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How To Be a Real Adult: Common Holly on 'Playing House' and Finding Your Place

Tuesday, 15 May 2018 Written by Helen Payne

Photo: Sean Mundy 

“We’re all pretending to be adults on a fairly constant basis.” Brigitte Naggar tells it like it is. Her thoughtful, considered debut album as Common Holly, ‘Playing House’, was released in October last year, and although it jogs down the well-trodden break up path, she covers the difficult ground through sparse guitar textures, unexpected math-rock production and truly relatable twentysomething lyricism.

So what does it mean to be an adult? Is it to have responsibilities? Or to know where the gas meter is? According to Naggar, it’s often about seeking validation, and doing whatever it is you need in order to feel comfortable. The album’s title depicts how we’re all putting a brave face on existing in the Real World™.

But it also applies to the end of a formative four year relationship. “You and your partner are trying to legitimise yourselves by forming this bond where you get to pretend to be adults together,” Naggar says. But that doesn’t always work. As she sings on the title track: “I’ll play mommy and you’ll play daddy, and we’ll ruin us beyond repair.” Pretending to inhabit these spaces can be detrimental when you’re very young. “It can inhibit your growth,” Naggar says.

The relationship broke down, but it ultimately gained a silver-lining through an album that should immediately hit home with fans of Naggar’s recent tourmates, Phoebe Bridgers, Julien Baker and Snail Mail. She processed her emotions by writing these fragile songs, almost wearing them out in the process. “You only ever see the thing getting released, and you don’t always see the work that goes into it,” she says. “A lot of artists, by the time the album actually gets released, are almost over it.”

Naggar is tired of hearing it and can’t quite believe other people are interested in listening to ‘Playing House’. Her incredulity suggests she’s still in that space between being a ‘normal’ person and the reality of being a touring musician, as does the fact she’s been thinking a lot about what she’d be doing if she wasn’t plugging in her guitar every night. “I could definitely go back to school and do a masters, study psychology, maybe go into therapy,” she says. “That’s a field that’s attractive to me, that or social work.”

She’s still working out who she is, where her music fits on the current sonic landscape, and whether or not she’ll stay there. These are huge philosophical questions for any artist but in talking to her, she’s bright and bubbly, and seems to take them in her stride. That’s illustrated nicely by how well thought-out her name is.

Questions about band names are rarely illuminating, but here’s the exception to prove the rule. Naggar loves it when people call her Holly. “I feel like there’s something special about it,” she says. “Holly is my pseudonym and my music character.” The original meaning stems from the plant: red berries and spiky leaves. That contrast symbolises her music. “It’s pretty, it’s nice, but it’s also dark and not always what you expect,” she says. “Those two things work well together.”

They do. It’s reminiscent of the manner Bridgers’ sweet, soothing voice clashes with the darkness of her lyrics. So, as tour-bus pals, is Bridgers one of her influences? Well, yes. “It’s like osmosis,” Naggar says. “It kind of seeps in.” But, aside from her contemporaries on tour, Naggar also has a surprising collection of formative sounds.  

Surprising on the surface, at least, because there are in fact a handful of singer-songwriters around at the moment who stand as one of the first generations to take influence from the seemingly oppositional indie, punk and emo scenes of the late ‘90s and early ‘00s.

Bridgers and Baker have close ties to the punk scene, while Naggar grew up bouncing between the Offspring, Britney Spears, and Avril Lavigne, whose ‘Let Go’ album was particularly important. “I used to wear those arm gloves, and the tie,” Naggar says. “Damn, this girl had it! She was 16 when she made that album, and it’s amazing. Her vocals are incredible. It’s so impressive.”

Shortly after the release of her debut, Naggar had already almost finished a whole new record’s worth of songs. It’ll be finished in a few months, with release tentatively aimed for next year. She’s been learning drums, and is again working with producer Devon Bate. “We’ve never disagreed,” she says. “He has what I don’t have, and I have what he doesn’t have, and it’s just a perfect matrimony, I think.”

Not one for secrets, Naggar says it will be a little more lively than the last LP. “I’ve had more tools at my disposal, and have been learning how to use them,” she says. “So that’s been really cool.” Trying new things, different configurations and exploring fresh developments is what she loves. Her most recent US dates saw the stage adorned with an additional cellist and a drummer, because she “thought it would be cool”. On her first UK tour she’s going further, with plans for a full band and even her producer singing with her.

“I’ve been messing around with different band formations, trying to figure out which one best represents the album, and what best represents how I want to show it now,” she says, referencing how the music has evolved post-release. “You play the same songs over and over, and they can take on a new life, depending on how you show them.”

Naggar loves the versatility of being able to play on her own, too. “I think I can access certain songs a little better when it’s just me being super empty and vulnerable,” she says. “But I also think I can have much more of a range when it's with a band.” Again, she’s working out what works for Common Holly, and it seems the best way to do that is not to pigeonhole anything. You want acoustic, finger-picked folk? You got it. You want a heavier ending with a full band? Check.

Naggar is figuring out the best way to be herself, and it turns out all of these elements fit together quite nicely. If being a real adult in this huge, weird world of ours is understanding who you are (and not just how taxes work), Naggar has definitely found her place.

She is anything but common.

'Playing House' is out now on Solitaire.

Common Holly Upcoming Tour Dates are as follows:

Tue May 15 2018 - GLASGOW Hug and Pint
Wed May 16 2018 - COVENTRY Tin
Fri May 18 2018 - LONDON Islington

Click here to compare & buy Common Holly Tickets at Stereoboard.com.

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