A heavenly voice couched in spellbinding country & western ballads, with a devastating emotional delivery: Holly Macve is a fantastic addition to the Bella Union family, and her album Golden Eagle is one of the most remarkably assured debuts of this or any other year, especially given she’s though only 21 years old.
Despite her youth, Golden Eagle reveals she’s experienced enough strife to last a lifetime: parental splits, heartbreak, early career pitfalls…. Born in Galway in western Ireland, Macve and her sister were whisked away “in the night” by her mother from their errant father, to live with her grandparents in Yorkshire. Once in their own house, near the town of Holmfirth, Holly quickly responded to music: “My Grandad was a classical composer, and my mum sang, and she said I was singing before I was talking,” she recalls. Her mother’s record collection – lots of old blues and Bob Dylan – shaped Holly’s impressionable mind, before she herself discovered the likes of Leonard Cohen, Johnny Cash and Gillian Welch.
“Words are my main love,” she declares. “I love songs that tell stories and take you some-where else. I’ve always been drawn to that old country sound with it’s simple and memora-ble melodies. I enjoy music that feels timeless, that you don’t know quite when it was rec-orded.”
On Golden Eagle, roses wilt, fires die out, skies darken and love, ‘was a mystery that I’d been known to doubt / A puzzle that no one could ever figure out.’ Tracks like ‘White Bridge’, ‘Timbuktu’ and ‘Sycamore Tree’ all refer to a wish to return to a state of innocence.
“For some reason, I didn’t want to grow up. I was fearful of responsibilities and change,” she says. “I was scared of death, because I was always aware that the older I got, the less time I had. Childhood was good times, easy times.” The passing of her beloved grandad, in 2015, was her first experience of death, inspiring the album’s title track: ‘fly away, golden eagle, before you feel the pain / There’s a sky waiting for you, so let your feet escape the chain.”
“Songwriting is like therapy for me, it’s a way of turning a bad situation in to something pos-itive”, she states.
At the age of 18 Holly moved down south. She worked in a café, while singing on open mic nights. Bella Union boss Simon Raymonde was a regular customer at the café, and had just set up his studio in the basement when he caught wind of this astonishing young talent, with her vocals notes of Welch, Patsy Cline and Paula Frazer (Tarnation), and the timeless melodies, altogether evoking the Appalachian Mountains and the Wyoming prairie rather than the Brighton seafront.
Holly has always been most interested in her own songwriting, despite the efforts of her first music publishers. “They wanted me to co write, but writing has always been a personal and solitary thing for me. I didn’t want to be moulded into anything I wasn’t, I wanted my music to be honest.”
Holly subsequently fled back to Yorkshire after a lost love and sense of direction, and wrote the songs that became Golden Eagle. “I was depressed, lost and lonely, in a dark place,” she recalls. “So the songs are a bit fatalistic.”
Hiding away in Yorkshire, “isolated, surrounded by countryside”, her imagination took flight. “All Of Its Glory” evokes her great-grandad, serving in WWI, writing impassioned let-ters (which the family still own, bound in a book) to his wife at home. Other songs describe ‘blood red fields’ and ‘burning skies’, and ‘a man standing by the river bank / His eyes were blue and his hair was jet black….’
“I’m fascinated and drawn to that kind of romantic imagery,” she says. ‘I went to America for the first time last year, to play South By Southwest in Texas, and I really felt a connection with the landscapes over there’.
The bulk of Golden Eagle was recorded in Newcastle at the home studio of producer Paul Gregory (of Bella Union label-mates Lanterns On The Lake), with extra recording in Bright-on and London with her first touring band, and the musicians she now plays with. Yet Gol-den Eagle remains beautifully spare and delicate, putting Holly’s goosebump-raising voice centre stage, beautifully controlled yet riven with feeling.
On stage, she’s a magnetic presence; it’s not just voice and songs. Audiences who caught her supporting the likes of John Grant, Villagers and Benjamin Clementine – incredible company to keep at this early stage – were doubtless stopped in their tracks. Coined “The best voice at SXSW 2016” by NPR’s Bob Boilen, Holly’s first shows in America last March went swim-mingly, with a special appearance at Luck Reunion on Willie Nelson’s ranch in Texas. She hit the road with Atlanta based band Mothers through the heartland afterwards, and returned in May 2016 to record a Daytrotter Session followed by a trip to Canadian Music Week.
During the summer of 2016 she sold out her first headline show in London and graced Glas-tonbury’s legendary Park Stage, along with appearances at Latitude and End of the Road Festival. She was nominated in the Autumn of 2016 for the Reeperbahn Anchor Award for International Emerging Talent, receiving accolades from David Bowie producer Tony Vis-conti. January 2017 saw her play 2 shows at Eurosonic Festival in the Netherlands, resulting in a flurry of press coverage. Her debut single “No One Has the Answers” was single of the week on Jo Whiley’s BBC Radio 2 show, which has highest radio listenership in the United Kingdom. The video for the single premiered on NPR’s website in the US, stating “2017 will be the year the world falls in love with the voice of Holly Macve.”
Spotify have been very supportive of Holly with over 38,000 monthly listeners and she is nearing 700,000 streams for her song “We Don’t Know Where We’re Going”. Holly’s debut album Golden Eagle (out March 3rd 2017) is Rough Trade’s Album of the Month selection, with in store performances confirmed in both their London and NYC retail locations. She is confirmed for BBC 6Music Festival in Glasgow in late March, and there is interest on the US side for radio sessions and a late night TV show performance in May. Her US booking agents at United Talent (The Agency Group) are keen to have her full band perform and are secur-ing a May tour as we speak.
They say it’s grim up North and one listen of breakthrough singer-songwriter Brooke Bentham’s opening salvo in 2017 might reinforce that sentiment. “It’s funny how small things can wreck away at your life, when you’re not doing anything but living inside,” she sings on the opening track of her debut EP ‚The Room Swayed‘. The swells and plummets of the track – titled ‚Nowhere Near Sense‘ – possess the epic alt rock journeying of War On Drugs or Ryan Adams with the added emotional vocal depths of Sharon Van Etten or Angel Olsen. That all this is the fruits of a 21-year-old from South Shields outside of Newcastle might take you by surprise. It carries the weight of someone who’s lived a hundred lives already.
Having spent most of her younger years up North, Bentham channels a maturity and life ethic that’s wise beyond her age, a result of having partially raised herself. Her parents worked away from home a lot (her dad is an engineer, her mum a primary school teacher), so it was often up to Bentham and her three older brothers to fend for themselves. “I think it made me grow up a lot faster than I would have,” she says. Lending an air of fate too, the experience of being brought closer to elder siblings switched her onto their musical obsessions. The likes of French electro duo Justice and Ed Banger artist Uffie haven’t exactly informed Bentham’s own oeuvre, but being exposed to those sounds early on made her acutely aware of a world outside of commercial pop music. She picked up a guitar early, even attempted banjo at one stage, and started taking singing lessons at the age of 15. That’s when her teacher encouraged her to start writing songs and gigging at nearby pubs and open mic nights.
“I was writing a lot of Paolo Nutini inspired cheesy acoustic stuff,” she laughs, embarrassed now. At the time, most females with an acoustic guitar were singing similar tunes, it was the norm but it was also a means to an end. “Everything I wrote I hated. It was so frustrating trying to find one distinguished sound I could have as my own. But I just kept doing it, kept writing.” A huge fan at the time of Yo La Tengo, Fleet Foxes, Kevin Morby and Bon Iver, she continued to mine her own creative voice to try and develop something similarly ground-breaking. Eventually her first taste of success – a song called ‚Oliver‘ – was a turn in the road. That tune brought her the sonic direction she was working towards. Her first proper show was at local legendary rock venue The Cluny back in Newcastle. By chance, the sound guy that night also did sound for successful performer James Bay and a connection sparked with Communion, the label part-owned by Ben Lovett of Mumford & Sons. She played a showcase evening for them as soon as she moved to London, where she’s lived now for three years.
Speaking from her bedroom in the art ghetto of New Cross, Bentham is looking forward to completing her final year here pursuing a degree in Popular Music at Goldsmiths University. In New Cross, she’s felt part of a wider arts community. She’s found her band through living and studying here. Her connections haven’t all necessarily developed from the type of music she herself is making, but there’s a mutual sense of camaraderie round these parts among a new generation of young musicians trying to forge paths ahead.
Surrounded by synth pop enthusiasts and PC Music types then, Bentham quietly worked away at her own introspective works. The focus now she’s approaching graduation has shifted towards the fruits of that labour: a forthcoming debut EP, which has been produced by Ben Baptie (Lianne La Havas, Daughter, Låpsley, Adele]. They went into Urhcin studios in Hackney last November to work on four tracks gleaned over the course of six months‘ writing. Bonding over a mutual appreciation of the melding of electronics with raw, visceral rock (think Bon Iver’s latest ’33 God‘, latter day Radiohead, etc.) they laid down the tracks in less than a week. “The things you can do in the studio are just insane,” recalls Bentham. The effects can be heard particularly on the epic closing track ‚I Loved The Way You Talked‘, which features a constant feedback loop of their in-studio rehearsals as a piano gently carries Bentham’s soaring voice along to a quietly growing crescendo.
“The whole EP is about the frustration in relationships, the point when everything is static and unfulfilling. That feeling keeps coming back and there’s no way of getting rid of it. These songs are a way of breaking out of it. It’s a kind of euphoric realisation,” says Bentham. ‚The Room Swayed‘ encapsulates that wayward turmoil, a drunken feeling that can be as literal as it is metaphorical. The enormous standout anthem ‚Heavy And Ephemeral‘ was written during a time of bitterness. “It’ll all be over soon, I say / I’d forgotten this feeling / I let it die, now it makes me feel alive,” she sings on the verse. ‚Need Your Body‘, on the other hand, is about moving onto someone else (“into the night we go, once more…”). Admitting the EP revolves around one particular relationship of hers isn’t intimidating. “I’m not bothered about how anybody else feels with me putting these songs out,” she says defiantly. “I’m proud of them and think they should be in the world. I’m not scared at all.”
Embarking upon her first proper tour in March, Bentham is preparing herself for a big year of firsts. “All I ask is for people to just enjoy it, resonate with it,” she says, with a smile. True to her Northern roots, Brooke Bentham doesn’t ask for much. She’s just ready to work her socks off. (Eve Barlow)