Over her career she has also recorded and performed with a diverse range of local and international bands, electronic music producers and musical collectives.
Originally from Auckland, Smith was raised around blues, jazz and soul music, and at age 16 won best jazz vocalist at the National Jazz Festival of New Zealand. Next she recorded a single with her stepfather, respected Celtic musician Steve McDonald, which led to her recording an album of Celtic music with him. Light From A Distant Shore was released internationally, after which Smith toured America with McDonald as an opening act. As a result she was given the opportunity to record an album of her own music in Boulder, Colorado. Due to creative differences with the label she was working with at the time, the album was never released.
At age 19, Smith relocated to Wellington, where she lived for the next half decade before returning to Auckland. While in Wellington Smith recorded and performed with Trinity Roots, Fat Freddy’s Drop, Recloose and The Illphonics. During this time she independently recorded and released her self-titled debut EP.
‘Bathe In The River’ peaked at No.2 on the NZ Singles Chart.
In 2005 Smith took part in the second edition of Barnaby Weir and Mikee Tucker’s (Loop Recordings) Fly My Pretties CD/DVD and live performance series. In 2006 she took part in the Bacardi B-Live OE: Brazil project, where she travelled to Brazil and recorded with The Zimbo Trio and Apollo Nove, before returning home to take part in a series of shows across New Zealand. The same year she recorded hit single ‘Bathe In The River’ with Don McGlashan, releasing it under the moniker The Mt Raskil Preservation Society. ‘Bathe In The River’ peaked at No.2 on the New Zealand Top 40 Singles Chart and eventually sold platinum in New Zealand.
In 2007 Smith released her album Long Player through her own label Soundsmith Records and EMI. Long Player was co-produced by Jeremy Toy. That year she also signed a multi-album deal with US-based Manhattan Records, an imprint of the Blue Note label. Long Player peaked at No.1 on the New Zealand Top 40 Album Chart and sold double platinum in New Zealand. Next she travelled to Philadelphia to record new material with American producer James Poyser, soon releasing a deluxe edition of Long Player with several new songs.
In 2009 Smith’s deal with Manhattan Records collapsed and she had to use her profits from Long Player to buy herself out of the deal.
Long Player Reached No.1 on the NZ Album Chart and sold double platinum.
In 2010 she released a new album Humour And The Misfortune Of Others, again via Soundsmith Records and EMI. Co-produced by Riki Gooch, Humour And The Misfortune Of Others was eventually certified gold for sales in New Zealand.
In 2011 she started a new project called Band of Brothers, which saw her collaborating on full albums with different musicians, beatmakers and producers. That year she released Vol.1 in collaboration with Mara TK, again via Soundsmith Records and EMI.
Outside of her collaborations with Trinity Roots, Fat Freddy’s Drop, Recloose and The Illphonics, Smith has also recorded feature vocals for the likes of Solaa, Grooveman Spot (Japan), Home Brew and Concord Dawn.
On the live front, Smith has opened for Coldplay, Simply Red and Bob Dylan. She has also performed at Womad NZ and toured Australia, Europe, the UK, Asia and America.
While performing, Smith alternates between performing with a guitarist or a full band. She has been backed by the likes of Darren Mathiassen (drums), Crete Haami-Jones (bass), Lisa Tomlins (backing vocals), Ria Hall (backing vocals), Bella Kalolo (backing vocals) and Tyson Smith (guitar) among others.
Over the years Smith has amassed a collection of music awards for best arrangement (Tauranga Jazz Festival, 1996), Best Vocalist (Tauranga Jazz Festival, 1996), best female artist (NZ Music Awards, 2007), breakthrough act of the year (NZ Music Awards, 2007), best Aotearoa roots album (NZ Music Awards, 2007) and best producer (NZ Music Awards, 2007). She has also been nominated for several other New Zealand Music Awards over the years.
– Martyn Pepperell
For Hollie Smith, the years between 2013 and 2016 were characterised by live performance and collaboration – two significant pillars of her decades-long career.
Alongside her ongoing work with Fly My Pretties, and joining a mega line-up of New Zealand artists for the 2015 Cure Kids charity song, Smith began a new band with Anika Moa and Boh Runga in 2012. Quite sweetly, they named their supergroup Anika, Boh & Hollie – as Smith told Jesse Mulligan on RNZ at the time, “we couldn’t think of a band name”. With Moa pushing for “Gypsy,” Runga for “Sissy” and Smith for “Rehab,” they finally landed on their own names.
Whether it was a conscious decision or not, it was a smart marketing move, considering their national name recognition. After an acoustic church tour and several stand-alone singles, the full album Peace of Mind was released in 2013. The album includes three bonus tracks – live recordings from the church tour, of the three artists’ own music – ‘Mother’ from Moa, ‘Part of Me’ from Runga, and ‘Bathe in the River’ from Smith.
Smith was also working on a new album named Water or Gold, which came out in 2016. The six-year gap between her solo albums was filled with a wide variety of collaborative projects, and life was also busy outside of her career as Smith settled in Tauranga with her partner and adopted son.
The Water or Gold wheels began turning in July 2015, when Smith signed to Warner Music NZ, and a few months later released the first single ‘Lady Dee’. After the official album release in April 2016, three more singles emerged: ‘Helena’, ‘Lead the Way’, and the title track. Water and Gold quickly became her third album to reach No.1 in the New Zealand charts.
The lyrical subject matter is both personal and universal, with such themes as motherhood in ‘Dream’, to the passing of a loved one in ‘Helena’ – a dedication to Smith’s best friend Helena McAlpine who lost her battle with breast cancer in 2015. Smith was the writer and producer of every track, joined by Marika Hodgson on bass, Darren Mathiassen on drums, Daniel Hayes on keyboard and Jolyon Mulholland on synthesiser and guitar. During the making of the record, Smith gave herself the added challenge of composing several tracks on guitar, as opposed to her usual writing process with keyboards.
Playing guitar as part of Anika, Boh & Hollie – for the first time, in a long time – she was inspired to continue. “A lot of these songs are written on guitar, which has changed a lot of the direction of the musical ideas behind it,” Smith told the 13th Floor during the Water or Gold release. “With piano, melodically, I’ve got a lot more room to move because I’ve got crazy voicings and all those kinds of things. Wheareas with guitar it’s a little more structured and basic. The songs themselves aren’t simple but they come across as a lot more basic and straight to the point because the melodies are cleaner and the chords are simpler.”
The critical reception of Water or Gold matched its commercial success. Reviewers for NZ Herald, the Sydney Morning Herald, NZ Musician and RNZ all praised Smith’s confident and personal direction, on a record that expands on, yet also strengthens her unique brand of soul. As Nick Bollinger noted for his RNZ review, the record offers “the kind of assuredness that says you are in the hands of someone who knows what they like, what they want to hear, and are going to do it their way.”
The Water or Gold album tour of New Zealand and Australia enjoyed a slew of sell-out shows – not only a testament to the new work, but Smith’s longstanding reputation to deliver a stellar live act. The record went on to be nominated for album of the year and best female solo artist at the 2016 New Zealand Music Awards, with the honours going to Broods and Aaradhna respectively on the night.
Later that year, in November 2016, Smith released a new single, ‘Please’, to support the White Ribbon appeal against family violence. The song centred on the key lyrical message: Know that you are not alone. Please. “I hope that the lyrics I have written help to inspire and encourage strength and support for those who are in situations they feel are beyond their control,” Smith told the NZ Herald during the campaign in 2016, “whether that be to the victim of violence or the person who knows no other alternative.” Philanthropy through music has become a major and consistent thread in Smith’s career throughout the years.
Alongside consistent one-off and festival performances in New Zealand in 2017, Smith returned to Australia mid-year for a two-part tour. Joined by a full band in Sydney, Melbourne and at the Port Fairy Fairy Folk Festival, Smith then proceeded to Western Australia for stripped down acoustic performances with bassist Marika Hodgson.
By September, Smith was on another national tour at home, marking the 10-year anniversary of her debut album Long Player with a celebratory live act. The tour was preceded with the release of Long Player on double vinyl, including a bonus side of retrospective tracks – including the seminal ‘Bathe in the River’.
In 2019 Smith contributed to collaborative album The Offering – a collection of hymns from local heavy hitters such as Dave Dobbyn, Don McGlashan, Tami Neilson and Maisey Rika. The project was created by entertainment entrepreneur Murray Thom, with all sales and royalties going to the Salvation Army. For the album’s first single, Smith joined her friend and collaborator TEEKS for a more contemporary rendition of ‘Whakaaria Mai’ (‘How Great Thou Art’), complete with a gospel choir and accompanying artwork by Auckland artist Reuben Paterson – each song was treated to a piece of original art.
For Hollie, the motivation for getting involved was simple. “I just want them to get that cool feeling when you feel all bright inside your bones.” Smith and TEEKS performed the song at the 2019 National Remembrance Service for the victims of the March 15 Christchurch terrorist attack, and at the 2019 Vodafone New Zealand Music Awards.
In 2019 Smith also re-recorded her 2005 song ‘Clarity’ for the Fly My Pretties Studio Recording Part 2. It was, understandably, a bittersweet experience for Smith, who found it hard to relate to her past musicianship – 15 years is a long time in the life of an ever-evolving artist. “Going back to something so old … it was a little bit of a struggle,” she said in a behind-the-scenes promo for the track. “It’s like reading a story you wrote when you were five years old.” That said, she did love the arrangement and production by the Fly My Pretties team. Later in 2019 Smith enjoyed one of her quirkier collaborations, featuring on children’s show Moe Makes Music to teach the furry (and eponymous) monster Moe about soul music.
In 2020 Smith contributed to the chart-topping charity single ‘Tūtahi – Stay’, written and recorded in a week by a who’s-who of New Zealand musicians. The track, which encourages New Zealand to stay safe during the coronavirus pandemic, generated funds for the charitable endeavour Music Helps, which facilitates musical programmes for education, expression and healing purposes.
2020 brought with it another celebrated collaboration for Smith, as she joined Julia Deans, Anna Coddington, Anika Moa, Lauren Barus (aka LA Mitchell) and Tali Sheppard for a tribute performance at the APRA Silver Scroll Awards. The six women – who named themselves the “Wha Cups” – performed an emotional a capella rendition of ‘Calling On’ by Weta, in memory of those the New Zealand music industry lost in 2020, including former Weta frontman Aaron Tokona.
Despite the pandemic-related challenges of the year, by mid 2020 there were signs that Smith had a new album in the works. Taking to her social media, Smith posted a photo of herself in the studio with Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern’s young daughter Neve – Smith is close friends with Arden and her partner Clarke Gayford. “My little magic Neve helping me today … my first couple days in the studio with the NZSO for the NEW ALBUM. Don’t hold ya’ breath, it will be a minute. But gosh. What a way to start.”
Smith sampled some of the new songs at the Ponsonby Social Club later that year, and has been teasing details of the upcoming record on her official Facebook page – including the involvement of the NZSO and vocal trio SOL3 MIO. As she said during herself during the re-recording of ‘Clarity’ – “If you’re a musician and you think you’ve nailed it, I think that will be the end of your music ambition, it is always like chasing the dragon … like, ‘when will I write the perfect song?’”
– Updated by Rosie Howells, January 2021