Timeless is its own genre. And that’s exactly the type of music Nicky Holland creates. Serene melodies breathed into being by a velvet voice, Holland’s intoxicating tonal soundscapes are strikingly beautiful and remarkably intimate.
Today, Nicky is releasing a digital-only retrospective from her Epic Records catalog. Nobody’s Girl (Legacy Recordings) is comprised of 13 essential tracks that Holland hand-picked for the new album.
“You know, choosing the songs wasn’t as difficult as I thought it was going to be,” Nicky began. “They were the songs that I felt went together and best represented my body of work.”
Holland grew up in the English countryside, “literally in the middle of nowhere.” She went to school in London. In 1986, she was signed to Virgin Music Publishing by Richard Griffiths (BMG Entertainment, Virgin, Sony Music). Later, Richard signed Nicky to Epic Records where she recorded two albums with him. Over the years, she amassed an astounding amount of credits working with numerous artists such as Fun Boy Three, Tears for Fears, The Dream Academy, Modern English, Jill Sobule, Maddy Prior, Todd Rundgren, Alannah Myles, Rumer, Robbie Williams, Cyndi Lauper, and more. But her solo work, the two albums she recorded for Epic Records, Nicky Holland (1991) and Sense and Sensuality (1997), that is where you can best hear an artistry that is comparable to Carole King’s Tapestry.
Since then, people have been discovering Nicky on the Internet and reaching out to her, asking how they can get her music. About two years ago, Holland was in London and met up with Richard Griffiths.
“I had signed Tears for Fears publishing with their first album, and following the enormous worldwide success of those first two albums, Roland [Orzabal] was looking to freshen things up a bit for what became the Seeds of Love album,” Richard recalled. “He introduced me to Nicky and we immediately hit it off. I knew of her from her Fun Boy Three days.”
“I’ve always been a sucker for someone sitting there playing the piano and I knew from that first meeting I wanted to sign her.”
When Griffiths moved on from Virgin Music to run Epic Records in New York, Holland was one of the first artists he signed. “Nicky was a good balance to Pearl Jam and Rage [Against the Machine]! She wrote ‘Hat Full of Stars’ with Cyndi Lauper, which is probably my favourite Cyndi track. Just listen to ‘New York Inside My Head.’ I think it’s one of the great contemplative songs about New York. Nicky has an incredible sense of melody that when combined with atmospheric lyrics makes you want to cry.”
[In 2003, Richard founded Modest! Management with Harry Magee (BMG Records, Big Life Records, A&M). Modest! Management works with some of the biggest acts in the world such as One Direction, Little Mix, Olly Murs, Hey Violet, and more.]
“Richard told me, ‘Those albums we recorded should be out. I was listening to them the other day and they’re kind of timeless and I think they’d work now,'” Nicky related. “So I went back, copied them over to digital, and remixed a few of them. I wanted to give them a more contemporary sound, so I stripped back some of those ’80’s reverbs and delays and tried to make the focus on the vocals and the storytelling.”
“I worked with Derek Nakamoto (Herb Alpert, Kenny Loggins, The Jacksons, Teddy Pendergrass, David Cassidy, Michael Bolton) on Nobody’s Girl — I hadn’t worked with him in 25 years. I traveled to Los Angeles to work with him on this project. There were definitely things that I didn’t remember about recording those songs, but what surprised me the most was how much we both did remember. Music has a way of taking you right back to the spot you were at and, in many ways, it really felt like no time had passed at all.”
“I still recall the first demo I did with Nicky,” Derek reminisced. “It was the song ‘Independence Days,’ co-written with David Batteau. [The 2017 remix is included on Nobody’s Girl.] We recorded it in my home studio and the love and attention to detail Nicky put into her music struck me. It was brilliantly ‘musical!’ That vocal ended up being on the debut CD!”
“Nicky grew up with a proper music education as well as being surrounded by musical sensibilities that encouraged unique artistry,” Derek continued. “Be different, be unique! Write a great lyric! She sets a very high bar for herself in everything she does with attention and heart to every detail. Anyone fortunate to work with her is lifted to do their own best work! She made me want to do the best possible and I love that of her.”
“The goal in creating her first album was for the production to be classic: great songs, great arrangements performed by well casted musicians framing her smokey, beautiful, distinctive voice,” Derek recalled. “Revisiting the master tracks after 25 years, I expressed to Nicky that we absolutely had accomplished that. The songs and the arrangements are still relevant. It was a pleasure to mix and bring it’s nuances to the forefront with a modern clean approach.”
“The remixes we did for Nobody’s Girl were about changing the perspective,” Holland stated. “At heart, I’m an arranger and I feel that on my first album, a lot of the vocals were woven into the tapestry of the whole sound because that’s how we heard it. That’s how Hugh Padgham [Hugh mixed the album.] heard it, too. The new mix is more sparse, there’s less reverb, and I’m trying to bring it back to the story and the vocal.”
One of Nicky’s main goals as an artist is to connect with other people. “If you can sing a song that means something to you, but someone else can hear that song and it resonates with them, that’s something I’ve always wanted to do.”
To help accomplish that, Holland tries to keep the lyrics from being too definitive. Talking about “Independence Days,” she said, “I remember when David and I wrote the lyrics to that song, the first person I let hear it was my brother. He said, ‘Thank you so much for writing that song for me!’ That was the biggest compliment he could have ever given me. I think it’s great when people can find their own story in my songs.”
Initially, Holland was best known for her composing and arranging — her scores can be heard in John Hughes’ The Great Outdoors and She’s Having a Baby. She told Entertaining Options that in those early days, she could listen to a song and know every chord, but she didn’t really pay attention to what the lyrics were saying. It wasn’t until she was personally schooled by the greats — Lloyd Cole, Andy Partridge, Cyndi Lauper — via co-writing that she gradually assumed a larger role in the lyric writing responsibilities.
But people weren’t the only influence on Nicky’s creativity. When she moved to New York in 1988, the city had a profound impact on her.
“When I first moved to New York, I was feeling like a fish out of water,” she confessed. “I was experiencing the loneliness of being in a big city and not really knowing anybody. I grew up listening to a lot of American music, a lot of jazz and Steely Dan, so that music suddenly all made sense to me. New York is a wonderful place to live if you want to write.”
There’s a potent track that Holland included on Nobody’s Girl called “Ladykiller.” It sizzles with a cosmopolitan swagger that is purposely misleading.
“I wanted a juxtaposition in that track,” she explained. “Musically, it’s sort of a swinging ’60’s jazz/pop song, but the lyric from Lloyd Cole is actually quite gritty. I’d given him a line ‘fall out the stars,’ so we knew it was going to be something about lost innocence. He set it in the Bowery on the Lower East Side. It’s about a woman being lured into someone’s trap, but you wouldn’t necessarily catch that when listening to the song the first time around.”
Another track on Nobody’s Girl that was directly inspired by New York was “On the Stairs.” Nicky wrote all of the lyrics for that song. “I’ve never lived in an apartment building. I lived in a little walk-up in London, but not one of these buildings where there are 12 apartments on each floor. ‘On the Stairs’ is about being surrounded by people below, above, and on the sides of you, but you don’t know any of them.”
“On the Stairs” opens with a cycling set of chords that seems to suggest the passage of time. Gradually, it blossoms into a swirling wonderland of sound. The track shows not only how accomplished Nicky is as a composer and a lyricist, but also as an arranger and a vocalist, as well.
However, as mesmerizing as Holland’s voice is, these days she spends much of her time co-writing with other artists. One of those artists is Rebecca Roubion, a folk-infused indie-pop songwriter from Nashville via Mobile, Alabama. Rebecca has been compared to Norah Jones. The project is called Clementine.
Another artist Nicky collaborated with is Grammy Award winning Polina Goudieva, a captivating vocalist who is blazing a trail for herself in electronic music. Goudieva has worked with everyone from Eminem to Steve Aoki, Felix Jaehn, and Tiesto. Her most recent No. 1 is “Book of Love” with Felix Jaehn. Recently, Polina released a four-song EP under the moniker Contessa. [Listen on Spotify.]
“Nicky and I actually co-wrote two songs prior to ever meeting each other after a music producer friend introduced us via email,” Polina told Entertaining Options. “I immediately fell in love with her lyrics. She keeps on searching for the right words, going deep until she finds ones that convey an emotion 200%. Whether it’s sexual or deeply emotional, she’s not afraid to go there. It’s that certain level of truth that can’t be fabricated, which is what I too always strive for as an artist. So it’s only natural that I gravitated to her. I love her buttery, silky low voice.”
“On song three, I finally got to meet Nicky in person. I came to her New York Upper East Side apartment. She opened the door and I saw a statuesque, energetic, youthful, beautiful woman before me. There’s an air of confidence and strength about her. My favorite part of writing with Nicky is when she gets behind the piano with childlike vigor and starts singing out lines we’re writing in her reverberating voice that fills up the whole room. I would catch myself wanting to just sit back, listen, and learn.”
Nicky and Polina wrote Contessa’s latest single, “Coming In.” Nicky sent Polina a link to Stephen Hawking’s “Rocket to the Future” as inspiration for the song’s lyric video. The theme and imagery worked brilliantly as a metaphor for being apart from a loved one, as if drifting in isolated silence and vastness of space with worlds in between.
Besides her work with Polina and Rebecca, the aforementioned “New York Inside My Head,” which she co-wrote with Andy Partridge (XTC) 23 years ago, has been set to a video by the renowned German-born photographer/filmmaker Karsten Staiger. Additionally, Holland is considering the possibility of doing a few live performances to help celebrate the album.
Nicky Holland’s Nobody’s Girl is available starting today as a digital release on Legacy Recordings.
Nicky Holland: Facebook • Instagram • Twitter
Contessa (Polina Goudieva): Facebook • Instagram • Twitter
Rebecca Roubion: Facebook • Instagram • Twitter
Derek Nakamoto: website • Facebook
Modest! Management: Facebook • Twitter
Karsten Staiger: Facebook • Instagram