Music is a tough game to play: many people want to make it their livelihood, so put all of their time and effort into the venture – oftentimes for little reward. Luckily, every now and then, a few musicians might get a breakthrough. Take, for example, the amazing opportunity which Holly Henderson managed to obtain to record her debut album Monday Green in sunny California with legendary producer Pete Thorn (Chris Cornell, Courtney Love). Years of hard work and navigating herself through the music world led this young alternative musician to attract enough attention to give her career this particularly special boost.
“Pete and I met online. He writes for Premier Guitar and did an amazing article and I posted this gushing comment on it. We ended up having a short conversation on Twitter. He posted it on Instagram too and I commented there, then he followed me on Instagram. He saw I was posting lots of kind of badly executed ideas online. Back then, I had a very different approach to playing guitar to what he was used to at the time. He’s in LA, where there’s a pretty high standard of playing. As a 19 year old from Maidstone, there’s a completely different scene and sounds. He was just really interested in it. We started chatting and over the next year or so we became friends, he became more like a mentor. [Pete] came to England, so we went out for a coffee and realised I hadn’t shown him any music for a while. I played him the demo to Loneliness, which is on the album now. He saw that my writing had changed a lot, and suggested we actually do an album together. I didn’t really take it seriously. It was after Bowie died, I did a cover of Black Star, and wrote a long post about how we need to keep making original, interesting music. He texted me after agreeing with me, and saying he thinks we should really do this album. The next week I got an email with my flight tickets to LA, and he texted me straight after like “You’re coming to LA!””
It’s a remarkable feat, considering her humble beginnings. But if anyone deserves to be picked up by a music industry bigwig, it’s someone who has poured her life into her craft. So many household names have similar backstories: rudimentary, often non existent, music theory knowledge, little formal training, but the incomparable passion which drives them to make a career out of what they love. Henderson has tried to use every skill she has at her disposal to further her ambitions. Experimenting with whatever musical instruments she had available eventually led her to consider it as a lifestyle.
“I think I’ve always liked doing music, since forever. I had a keyboard when I was like three or four. I used to pick things up by ear, and I was playing lots of classical music by the time I was five or six. I really liked classical music when I was younger. I picked up a guitar when I was about eight or nine. Once I had a few chords down, I was writing songs really young. Not that I really knew what I was doing, I was nine years old just playing about with a bunch of stuff. I didn’t really get into music until I was maybe fifteen. I was doing art for so long and took it so seriously, and I didn’t think I could have a career in music – I didn’t know you could really do that. But I got more serious about it when I was fifteen or sixteen. I think, arts and music, it all comes as a package, and I think it always has done. I love art, and I love fashion, and I love music. My heroes are really good at putting those things together, people like Bjork, and Bowie, they all work them together. I have no music theory knowledge, I do everything by ear. But when I’m communicating to others about music, I use art terms to explain what I want to do, and it actually works. You talk about saturation and dynamics, words usually used in art, but people in music know what you mean because they’re so close, I think. The turning point for me was just ditching everything for music. It was a sudden thing, because I was doing art but then I didn’t want to go any further with it. I didn’t enjoy being in education, so I joined a punk band. It wasn’t a career, it was more like this is something I have to do. I might say career loosely, because it’s more like everything from waking up to going to sleep. It’s less a career, more a lifestyle.”
Hearing that Holly Henderson started out in classical music before transitioning to punk might sound like a bit of a sonic leap, but it makes sense if you compare the raucous nature of punk to the auditory blitz of her debut, Monday Green. “Loneliness” features Henderson’s husky vocals backed ramped up rock’n’roll, while “Doldrums” is suitably named for those toned down, slightly proggy vibes. Underpinning everything is her meticulously undone guitar lines, which make complex string work sound so casual. There’s a simple reason behind her music evolution: Henderson writes what she wants to hear, and doesn’t let anything box her in and prevent her expressing herself.
“I think punk, for a lot of people, especially for those like me who were never classically trained, it’s a good way into music. It’s the first door I went through. I know some people stick with punk. It’s very visceral and you can get your point across so quickly. It’s confrontational, and I enjoyed that. But I got so much more into arranging as I kept doing it, I got better at guitar. While I was in a punk band I’d be writing classical material and ambient stuff, and I think my brain doesn’t stay in one place for very long. I end up straying from genre to genre. I still write things in the punk vein, but there’s so much else going on as well. I think it’s natural that if you’re more into arrangement, you’re gonna start moving into different places really quickly. I’ve been very lucky to be doing this up to now. If people 50 years ago had had the facilities to do things without being classically trained, we would have had so many amazing composers, like we can have now. I’ve had the facilities, I haven’t been classically trained, I have no orchestra, I can’t score things. I’ve gotten better at production and programming – I can articulate ideas and show people what I’m thinking just through programming, I can put together a score, and you just couldn’t do that 20 year years ago.”
A lot of us in the arts have a careful juggling act between doing what we love and doing what we need to do to survive. In fact, creative people can feel like they’re selling out if they commercialise their art. But this doesn’t have to be the case – using your skills for practical means not only puts food on the table, but it can also be an important learning curve to work and interact with people in different fields who need your talents for their own work and passions.
“In the beginning, it was about getting better at production, and a way of making money and getting into music. Finding ways of doing that is really hard and limited. I started doing sessions – there are some incredible guitarists out there, and I don’t consider myself one of them. I wanted to find a way, because I’ve always been more of a songwriter and arranger rather than just a musician, to do what I wanted and pay the bills whilst doing music. It did start out being just work, and being kind of annoying and restrictive because of what clients wanted. But it meant I got better at production in the meantime. Now, it’s ended up being something I really like doing. It’s odd because with this commercial stuff, there’s lots of restrictions I’ve got to work within. When you’re that restricted, and you’re so focused, going away and writing my own stuff feels a lot better. It’s like it pents my ideas up enough that it makes my writing better. My production work in the last year or so has improved so much and I’m applying it to my own work. It’s almost entirely down to having to do a good job at commercial stuff and having to learn really quickly.”
Dedication to her work, a love for her craft, and building up this work ethic means that Monday Green really is the best debut album it could be. A reflection of her past inspirations and current style makes it sound both nostalgic and not quite like anything that’s come before it. It’s been pretty well received, and no one seems to be more shocked about this that Holly Henderson herself. But, even if Monday Green has been out for barely a month, both eyes are set firmly on the future.
“It’s funny because I’ve always been the musician of the family. Everyone else has been quite academic and more sensible. I’ve always been working hard and trying to be the best I can. My family have always been really supportive, but worrying in case it doesn’t happen. Since album came out, I think they’ve realised it’s more serious and it’s really happening. Everyone’s worked so hard on the album, and now it stands on its own as a genuine, legitimate album. I’m a little surprised as well to a real album and it sounds good, and I’m not just sitting making crappy music on my laptop any more. The reception has been really intense. I’ve been really surprised by how many people were positive. I’ve been looking absolutely everywhere for something negative, and I kind of want to see someone say something really negative. There’s a weird self-deprecating part of me wants to see that, but it’s all been overwhelmingly positive. It’s just so surprising. I was so ready to be defensive. Now, I definitely want to tour. I want to opportunity to tour properly. But typically, I’m already planning the next album. I’m really focused on not stopping and keeping things regular now. The album was recorded way back in 2017, and I definitely don’t want to leave it that long again.”
Holly Henderson has spent her entire career up until this point, adapting and evolving to make sure that the music she put out is unequivocally her. A second album might strike fear into the hearts of some, but for this musician, it’s yet another opportunity to create and grow.
Watch the video for “Loneliness” below:
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