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'It Feels Very Fierce To Me And Very Open': Common Holly Talks 'When I Say To You Black Lightning'

Tuesday, 22 October 2019 Written by Milly McMahon

Photo: Alex Apostolidis

The soothing tones of Common Holly’s instrumentals dance innocently alongside the singer’s unfailingly pretty vocals. The accomplished, creative Montreal native Brigitte Naggar trades in thought-provoking music for anxious lovers.

She is quietly spoken and charming, and chatting with her on a Wednesday afternoon feels relaxed and authentic. Thinking carefully before answering each question, a delicate sort of melancholy seems to underpin her mood—here is an artist invested in portraying her truth and vulnerabilities. 

Naggar recently released her second LP ‘When I Say To You Black Lightning’, some two years after the arrival of her debut, and the nine track body of work is simply stunning. Using silence and space to demonstrate careful deliberation and unseen depths, the material is drenched in nostalgia, heartbreak and passion. 

A sense of maturity resonates, and the self actualisation she explores marries the words and music intuitively. Naggar’s sound perhaps feels better suited to the quiet beauty of ‘70s singer-songwriters than it does to this era, but such is the effectiveness of her aesthetic that she has carved a space of her own in the crowded indie scenes of North America. We chatted to the raven-haired musician to better understand how she came to create ‘When I Say To You Black Lightning’.

How do you feel when listening back to the album? Do you try to experience it as a standalone or compare it to the one that came before?

I definitely compare it. I hoped it would be a progression and I do feel like it is a progression, but listening back to it now there are definitely a million things I would change, so I try not to dwell too much on those things.

You are so transparent about the depth of your emotions—did a lot happen in your life following the release of the first album?

A lot happened and the range of topics I wanted to discuss expanded a lot. The first album was one particular focus and that was my whole world in my 20s. Certainly I encountered a lot of people, the world developed a lot from that, and I was trying to capture it through the album.

With a little bit of distance, which song affects you the most?

Definitely the fifth one, UUU. It’s based on a song that my guitarist wrote, he described someone as you with two yous. I think it affects me in terms of production. Production-wise it was the most successful piece from beginning to end. The story behind it is a little personal but what I would say is that it came from a place of a lot of anger and it feels very fierce to me, and also very open. I think that it best represents musically what the feelings are behind it. I think I wrote it quite quickly, and my favourite songs do tend to be written quickly.

How apprehensive did you feel before you started conceptualising the second album?

There was definitely an identity crisis involved, and that's why it did take a long time to write. I could have taken a maximum of sixth months, but I think I was in the process of figuring out what music I actually like as opposed to what music I happen to write. With that comes the whole idea of branding and aesthetic, who’s producing it and what kind of mics are we using, where you want to belong to in the world of music, what kind of message I want to send, and do I want to talk about myself or stuff that matters in music.

Who are the people you trust enough to play new music to?

The first person is my co-producer Devon Bate, who is also the guitarist in my band. We work side by side. Before we write anything, we sit down and he has his notebook. I will perform the song acoustically and he will listen and feed back to me and if there are any edits to make he will also make suggestions on that. With Devon I really trust his instincts and I also know I can reject the feedback that I want to. 

Your lyrics and melodies are so poignant, they really stick in the mind.

That’s definitely how I write most naturally. Often the music and the lyrics come together so they tend to be very rhythmic and lead you along melodically, so I'm sure that helps with it sticking in your head. I am self conscious of the fact that sometimes I write things in a very clear way, in a not too mysterious style. I put myself out there and sometimes I regret the way I go about my writing. I think I could go about that in a more sophisticated way but at the same time I think that helps with the sincerity of the message.

Your writing has inspired your internal monologue. Are you more self-aware of your thoughts and feeling as a result?

That’s been a part of me forever, sometimes to my detriment. Externalising how I am feeling helps diminish what I'm feeling, that's definitely been a kind of therapy.

Does the success of the music offer affirmation on a personal level?

It’s a healthy balance of what people think of the music and what I think of the music. The most important aspect of the music is that I listen to it and like it and feel well represented. Another big part of the affirmation for me comes from my peers and people I respect appreciating it or understanding it. That is equally important for me. It’s really hard to believe people sometimes when they say they like your music, no matter how sincere they might be.

Do you regularly check Twitter or read your reviews?

I think I’m pretty addicted to social media right now. I used to be a lot better than I am now. That's one of the things I'm struggling with at present. As an artist I am pushed to engage with it more than is healthy. It’s part of the world we live in right now, where artists need to have a social media presence if they want to establish their music. Each time that I have had a single come out has been a harder time for me, which is so wild because it should be such an exciting thing. 

Where are you excited to perform the music?

I really want to come to the UK. We are working on dates right now. I just got back from the States and I have more dates booked throughout November and coming up in December.

How will you choreograph performing the personal content of the album to a crowd?

That's the big challenge of the day right now. The live show is performed by a four piece band and it’s quite rock, which I find represents things pretty well especially because I don't have a lot of my own audiences at this point. It grabs attention at the right moments and then also allows space for the quieter moments. Right now I'm just trying to find the balance so that it’s not a different band, but I do think it’s interesting to show it with a different energy.

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