Holly Arrowsmith, with Arahi

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6 September 2018, Common Room
By Bridie Freeman

It’s not often that a support act has the entire seated audience enthralled. There’s barely a whisper, no one’s ordering drinks, as Arahi stands at the microphone with his acoustic guitar, tweed jacket, jeans, looking out across the audience with solomn dark eyes. We’re held by his beautiful voice and his soft, restrained presence as he sings mournfully of love that’s gonna tear him apart, and  – “it’s not going to get any better”, he wryly warns – how he “wouldn’t mind a hanging”.

It may seem a bit odd to insist how blissful this is. How the room, warm and full, with a mix of hip young folk and kirtan singers among the Common Room regulars and a great turn out of silver hair,  palpably mellows under the spell of these tunes. We sink into our chairs like we’re being gifted an aural massage that lifts the weight of the world from our shoulders.

Arahi’s been likened to a young Dylan, but I can’t help thinking of Ben Harper – there’s depth and expansiveness in his voice, both clarity and gentleness, with a soft gravel edge that reveals that crack in the light; our all-too humanness shining through.

Arahi quietly mentions his single, ‘The Purpose of This Man’, will be released on Spotify on 22 September, “if you like that sort of thing”, as he kick off his national tour, right here in Common Room – it’s the most he’ll concede to promotion. So, just to shout out: he’s great and he’s ours and we should all go.

***

Holly Arrowsmith (from Arrowtown) is one of New Zealand’s current folk darlings, on the last leg of a national tour to promote her ‘sophomore’ album, A Dawn I Remember. She’s joined by local man Phil Jones – on Cajon drums, banjo-like strings, and tender backing vocals.

Holly has roots and yarns to back her music’s Americana, alt-country tenor. Born in Santa Fe, New Mexico, she spent her first four years running around her grandfather’s antique shop, Arrowsmith’s Relics of the Old West, she tells us, before moving to her mother’s homeland and the mountains and lakes around Queenstown. These infuse her folk with a curious meld of flavours.  Nature is solace, the simple life, longing, timeless observations astutely rendered.

In a blue linen jumpsuit, plain, parted hair, her eyes turned patiently towards the ceiling, Holly channels the spirit of ‘60s folk singers, a fervent, stripped-back simplicity, and an endearing honesty that doesn’t always work in her favour. When she tells us she drinks peppermint tea before gigs and goes to sleep after, by way of introduction to a Jenny Lewis song on taking acid, the song has lost its traction before it’s even begun; all we hear between the lines is her wholesomeness. Likewise while she does a pretty good rendition of Joni Mitchell’s ‘The Last Time I saw Richard’, I’m too consumed by comparison, trying to hear out for Joni, that Holly becomes a thinner version here rather than herself.

The comparison, oft-made, to Joni Mitchell is a fair one – Holly’s songs have a kinship in their meandering, meditative, often whimsical quality, less traditionally structured, their narrative thread. As Wallace Chapman points out, they “kind of follow the wind”. But where I’m blown away, is where Holly shifts off the sway of her roots and influences, to delve into her NZ home experiences. Suffused by the landscape and the language of here and the deeply personal, these songs feel like an authentic Kiwi folk, and their freshness and resonance is utterly compelling.

Through watching a stranger silently crying beside her as the plane leaves Queenstown, Holly expresses her own grief at leaving the lakes and rivers she loves so much but can no longer afford to live beside, in ‘Crying Woman’.  “Oh to get a little release you got to let a little sorrow go… sometimes it feels good to cry, standing on your own.” I feel that ache of recognition, along with the wry nod to our Kiwi way of coping, “you pull yourself together”.

Other highlights include ‘Every Kingdom’, with its beautiful, elemental lyrics (“If I could be water that’s what I’d be / stretch my arms out to reach both shores beyond me”) and rippling, stairlike descent of strings (the fitting baroque courtlike feel, I realise after, is down to Phil’s bağlama accompaniment). And I loved this live version of ‘Farewell’.

“Thanks for being so nice,” Holly tells us, and I hope it’s not just to reassure herself. I’m almost a bit embarrassed by how quiet we are, how we barely rouse ourselves to respond to any of the questions she puts to the audience. I hope she knows it’s because we are listening attentively, and that we’re so comfortable and aurally caressed, that our silence is actually like the purring of a cat.

She has shown us exactly why we should be braving the wet, cold world midweek to come out and listen to live music. How the fullness of music performed intimately, live, is a far richer experience than the recorded version. To stream folk is to miss the anecdotes, the funny awkward moments, the warmth of sitting in quiet communion with others, the opportunity to sing along.

There’s a congregation feel to the night that leaves me with an abiding sense of goodness, a feeling of having been washed clean, as if Holly really has taken us “down to the river to pray”.

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