Hollis is an incredibly conscious artist and wordsmith that uses her voice literally and metaphorically. In reality, her artistic identity barely even begins to scratch the surface of the entire inner workings going on behind the scenes. She’s dedicated to the ever-evolving journey that really defines itself as the human experience, expressing her perspective through her songwriting craft. Inspired by musical virtuosa, Lauryn Hill, Hollis projects all of life’s queries into her songs and aims to bring common ground to the people. Through her social activism, she’s been pushing the boundaries necessary to create civil discourse and more importantly, to create a conscious community that’ll build long lasting/impactful change. SPIN chatted it up with the eloquent singer-songwriter as she reflects on her purpose, coming to terms with her musical identity, what led her to creating a musical homage to an Asian-American hero, and more. Listen to “Grace Lee” here.
Who is Hollis and how did you come to life?
This question is deep! Hollis the human was born in the Bay Area as the eldest daughter to my mom, an immigrant from Hong Kong who owned a Chinese restaurant in our small suburb, and my dad, a Midwest-born hippie veteran who installed playground equipment for a living. Growing up as the first child with working entrepreneur parents, both with the cultural richness of San Francisco as well as the utter whiteness and quietude of the suburbs, made me a total bookworm. I think a lot of the reason I write songs today is how much I loved literature as a child; I was nowhere without a book, one of those kids my mom had to steal the flashlight from at night. Hollis the artist sparked to life when I first went to a teen poetry slam when I was 15. I had always sung in choir and performed in musical theater but it was the first time I saw a young performer write their own script, with their own story, to electrifying results. It made me wonder if I was daring enough to author my own work, to be both bold and deeply vulnerable on stage. That wonder led me from spoken word poetry to rapping in a hip-hop duo in college to my band The Flavr Blue and now as a solo artist, where I firmly own and wield my own story and sound.
Tell us about your sound – where does your style originate from and what have been your biggest visual, social, and sonic influences?
In so many ways I’m a reflection of the very disparate sounds and sonics of my youth. I was obsessed with alternative radio – or was it “adult contemporary”? – growing up, captivated by artists like Alanis Morrisette, Tori Amos, Fiona Apple. I loved bands like Blink-182 and Staind and all the angst therein. I’ll always have a soft place for the saccharine pop rock of Matchbox Twenty and Five for Fighting. Probably the most powerful work I encountered as a pre-teen though was Lauryn Hill’s Miseducation. I was so awed by it, how it was written and created, and the depth and dexterity of Lauryn’s lyricism.
In middle school and early high school I got really into DIY and underground music that spoke to politics and the world, both the radical feminism of riot grrl – Bikini Kill, Le Tigre, Jack Off Jill – and the sprawling world of underground hip-hop that I uncovered Limewire download after sloooww Limewire download. I was super into Def Jux Records and in general became a total backpack rap nerd. Then of course coming from the Bay Area, the hyphy movement was at an all time high. So in high school I was making zines, making friends and penpals on message boards, learning about radical politics, and perfecting my Thizzle Dance.
I’ve been in a rap group and written with rappers, written electronic R&B and lounge soul music, and through it all, I was instinctually adverse to the label of “singer/songwriter” — it always conjured the image of Phoebe from Friends singing on guitar at the coffee shop. As a solo artist, I’m trying to embrace it now, recognizing that songwriting is really at the heart of my artistic expression, and leaning in to the alternative and indie* sounds that made me who I am.
*not sure I’ll ever get over the stigma (indie doesn’t mean anything! it’s an empty corporate container!!) of my purist teenage discourse!
What does your typical songwriting/production process look like? Is there a set formula or does it consistently evolve and shape-shift along with your ideas?
While I’m not set on one way to approach songs, poetry has always been the foundation of my lyricism and often is the first layer of my songs. In college I developed a practice where I would read poetry and take a phrase or a few scattered words and use it as a prompt for my own free writing. Then, when I get into the studio or room with a producer or co-writer, I can mine the free write for the first start of a song. Whatever resonates with us after I read the free write can be an exciting launch point. I like to keep my approach to songs as open and stream of consciousness as possible; I do a ton of brainstorming of visceral images and usually write ten times more words than what makes it into the song. I almost always start songs hand-written in my journal.
Almost all of the songs on my upcoming album were written over Zoom with producers; us vibing, me writing and cutting the vocals on my side and Dropboxing them to the producer to drop into the session. While I love having conversations with my collaborators, a lot of times over Zoom I was having that dialogue to shape the songs with myself. There is a wonderful quote from the book The Artist’s Way that embraces the idea of a higher creative power; the pledge from the artist to that power is: I’ll take care of the quantity, you take care of the quality. To me this means not to overthink or fixate on minutia when creating, but to simply create as many fully realized pieces as possible, trusting that the quality will emerge. It’s been a helpful guide so I don’t edit and second guess my songs into perpetual incompletion.
Was there a definitive turning point in your career? When did you realize the magnitude of your impact within the industry/community?
Before I worked with Macklemore and Ryan Lewis, I had honestly never considered making music as my career. I saw what I did musically as my passion and as my entry point into new connections and experiences, and more than anything I just wanted to collaborate and be inspired in community, no matter what that looked like. I definitely thought I was going to get a real job and hoped that whatever I did would compliment my desire to keep making music. In Seattle, it just did not seem at all possible to be a full-time artist.
When I started working with them, it was as a pro-bono music video producer, and I was hype just to get to build something creative with artists I was inspired by and wanted to get to know. Through collaborating with them and getting to know them better, they both encouraged me to focus on my singing and writing, and were the first ones to invite me in for what I would later learn was called “co-writing” or “toplining” (back then it was just making music with your friends). Ben/Macklemore and I would actually get together at coffee shops and do the same free-writing I described above as he was writing The Heist.
When all the unanticipated wild success of that time went down and I ended up getting nominated for a GRAMMY with them, my first week down in LA was all adrenaline, getting paired with strangers for writing sessions and creating whole songs. I became totally addicted to writing sessions and fascinated by the idea that this could be my life, my career. I was SUPER naive at that time – thankfully so naive that I never signed a shitty deal – and since now living in LA for the last five years I’ve learned so much about what it means to be a professional music creator. But I’m thankful for that moment of self-belief, allowing myself the possibility of centering my creativity instead of taking a job that seemed creative but deaded my own art practice.
You are a known activist, passionate about creating civil, creative, and passionate discourse surrounding social equity – when did this mission start, and when did you decide to utilize your musical platform to channel such inspirational messages to fulfill this mission?
When I first started writing my own music in Seattle, it was with my best friend Maddy, who I had met through spoken word and slam poetry, where we were encouraged to weave politics and social issues in with our personal stories. We wanted to start rapping not only about our experiences as young mixed-race women, but also integrate everything we were reading (assigned and unassigned) in college: Assatta Shakur, James Baldwin, Franz Fanon, bell hooks… the list goes on. Art and activism were one and the same; art was an expression of our politics, and our activism was being in creative community with others pushing on the grassroots level. We loved artists like Mos Def, Medusa, Ursula Rucker, K’Naan, and my local favorite Blue Scholars, who embodied the spirit of hip-hop as social change. Even though I’m not technically making hip-hop now, the essence of it is why I continue to create.
I was just talking with a friend the other day about what our purpose is, and I think it’s taken me a while to realize that at my core, I’m most driven by building relationships. It’s why I love co-writing and collaboration, and performing live: connecting with people, making community, doing the work together. Making art and music is the mechanism and the vehicle to get me there.
You recently released the single, “Grace Lee,” which is a direct homage to the Asian-American hero/author of racial equity – In what ways did Grace inspire this track? What creative and musical elements did you explore and inject within this song that embody the tenacity that you see Grace withholds?
In Seattle I had heard about Grace Lee Boggs, one of the few Asian American activists who during the Civil Rights Movement had worked alongside Black organizers in true solidarity (before Asian American was even a concept!). I had also heard her quote “the time has come to reimagine everything,” and it stuck with me. The world is so fraught, corrupted, harmful to so many; it is absolutely important that we don’t push incrementally but actually step back and reimagine how things should be.
In March, I had just finished reading Living For Change, an autobiography of Grace Lee Boggs, and I learned so much more about her than I ever knew. I learned she was probably the first Asian American woman to earn her PhD in Philosophy, that she was a Marxist theorist and writer, and departed socialist discourse when she found it too separate from movement organizing, choosing to invest in her hometown of Detroit in tangible and meaningful ways. I also learned she was born above and grew up in her father’s Chinese restaurant, which immediately resonated with me as someone who was also raised in her mom’s Chinese restaurant. Besides reading her inspired story, I wanted to uplift how critical artistic and creative expression was to her understanding of how society evolves, how we “grow our souls” in her words.
Luckily my frequent collaborator Chucky Kim not only knew her work but had met her once before she passed. When I logged onto Zoom for one of our weekly Thursday night sessions, I had Living For Change in my lap; I told him I thought it would be cool to write a folk song for our Asian American folk hero, and he was more than down. Writing that song with him was like documenting our conversation, all of the reflections and sparks of inspiration we felt, and was also a moment of growth of me, writing an acoustic and more intimate song in tribute to a woman that should be better known, and more importantly whose ideas should be amplified and embraced.
A poet at heart, this perspective bleeds into everything you create and how you articulate yourself through verbal expression – who is your favorite (or one of your favorite) songwriter(s) that just absolutely spiritually elevates you with their lyricism?
If we’re talking spiritual elevation it has to be Lauryn Hill. From rap to singing, her lyricism was just God-level on Miseducation — technically flawless and full of heart.
In what ways do you wish to inspire up and coming artists/producers that are aiming to get their creative work out into the world?
I hope to inspire artists and producers to feel like they have the agency and confidence to express themselves to the fullest without needing to pander to gatekeepers or getting caught up in exploitative relationships. There’s this very backward perception that I also held for many years that it’s up to others to make your career for you. I was fixated on the validation of who I thought would give me the green light when I should have been focused on my craft. I really thought that other people held the power and I had to find a way to be in proximity to it, instead of realizing I as the music creator held the power, and I needed to strengthen my power so that it attracted others to the light. It’s of course not as simple as just making good music; there’s also a business acumen and literacy that you have to have to navigate, and I really hope to embolden artists/producers to learn, educate themselves and dialogue with others to ensure they’re making the most effective and most empowered moves possible.
As we’re looking ahead, seeing the light at the end of the tunnel, how are you planning to propel your career forward in 2021?
There was definitely a stretch of time during the pandemic where I thought I wouldn’t ever make music again. I was so dependent on writing in the room with other people, both technically and spiritually, and the loss of live performance made me feel there was nothing to create for anymore. I had to rebuild my purpose as a creator to let songs be fully realized in their own right, and had to build my skills at home to become my own recording engineer. I feel like a much stronger songwriter and music creator now than I was last March, and my hopes are that my reach can grow with my music along with deep gratitude and connection to purpose through it all. I plan to invest in myself and my music without compromise, seek opportunities to connect meaningfully with community causes and movement organizing, and be as bold and true to myself as I can.
Is there anything on the horizon that you can share with us?
I’m releasing my first full-length solo album this year! The first single is a song “Less Like” that I wrote in Joshua Tree over Zoom with my friend Sweater Beats. It comes out in July, and I am really hype.
Take a chance now and manifest something: ______________.
Sometime in the next twelve months I’ll perform a show in my mother’s birthplace of Hong Kong and get to build relationships with the brave student activists fighting for democracy there.
Any last words for the SPIN-verse?
A quote from Mariame Kaba, whose book We Do This Til We Free Us is a must-read. She said her father’s signature sentiment was “everything worthwhile is done with others.” So I hope the SPIN-verse can reflect on what they’re building with others in this life to make it a better one for all.
Check out Hollis’s exclusive live session below. For more SPIN Sessions, head over to SPIN TV.