With the recent surge in accessible music streaming services, discovering noteworthy artists among the hordes of daily recommendations thrust upon us (we’re looking at you, Spotify) can be a dauntingly tedious task, to say the least. A fortunate few may have the spare hours required to rifle through the seemingly infinite indie abyss, but most of us don’t. So, allow me to lend you a hand, and believe me when I tell you: Montreal-based singer/songwriter Common Holly (AKA Brigitte Naggar) is an up-and-coming artist you don’t want to sleep on. Having shared a stage with notable indie artists like Julia Jacklin, Land of Talk, and Half Waif (before releasing a record, might I add) this young Canadian musician exudes promise.
Her forthcoming debut album, Playing House, is, as its title and endearing cover art suggest (see: two young girls bearing knobby knees beneath layered tutus), doused in nostalgia. It is a diary gathering dust in a childhood bedroom, yanked from its slot on the shelf to be cracked open for the first time in years. It is as lyrically bound to the intimate as are pages to a diary’s spine, as compositionally intricate as the doodles in the margins. It navigates heartbreak in a model manner, demonstrating the grace, poise and intelligence that most of us mere mortals can only ever wish to embody in such circumstances. In other words, Common Holly’s Playing House is required listening, and luckily for all of us, it is set to release via Solitaire Recordings on September 25th. Until then, do yourself a favor and check out this exclusive interview with Naggar, and stream the album’s striking single, “If After All,” below.
Your forthcoming album, Playing House, will be released on September 25th (via Solitaire Records). I imagine the anticipation is grueling – how are you feeling? What are you doing to prepare?
Well, the songs [on the album] have existed for a long time, so I guess at this point I’m just ready for them to be out there in the world. To prepare, I’m mostly just focusing finding an adequate live representation of the sound. I think that’s the classic struggle of a solo artist who spends a lot of time in the production space, just working out what the best live version would be. Obviously, it won’t be exactly the same as the recorded version, but I’m trying to make something that stays true to it.
Is there a driving emotion or overarching theme to Playing House? Or is there a thought or feeling that you hope this record will provoke in a listener?
Thematically, the album is a traditional Taylor Swift style breakup album [laughs]… It’s pretty monolithic in that way. It’s about the relationship I had with one person and the healing process after that relationship. I guess I just hope that it will reach the listeners in a sincere way and that they’ll find the music interesting, but also find it to be something they can relate to somehow, you know?
While listening to your single, “If After All” (below), I noticed the song is divided into three distinct sounding sections… The intro is ambient and soft around the edges. Then, it transitions sharply to a crunching guitar, and concludes in a forceful math rock manner. In other words, the structure is complex, and it works. What did the songwriting process look like, here? Would you say this structure was intentional, or did it develop organically?
It was a combined effort between myself and my producer, Devon Bate. Basically, what happened is I wrote the whole song, I brought it to him, we thought about it, and recognized that the way in which the song progresses required that three-part production. The only thing that changed during that production process was the concluding section. I had something else initially, but he [Bate] suggested that I try a math rock thing, so I went home and rewrote the ending to fit that aesthetic. Then I had my friend Steven come in and do some math rocky guitar and just go all out on it. When we started working on the song, we had no idea that it would be the primordial song of the album. I think it ended up being the statement piece, and that’s why we put it first. It is the high-energy point of the album, and then, in a way, it unravels. It crawls into a more introverted state following that.
When I was younger, I remember being stricken by certain musicians I watched (which consisted of a weird Styx/Britney Spears combo) who lit a fire under me to pursue music and performance, in general. Can you recall a specific moment where you thought to yourself, “Yeah, I wanna do THAT?” This question bleeds into “When did you start making music/who are your inspirations?” etc.
When I was 14, I was a huge fan of Avril Lavigne… I was the ultimate fan. I used to wear the mesh armbands and the black nail polish. [Her album] Let Go is actually incredible. She was, what, 16 when she released that? I think that was a huge part of my inspiration, but I don’t think there was ever a single monumental moment where I was like, “This is what I wanna do with my life,” because I think that happened organically. I’m a pretty big fan of No Doubt, as well. But I think the first CDs I ever owned were Britney Spears’ Oops!… I Did It Again and The Offspring. I inherited that one from my brother [laughs].
This may be a bit of a trite question in 2017 – but hopefully you understand what I’m getting at, because I think it’s still a relevant conversation to be had. Do you think your perceived gender (i.e. people look at you and think “that’s a woman”) impacts how audiences listen to and interpret your music and/or you as an artist?
Hm, that’s a really interesting question. I believe so. One of the things I try to do as a female artist is to write music that is unpredictable or kind of atonal, especially in the newer stuff I’ve been doing. It’s a little edgier. I find oftentimes that, especially in the realm of guitar music, audiences expect less complexity in terms of composition, and that really bothers me. Someone at a show recently brought it up, and said they really admired women making complex guitar music. And to be honest, it kinda sucks that still even needs to be said. So, it’s kind of a way to debunk the myth that women and non-men have to play soft or vulnerable music. I mean, in a lot of ways, my music is sensitive [to an extent], but, like I said, I’m trying to do something different that expresses a world that exists outside of male-fronted music. I have another band, Rose Bush, and when we were forming we were like, we don’t want to be a “cute femme punk” band… We want to make music that is powerful, impactful and that combats negative notions about non-men in music.
On a similar note, do you think your gender identity inherently impacts the work that you produce and/or how you navigate the music world? If so, in what ways does it manifest itself?
Yes, I think so. I feel incredibly privileged to be a part of the community of women and non-males in music, because I do feel that there is a strong movement for us happening in the scene right now, even though it comes with certain battles. Like, I recently went guitar shopping with a male friend, and the store owner was asking questions and was shocked when he found out he guitar was for me… In situations like that, I could take offense, or I could be like “Yeah it is for me, now look how good I am at playing guitar.” Like, women, femmes and non-males are really fucking good at this, and there is a whole load of them doing amazing things right now. I feel really inspired being a part of that community.
I love that mindset, and I love the confidence. When did you start playing guitar?
My dad gave me my first lesson when I was 13, and I got my own guitar when I was 16. I’m turning 25 now, so… 9 years? 12 years? [laughs] Quite a while.
I think it’s fair to say that the music scene has improved [recently] in terms of gender inclusivity, but there is still plenty of progress to be made. How do you think the scene can work to displace the emphasis on cis-men and evolve into a more welcoming space for everyone?
I think a crucial step is for promoters to be hyper aware of lineups that they’re putting on. I think it is really easy to say, “I know this band, and this band, and this band and they should all be on this bill together.” And, oftentimes, they do that without inspecting the demographics of each band, and as a result, bills are oftentimes made-up entirely of cis-gendered, white males. My other band [Rose Bush] has started to vow that anytime we do a show, there must be diversity in the bill. We want to see intersectionality: different sexualities, genders, races, etc. And, you know, sometimes that might also include bands with white males in them. That’ll happen. I don’t think the answer is trying to totally gate them, either; I just think the focus should be displaced.
Similarly, bills and festivals need to look at lineups and think critically about who belongs to them and what voices they choose to amplify. There needs to be a change in thought – I guess that’s the main thing. I think there is this widespread assumption that diverse artists are hard to find, or that they hardly exist, and that is perpetuating this vicious cycle. Like, these artists don’t make themselves known because there isn’t space for them. So, the first step is carving out that space and saying, “This show is for you.” That’s a way to encourage them – that’s a good place to start.
Stream “If After All” by Common Holly here, and be sure to download Playing House via Bandcamp on Sept. 25th.
Images via Common Holly/Bandcamp
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