New Zealand is presently enjoying a strong crop of female singer-songwriters. Along with Hollie Fullbrook of Tiny Ruins, we also have the weirdness of Aldous Harding and the imagery-laden writing of Nadia Reid. Pop superstar Lorde isn’t a singer-songwriter but shares the introspection of her contemporaries.
Hollie Fullbrook was born in England, but emigrated to New Zealand as a 10-year-old. Songwriting began as therapy for Fullbrook, a way of coping with her sudden disconnection from friends on the other side of the world. Since 2010, Fullbrook has recorded as Tiny Ruins, firstly an alias and then as a band. The name came while reading Jean-Paul Sartre’s novel Nausea, “waking up to fresh ruins”. While reading Sartre, she was listening to 1940s band leader Tiny Bradshaw, and she combined the two to create her stage name.
“But I used to be paying attention to music wherever I heard it. I really loved Tanita Tikaram. In fact when my mum asked me what I wanted to be when I was about three, I said, ‘A singer like Tanita Tikaram.’ Her record I used to listen to repeatedly.”https://www.elsewhere.co.nz/absoluteelsewhere/4215/tiny-ruins-interviewed-2011-some-were-meant-for-greatness/
Fullbrook quit law school with six months to go in her degree, to pursue music. A few open mic nights later, she found herself reviewing her debut. She’s only improved with experience, becoming more sophisticated. As well as the below albums, she’s also recorded a song with director David Lynch, who’s a well-known admirer of Fullbrook, and an EP with the late Clean drummer, Hamish Kilgour.
Tiny Ruins Album Reviews
Some Were Meant For Sea | Brightly Painted One | Olympic Girls | Ceremony
Some Were Meant For Sea
Fullbrook’s first album is sparse and gentle. It was recorded at the Moyarra School Hall and the Jumbunna General Store, South Gippsland, Australia. There’s no rhythm section, and Fullbrook’s voice and guitar picking are only occasionally accompanied by piano or cello. Fullbrook was influenced by singer-songwriters like Cat Stevens and Nick Drake, but also drew on Tom Waits for this record – the imperfect piano sound was inspired by Waits’ work.
Fullbrook’s honed her craft with age, as her songwriting and arrangements have become more sophisticated. Yet, she’s already impressive here. She has a decided literary bent, referencing Steinbeck (“At night she read Cannery Row”). The piano-based tracks like ‘Pigeon Knows’ provide some welcome variation in timbre, even though Fullbrook’s piano playing is much more primitive than her guitar work.
I prefer Fullbrook’s later and more ornate work, but if you enjoy her at her most pure and unadorned, you’ll probably love this one.
Brightly Painted One
There are more musicians credited on Tiny Ruins’ second album, with a rhythm section and horns sometimes joining Fullbrook. But it’s very much focused on Fullbrook’s voice and guitar picking, not unlike the delicate beauty of Nick Drake. It’s a step forward, but as with the debut, if I want to listen to Tiny Ruins, I generally reach for the fuller arrangements of their later records.
Often the tracks that depart furthest from the hushed sound are the most memorable. On ‘Straw Into Gold’, the horns push a little more energy out of Fullbrook’s voice. ‘She’ll Be Coming ’round’ is a little bluesy, with the building percussion at the end uncharacteristically climactic for early Tiny Ruins. The opener ‘Me at the Museum You at the Wintergardens’ is also memorable – the bridge “Nobody feels old at the Museum/Nobody feels cold in the Wintergardens” is one of Fullbrook’s most memorable couplets.
I appreciate the craft on display on Tiny Ruins’ early records but find her subsequent records easier to embrace.
Tiny Ruins’ gentle folk rock suits Fullbrook’s pure voice. She cites 1960s influences like Pentangle, Love, and early Jethro Tull. While the dominant instrumentation is the interweaving guitar picking, textures like Mellotron, Hammond organ, and vibraphone also recall the 1960s.
Olympic Girls introduces new musical elements for Fullbrook. Second guitarist Tom Healy adds another layer to their sound, while lead single ‘How Much’ features a surprisingly chunky bass tone and solo. But the focus is squarely on Fullbrook’s ethereal vocals and delicate melodies. Olympic Girls can feel frustratingly subtle and restrained at times, but it’s a gorgeous record that’s worth spending time unpacking.
Fullbrook has talked about how all of her lyrics are personal. It might seem far-fetched that this verse from the standout track ‘Holograms’ relates to her own experiences:
I saw the grim reaper
And I gave him the slip
Saved by a Darth Vader novelty helmet
But how will I find you again
When all I’m seeing are stars?
It turns out that it’s a true story; Fullbrook has spoken in interviews about a 2011 incident in Zanzibar. She crashed a motorbike in a rainforest, while wearing a Darth Vader novelty helmet, breaking three bones.
Olympic Girls is beautiful and beguiling. With its gentle dynamics, a lot of its appeal comes from Fullbrook’s storytelling and pretty vocals, but it’s nice to be enveloped in its warm embrace.
New Zealand singer-songwriter Hollie Fullbrook has worked at her craft with each new release. Her previous album, Olympic Girls, was strong, augmenting her music with a gentle psychedelic swirl. On Ceremony, she sounds cleaner and crisper than before, while her songwriting’s sharper. In an interview with Brooklyn Vegan, she mentions the Big Thief song ‘Cattails’ as an influence on the record, as well as J.J. Cale and Van Morrison.
The inspiration for Ceremony largely came from the period when the band were finishing off Olympic Girls, way back in late 2016. During that time she fell pregnant. She moved with her partner to Titirangi, an area on Auckland’s western fringes blessed with forest and harbour. She lost the baby to a miscarriage at 19 weeks, Some of the lyrics for Ceremony originated as poetry from that time, dealing with the grief of loss and the wonder of nature. It took a long time for the songs to emerge – Fullbrook toured Olympic Girls around the world until halted by the COVID pandemic. She’d put her grief on hold while she was busy touring, but back in New Zealand she put her lyrics to music. Songs like ‘Diving and Soaring’ reflect her loss.
Pools glistened all too bright
And I thought of you
And the following day
And the following night
Ceremony was completed in 2022 but held back while Fullbrook gave birth to her first child. Some of the most upbeat and memorable material was written later – Fullbrook’s family gained two dogs after returning to New Zealand, and they feature in ‘Dorothy Bay’ and ‘Dogs Dreaming’.
There’s a contrast between the joy of the later songs, and the guarded beauty of the songs written earlier. The record’s largely inspired by nature – it’s more acoustic, but it’s reminiscent of Cassandra Jenkins’ An Overview on Phenomenal Nature. She’s ably supported by a sympathetic band, who add colour without being overbearing – guitarist Tom Healy owns a studio and produces, adding gentle leads, while Cass Basil plays bass, and also provides harmonies.
Fullbrook has improved with every release to date, and Ceremony is her best record yet.
10 Best Tiny Ruins Songs
Kore Waits in the Underworld
She’ll Be Coming ’round
My Love Leda
Out of Phase
Me at the Museum You at the Wintergardens
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