In Conversation With… Holly Shillito

Words and photography by Sian Irvine

This week, UV sits down with rising star and old friend Holly Shillito, to talk everything from chasing dreams, to making music, to snogging Nu Metal boys outside Reading train station.

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UV: Hello!

HS: Hello!

So for those who don’t know you, could you tell us a little about yourself?

Yeah… yeah, I was thinking about this yesterday… because sometimes when I introduce myself to people and they say ‘what do you do?’, I’m like… aaaah… coz that’s the thing isn’t it, when someone introduces themselves, they say their name and what they do for a living… like, that really defines you, and sometimes I don’t want to do that- but actually, I think what I do does sort of define me as a person, unlike a lot of people. A lot of people don’t work a job which represents them as a person, but I think all of my jobs do! (laughs)

So what are your jobs?

So, I’m a hairdresser, and I am a housesitter/animal nanny

(laughs) so for context we are sat here right now, we have two sphinx cats, one on each of our laps, and Presley dog chewing on my hand and they are lovely….and it’s a lovely setting for the interview. So… okay… anything else?

Yes! I’m a musician/artiste… and a first aider, now! So those are my money earning jobs.

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Do you have a favourite?

Oooh….. I think the animal stuff, you know, is my favourite. Because it’s like an extended family. And I never feel like I’m on my own- a lot of the time people say to me, ‘don’t you think its weird? Sleeping in other people’s houses on your own’ and I’m like ‘no! because I’m not on my own! The whole point of me being here is that I’m here with the animals… and although they’re not people… they are really. They’re just people in furry skin!

Little beings.

Yeah! But yeah I think it is my favourite. I like them all in different ways. I like the music now its stopped being terrifying, and its starting to feel more natural. And I like the hairdressing because it’s creative, and it’s a really nice way of caring for people in a way that I didn’t really appreciate when I first started doing it. It’s really nice making people feel good about themselves, and just chatting to them at the same time. Its like hairdressing and therapy at the same time.

You talk a lot about your love of creating music, and how it’s a lifelong dream that you’ve only recently begun to chase. Can you tell us a bit more about that?

I would say, literally, my whole life, music has been the main vein running through it, because both of my parents- both dad and mum- are really musical. My earliest memory, like my earliest proper obsession, was with the Spice Girls. Take That as well…. I mean, actually….probably New Kids on the Block were a bit more… but Spice Girls were the first band I properly, fully gave myself to. My room was plastered with Spice Girls posters, I used to record them off the TV… inside, I WAS Mel B!

I was the same! Everyone always tried to pigeonhole me as Baby Spice, but I knew inside I was Scary Spice.

Always! And did you have rival Spice Girls groups?

Oh god yeah.

And sing in the playground…

And swap Spice Girls photos…

I’ve still got the complete set! I feel like it’s going to be worth money one day. But yeah, I swear Mel B was my….. I was going to say ‘spirit animal’ but she’s a human…in our Spice Girls group I WAS Scary Spice, I had such bad hair envy of her. I also used to love watching Smash Hits award party, again I used to record all of that, the chart show on a Sunday, going to town on the bus to get stuff from Woolworths with my pocket money…

This is such a tangent but me and Matt were talking last night, he was asking me is there any songs I don’t like because it reminds me of a bad memory?

I would be hard pushed to think of that without actually hearing the song.

Well yeah, exactly. I actually landed on Fleetwood Mac- Don’t Stop, even though I love Fleetwood Mac…

I actually don’t love Fleetwood Mac!

Really?! That’s so controversial… especially because I definitely remember being at your house and playing a lot of Fleetwood Mac.

(laughs) well yeah, but everyone loves them right? I’m just not fussed. I’m really not fussed. I love Stevie Nick’s style, but that’s as far as it goes. Maybe a few songs, but I could definitely leave Fleetwood Mac.

See I’ve got such happy memories surrounding Fleetwood Mac, but I’d always skip Don’t Stop because I thought it was so cheesy, but when we were younger you’d go out and buy a single, and if you liked the single you’d buy the album… so I get that they’d release the most popular song to get people to buy the album, but I still hate it. But anyway! So music was your lifelong dream…

Yeah, my dad was always playing guitar and bass around the house, my parents kind of spoke to each other in music, so that became my love language too… always making mixtapes and CDs for boys… I used to watch interviews with bands, or on TV watching X Factor and all that crap, and people would say ‘this has been my dream forever!’ and I always thought- that’s how I feel, but I don’t really want to tell anybody! It didn’t feel like a viable career. It wasn’t a ‘sensible’ thing to do so I didn’t want to do it. And also, it’s very exposing, isn’t it- I remember winning a talent contest on the school trip, I must have been in year 4… and I can’t even remember what my earliest memory is, but I seem to recall singing The Fugees version of Killin’ Me Softly…

Nice! Great choice.

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It was the first single I ever bought with my own pocket money, I went to Woolworths to buy it, but accidentally bought the B-side, got it home, put it on and was like ‘what the fuck?!’ and I remember having to wait until the next weekend to go back and get the one I wanted. But, I won the talent contest, and I remember thinking ‘this is a cool feeling’… I guess I’ve always been around it, my friends were in bands, my dad worked in the music industry so I’ve been going to gigs and festivals since I was tiny… and when me and Fran started our hair and makeup business, it was the obvious direction to go in. And- have you ever read ‘The Artists Way’?

No- sounds like I should…

It’s amazing. Amazing! It’s like a self-rediscovery/art therapy course.

That sounds amazing.

It is amazing. So you have to get a blank notepad and you have to write morning pages every morning before you do anything else. It’s to get you back in touch with the person who is underneath what society has put on top of you. You have to go on a personal Artist’s Day every week and you do something that is just for you, whether it be going for a walk, or sitting in a coffee shop and people watching… I cannot recommend it highly enough, I think it was the final push to me doing music, because it really gets you back to what makes you happy, before anyone else tried to change your mind. And that’s also what really solidified my affirmations… I used to do them in the evening to clear my head before going to bed, but it was really interesting to flip that on its head and do it in the mornings. I think that’s a really good way to start the day. Sometimes I write in the evening as well.

Do you write songs in the evening as well? Or in the morning?

Ummm… I write songs during the day. I’m not a late-night person, really.

No I’m not, really.

I often get ideas just as I’m falling asleep, or just as I’m waking up… sometimes while I’m asleep, but remembering them once I’m awake is difficult. But the book, The Artists’ Way, connected me back with the childhood self that wanted to do all the music stuff. The author says in the book, that the artists’ child in you will surround yourself with the things you want to be doing, but the cynic in you tells you you can’t do them. And that’s basically what I’ve done all my life. All my friends are in bands, my dads in the music industry, we did hair and makeup for people in the music industry, but really all I wanted was to be in the music industry myself. Doing music, rather than being behind the scenes. You think you can fill the gap just by being around it, but that’s never going to happen.

I imagine that just makes it harder doesn’t it?

Yeah, well, sort of. I’m kind of glad it’s happening in my 30s… I don’t think I’ve ever been doing hair and makeup and was thinking ‘I wish I was in your seat right now’… it’s not really the press side of it I wanted to do, it was more the creative, the gigs… I think the changing moment for me was being stood at the side of the stage at Reading Festival and the Darkness were on stage, just as they were exploding, and my dad was doing monitors at the time. So he was stood at the side of the stage doing sound there, and it was just after ‘I believe in a thing called love’ had come out, they were meant to be playing really early in the day but they got bumped up to just before sunset. As far back as my eyes could see, people were clapping and I just thought ‘that is the coolest thing I’ve ever seen in my life. I’ve always just wanted to be in it… no matter how big the crowd is, I’ve always been very humble with my goals, but a small room full of people singing my words back to me is an ultimate goal, and has been ever since that moment.

That’s amazing, I like that. 

I played a little acoustic gig two weeks ago, and there were people in there… they were all musical people, and the whole idea was at the end of the night there would be an open jam, so everyone in there was musical in some way, and the girl who put it on was playing the Cajon for a few of my songs, and I played ‘The Lake’, and people were singing along with it even though they had never heard it… so that was cool, because its quite repetitive and goes on for quite a while, people can pick it up, and what was really interesting is that some people were singing harmonies, and those were the harmonies that I sing in recorded songs, so I was thinking that was cool that what has come out of me is what is natural to hear. I came out of that thinking that was really cool… so it will be interesting to see what happens when the EP comes out. And, the thing that I’ve enjoyed the most about doing this simultaneously to the house sits is that often after gigs, I’ll come back and be on my own- there’s no one to burst my bubble, no one that I have to explain to what just happened, I don’t have to replay it to anyone- I just sit in my bubble with the animals like ‘i just played a gig!’. So I guess its been a long time coming-

Yeah it sounds it

And that’s why it feels so nice.

So what genre of music would you classify yourself as? 

…Folk, and I don’t know why. I don’t know why it’s coming out folky, because I don’t listen to folk music. actually- people ask me this a lot, and before I recorded with jack (twiner, of pyramid recording studios) I wasn’t sure. I’ve only really found my sound recently from recording, because when it’s just me and my guitar I don’t know what the songs are, because there aren’t any other instruments with them I think its difficult to fit them into a genre. so I’ve recorded with two people, I recorded with my friend ben as well, who did the strings on the EP, and when I first went to him he actually recorded me for the first time- it was the first time I had sung in front of anybody, probably about 6 years ago… I was terrified. I don’t even know if that recording is still around, or if he’s still got it, but I sound a bit like Belinda Carlisle

I love Belinda Carlisle. 

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yeah, I sort of sound all shaky, because I was so scared… but it was a really nice process, it was one of the first whole songs I had ever written, and it was really interesting hearing peoples feedback then, because the way he builds songs is different to the way I build songs, he often doesn’t hear the whole thing, he’ll add sounds in layers, so its quite easy for it to get quite big quite quickly. Someone said I sounded like Dolores from the cranberries when I showed them that… which I thought was quite cool.

I was gonna say, these are a lot of very cool people that you’re being compared to!

Yeah! so I went to him again and i said, ‘so I have all of these songs now, and I want to record them, and some of them are really sad and I know you’ll be able to do the string thing with it, so lets just see what happens when you build stuff around it because I don’t really know what I want to sound like’, and the first time we did it, it was huge, he put in all these strings and synths and it was really cool, and I played it to my mum, dad, sister and a few close friends…and they all said it’s nice, but it’s not really you – because it was so far away from just me and my guitar. so if we had gone that way with the sound, I don’t think it would have been folk music- but I’m not sure what it would have been. synth-y pop I suppose. but the more strip back we seem to be keeping it, the more people say its quite folky…

It seems quite authentic to you as well. 

Yeah. And yeah- it’s funny, because I don’t write anything with a particular genre in mind… the whole writing music process… I don’t sit down and think I want it to sound a particular way. I often have a person in mind, or an idea, but I won’t be referencing a particular song… although now I have started writing songs and I start thinking, it would be cool to take the structure of this song, and write my own lyrics over it, just as a process to see what happens. But all of the songs that are on the EP are folky pop, I think, and it’s funny because I don’t think any of my influences are pop.

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That’s the next question- what genres inspire you?

That’s a great question, because it’s so vast!

Not Fleetwood Mac.

No, not Fleetwood Mac. my first thought when anyone asks me that question is Radiohead, but not the newer stuff, like… OK Computer, The Bends.

The Bends! I was going to say The Bends. 

Growing up, I think the reason why the folk pop thing comes out is because my dad used to play a lot of things like Eddie Reader, and KD Lang, and Del Amitri that my parents used to listen to all the time. They’ve all got accordions in!

Yes!! They do!! My mum loves KD Lang, ‘Constant Craving’ is her favourite song. 

Yeah, and they’re all kind of like, singer-songwriter, folk pop. and it was probably around the time where it was all going in without me realising, and then once I became a teenager I was emo as fuck… but I don’t know if that influences my music? I guess it probably does, I’ve definitely always been into songs that make me feel… if I cant feel it I don’t want to listen to it. even dance music, it has to be emotive, otherwise I’m not into it- and my sister would totally agree, I really like sad music. Which is funny even now… it’s funny now I’m not sad, I relate to them in a very different way. I used to listen to them because I liked moping, but now I listen because they are beautiful. I think influences are a really difficult one to pinpoint, because I think its more down to particular songs rather than artists, but Radiohead is the resounding one because that was the first band that made me think ‘wow, musically this is so beautiful’, and I think before that I liked music but I didn’t appreciate it for its musicality.

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Your songs have a very uplifting, self-love feel to them which we love- how has your journey influenced this?

In my newer stuff, I think its because I’m happier. I basically used to only write songs about boys, or how boys made me feel. my first song ever was about a guy from school who was my first ‘boyfriend’, I met him at a party and he had dredlocs- at this point I was into Nu Metal…

Oh okay- like Jonathan Davis, 

Yeah! Brandon Boyd. and no one ever really showed an interest in me at school, I was just friends with everyone, I didn’t kiss anyone until I was 15 which- now, I’m like ‘that’s still so young’ but at the time I was one of the last people. anyway, I met him at a party, and it was the first time I can ever remember being ‘chatted up’, although I didn’t realise it was happening until we had to leave and he walked me back to the car, and I was like ‘ooooh…. I think I see what’s happening here!’ Anyway, he went to Chiltern Edge and I went to Gillott’s, and we used to meet up at Reading Station every weekend and just snog and then go home.

(laughs)

I was obsessed with him, he was the year above me and I found out from my friends at Chiltern Edge that he was the guy that everyone fancied… but then he stopped texting me back, I didn’t hear from him for like a week so I texted him asking if everything was okay and he said ‘no sorry, I’ve met someone else’ and I was gutted… so the first song I ever wrote was about him, and it was called ‘Kissing You’, I’ve got it somewhere at home. when I say song it wasn’t really a song, more of a poem, but I remember it was all romantic and about what it felt like kissing him. And you know at the end of Robbie William’s ‘No Regrets’ it goes ‘…now DEAD.’ and just stops?

No!?

It’s like a spoken word bit at the end, talking about the love they once had, but then the song just cuts… and I got inspiration from that, and at the end I wrote ‘thats now DEAD’ and it was a super dramatic big ending that I imagined in my head. so I think all of my songs back then, or poems, were always about heartbreak, or unrequited love, and then my first boyfriend cheated on me, and that changed who I was for the rest of my life, so I spent ten years soul searching and finding out who I was underneath that… and I didn’t realise that was what I was doing until it came to a conclusion. and then after that, I didn’t respect myself- I thought if he was going to do it, anyone could do it, I thought someone would just fall in love with me but no one did because I didn’t love myself. so I started doing yoga, and that opened a door to a whole new way of life, the affirmations and things, and it wasn’t really until I went travelling to Costa Rica 2 years ago did i realise how much of that I was still carrying around with me, and how the long-lasting effect of him cheating on me changed who I was around other people. and going to Costa Rica I met this guy who changed my life, who ‘Illuminate’ is about. Meeting him, helped me shut the door on my old self and open the door to my new self, and re-learn how to be me and not worry about what other people think… and I suppose that is a lot to do with growing up, I was 30 then… on the airplane on the way home, I don’t know if it was being in the sky and being closer to different energies, or because I had no WiFi, or if it was because I opened this new channel in my brain… id never had anything like it, I got about 7 different notes on my phone, I got all these song ideas shooting at me like lightening bolts, and when I got back I thought ‘i don’t want to write sad songs any more’, because I wasn’t sad any more so I didn’t want to write about how much I didn’t like myself or how other people had hurt me…I wanted to portray how he helped me. he was the final catalyst, amongst other self help things, I really feel like he was an angel and we were delivered to each other at that point in our lives, and I really wanted to write about how he changed everything- or just how he showed me a spiritual mirror, and I could see myself in a different way, and that’s what ‘illuminate’ is about. and what’s weird about that is I wouldn’t want him around all the time. I had the strongest and most instant connection with him that id eve had with anyone in my life… but I don’t need him. I really feel we were just supposed to be together for this 8 day period, give each other the gift then get on with our lives.

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when did you first fall in love with music? 

its a really difficult one to answer because I don’t know if there is a definitive moment… like when I was with my ex, there wasn’t a definitive moment that I realised I loved him. And I guess with music its kind of the same thing, its like a falling in love process rather than one moment. Maybe I was just born into it, it was always around. my dad was always playing guitar- I played a gig the other day and after he had helped me set up he said ‘pass me that guitar’ and we just played… if ever there is a guitar around, he’s playing it.

My dad is the same. 

Yeah, its what my dad does. and one thing thats really nice about the open mic thing is that its sort of re-opened that door for him… his dream has always been to be a rock star. and then I happened… so he put that on hold, and got back into it by being a sound engineer. so like i did, he filled that hole by being around it and not in it, and I think he has always wanted to get back into it, and when I started doing open mic nights so did he, so through that he’s met a guy called Harry Quinn who he now plays with all the time, he’s played bass on one of the Darkness’ tracks, so seeing me doing it kind of made him do it too, and that’s been really nice to see in him as well. The whole time I’ve been documenting it just to be like… whatever it is you’re scared of doing, just fucking do it, because I’ve been waiting all this time, all my life I’ve been putting it off. and in some sense I think that’s why it feels so good now, because I put it off for so long.

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Is there any one musician or band in particular that have particularly influenced your journey in music? 

Apart from Radiohead… New Found Glory are a big one, they were the first band that I got into at school, I was about 15, I remember listening to them on my CD walkman with my headphone up the sleeve in the school library… we have this conversation a lot when we have parties, you know you pass the phone round and everyone picks a song… I often ask people to put on a song which defines them as a person… a song you love because YOU love it, not for anyone else, but just you. The song that is really yours.

What’s yours?

New Found Glory – Dressed to Kill. It’s a proper pop punk, emo anthem. pop punk was really my first step into my music passion. the first two albums I asked for when I was young was Californiacation, by the Red Hot Chili Peppers, and There is Nothing Left to Lose by the Foo Fighters. Apparently, the first album I ever asked for, although I don’t remember this, was Def Leppard. My auntie got it for me for Christmas. so I’d say that getting into music and pop punk and nu metal, was the first step into ‘this is who I want to be’. so New Found Glory are a huge artist influence, although that doesn’t come out in the sound. and also incubus! I still love them to this day. I rarely find bands these days that I love as much as I did back then. I’m trying to think of something that deviates from the genre a bit… it used to be really genre specific but now it’s so much more fluid, you don’t have to buy a whole album anymore. I was thinking this the other day about songs I could cover… Starsailor, weirdly, they were like an indie band…

You said Starsailor and I thought of Ash- they’re quite similar aren’t they? 

Yeah. Starsailor had a song called ‘alcoholic’…’don’t you know you got your daddy’s eyes, daddy was an alcoholic’. they had a strong influence on me. I grew up listening to Michael Jackson a lot. but I don’t think I have a musical idol. pretty much everything in my life I have a favourite, but in music it’s the opposite, I don’t have a favourite.

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Yeah… I couldn’t pick out my favourite song, or my favourite band. I feel like I used to think I could, but that was when it was more fixed… for me it was grunge. so it was pearl jam, nirvana. but now, still a lot of pearl jam, but I also love hip hop, I also love RnB, I also love folk music. 

Justin Timberlake! I went to see him when I was 16. I was amazed by the performance.

wow- even back then?

yeah. it was mega. maroon 5 as well actually. songs about jane.

I loved ‘she will be loved’.

That whole album, I think is perfect. musically it’s great. I was big into boy bands, before it was uncool… Nsync, backstreet boys… I can’t think of any more right now.

Would you consider yourself a feminist?

Yes. and I think everybody is. even my male friends. its such a prominent part of society now. I definitely am. and I would say a lot of female musicians would probably say the same thing, because the music industry is such a male dominated industry… a lot of women feel like they get singled out, or taken the piss out of… I remember my dad saying to me years ago, because of my hearing, that id make a really good sound engineer, and you rarely get female sound engineers. a lot of women feel comfortable around women, in situations that would normally be male dominated. when you get an all female shoot for instance, it’s so different to when you have males involved. and I think we are at a point now where women are being taken more seriously. I think it’s impossible not to be a feminist now- you’d look like a moron. I find it hard to believe that anyone isn’t. there are definitely some people that aren’t, but they really stick out, they seem so archaic. so yes, I would.

What advice would you have for anyone wanting to chase a lifelong dream? 

Fucking do it! (laughs) I think if it’s a lifelong dream, it’s going to come and smack you in the face. it will just snowball behind you until it rolls you over. I feel that’s what happened to me. like a little whisper that turns into a scream and shout, and if you’ve been ignoring it, it feels even more amazing when you do it. doing the first open mic night… I was so scared, I talked myself in and out of it so many times, and all my friends who performed said ‘just do it’, and now… now I don’t know why I waited so long. I’ve played gigs where I’ve fluffed the words, I’ve seen others do it and its endearing. I want to hear people who aren’t pitch-perfect or who aren’t what you’d expect from a performer, I love the relatability, I love watching someone do what they love and express themselves. and thats the magic of it. Also, I have a habit of not finishing things… I have half finished paintings, half sewn clothes, unfinished knitting under my bed… I think the reason I never finished anything is because I wasn’t doing the thing I truly wanted to do. and now I am doing it… I’ve finally seen it through.

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Full circle. 

Yeah- exactly.

and finally – is there anything you’d like to plug? 

(laughs) yes! The EP!

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Holly’s single ‘The Lake’ is available now on streaming platforms, and her EP will be released in Winter 2019. You can find her on Instagram @hollyshillitomusic

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