like the real deal.
Dave Stewart thought as much when he first encountered her. A friend of Hollie’s mum tweeted him a link to a YouTube clip of the singer performing Stone Tears in Camden’s Bar Vinyl (remember: her first song, her first gig). Within five minutes he’d replied. Within a couple of months, on his next trip back to London from his adopted home in Los Angeles, he met Hollie and her mum.
Explaining his enthusiasm, the legendary artist/producer says: “She was 12 or 13 by then, and I know how tough it is to get up and sing your own song in front of people. And the fact was that the song wasn’t a cover or a throwaway thing – Stone Tears was a very moving song that she’d written. It was obviously heartfelt. So there was something about her standing up there straight, having learnt the guitar in a month or something, and saying: ‘I’m gonna play this song.’ There was just something very interesting about that.”
Stewart and Hollie and her mum kept in touch. He was keen to work with her, but no one was in a hurry.
“She had that gift, that gift to write songs. But she needed experience. I told her to write at least 16 or 20 songs that she really felt were connected to her in every way, and that she really meant. And she had to learn them on the guitar and be able to play them to me, as well as be able to record them.”
Three years later, the Stephenson’s and Stewart were ready. Early last year, as she approached her 16th birthday, he invited them to his studio in LA.
“I said to Hollie that I thought she’d have the most fun, and feel most connected, playing and singing with real, great players. So everything was recorded live, in a circle, with drummer, bass payer, piano player, brass section. And,” he adds, “I decided to split the album in two – do some in Los Angeles, and some in Jamaica, in Port Antonio. And there we got players in from Kingston. It was just a deep-dive in that whole experience, musically and culturally, and she just went bonkers for it.”
The recordings were also filmed, as part of a forthcoming BBC documentary, Lost Archives Of 17 North Parade. It’s directed by Mark James, who had seen Hollie live in London and, in Stewart’s words, “flipped”. The film tells the story of the legendary Jamaican artists who recorded in this tiny studio, and the rediscovery of the audio tapes of their recordings. As part of that project, Hollie “duetted” with the late Dennis Brown – on a track, When You Get Right Down To It, that he had recorded, but never completed, when he himself was 16 too.
Late last year, having left school, Hollie went back to LA. In a two-month period she and Stewart finished her debut album, including co-writing one song, the string-flecked, soul-gospel gem Sunday Morning. They also shot a video for Broken Heart Strings, a back-to-black tearjerker. Hollie also played some LA shows, including a rave-reviewed spot at Hollywood’s Hotel Café. “A momentous night, the debut of a shining new musical star,” wrote American Songwriter. “[Hollie] proceeded to enthrall the crowd with her singularly soulful songs, commanding the big band like a seasoned soul diva. It was amazing to see, and to hear, and to register that this is a 16-year old girl we are experiencing, yet as vital and inspirational as the best of the best.” High praise indeed.
The next steps: releasing her first single, Pointless Rebellion, and the as-yet-untitled album, and a 32-date UK tour. The shows will feature just Hollie and a second guitarist, with funding coming via a PledgeMusic campaign. That’s the way she and Stewart want to conduct the business of her music: slowly, carefully, sensibly. With a talent as young as this – as rare as this – there’s no need to throw either caution out the window or money at the project. Hollie’s voice, and Hollie’s songs, will do all the hard work, no extravagance, hype nor EDM remix required.
“I think its important to do it right and be patient,” thinks this preternaturally wise, preternaturally gifted girl, “rather than do it all at once and risk scuppering things. To me, music is a way of life and I don’t want to risk it by being too hasty. I’m not in a hurry. And as long as I can make music and have enough money to play, and to eat, that’s fine.”
It’s a refreshingly old-fashioned view from a proper, old-fashioned talent. How future-perfect is that?