Jonathan Rimmer chats to Edinburgh-based experimentalist Law Holt about her new album, the EU referendum and being pigeonholed as an R&B singer
WHEN I’m chatting to Scotland-based songwriter Law Holt about genres she tells me something interesting: "I tend to get called an R&B or soul singer because I’m brown even though I listen to all sorts."
For all Scotland has become a more socially liberal nation over the years, our attitudes towards music and culture can still be quite static. Even on first listen, 'City', Holt’s upcoming debut LP, is a fascinating record that challenges listeners’ preconceptions at every turn.
It’s packed with sharp lyrics, eerie vocal techniques, trip hop beats and heavy, punk-inspired production. In fact, the only real comparison that could be made between Holt and classic soul/R&B singers is that she has a powerful and expressive voice that has a lot of range.
"People ask me about my influences and of course I love a lot of the old black soul singers because they were the best," says Holt. "Donnie Hathaway, Esther Phillips and Otis Redding – you need to listen to some of these guys to be any good.
"But I also love Tom Waits and indie bands like Pavement and Granddaddy; I love reggae, jazz and a lot of Brazilian carnival music. It’s all important because I want to use my voice in different ways to create different characters on a record."
If you had to compare ‘City’ to any mainstream R&B artist, you might draw a comparison with The Weeknd due to the moody, almost claustrophobic aesthetic that’s present throughout.
She says: "I’m glad you picked that up. As well as the whole album being recorded in a basement, it was written in four days and that was just the mood I was in. It’s just a bit mental to think about how introverted this generation are in the sense that we’re so attached to technology.
"I’m fascinated by death in pop music. You listen to something like 'Forever Changes' by Love, which was released all the way back in the 1960s. The same fears and worries about mortality crop up.” Law Holt
"We’re all on our phones all the time and it’s something I wanted to talk about. I swear the next generation will all be laughing at us about it."
Holt’s ability to step back and scrutinise her own attitudes is a common theme running throughout 'City', particularly on the single Spit. But even the overarching sense of loneliness is triggered by more universal and contemplative themes.
"I’m fascinated by death in pop music," says Holt. "You listen to something like 'Forever Changes' by Love, which was released all the way back in the 1960s. The same fears and worries about mortality crop up.
"I was born in 1988 and who knows when I’ll die. I do music because I want to leave something. It’s not just an arbitrary job as a singer."
Holt’s transition from talented singer to full-blown artist has been steady. Picking up a call from Timothy London, now her manager and producer, in 2012, she was invited to collaborate with hip hop trio Young Fathers, former Mercury Music Prize winners.
"I think I was working in a café in Edinburgh when my phone first buzzed," says Holt. "As soon as I got the call I knew everything would change. I felt this pressure to make sure the first song that I did with them was good."
Although Holt was raised in Leicester, she generally now splits her time between London and Edinburgh. As well as working with Young Fathers, living in Scotland has opened up new opportunities such as performing at T in the Park with freelance session musicians The Rogue Orchestra.
Each of these relationships are wildly distinct from each other. Ironically, given the subject matter of her lyrics, Holt practically embodies the digital age of music: collaborative and looking to break down barriers, and challenging the old ways of doing things.
When talking about Scottish music in particular, Holt observes that "being a brown face" is not as unusual as it used to be. She also praises the spirit of the predominantly working class hip hop and urban music scenes in Glasgow and Edinburgh.
"Loads is happening now that wasn’t seven years ago or whatever," says Holt. "The hip hop scene, for example, has grown massively. It’s good to see people being proud and representing their own environment.
"I mean, I think the music industry is still so ruled by money. The only people that go through are the rich, and young people from deprived areas are not as able to do music.
"I know first-hand that this country still has a problem with accepting people’s backgrounds. I want all of this to be out in the open. I want mixed race girls to feel empowered and not embarrassed." Law Holt
"I know first-hand that this country still has a problem with accepting people’s backgrounds. People ask if I’m black or white, why I shave my head, why I dress like I do or talk like I do or whatever. I want all of this to be out in the open. I want mixed race girls to feel empowered and not embarrassed."
As Scotland’s music continues to evolve, it’s worth reflecting on whether attitudes are changing for better or worse. Still, it’s refreshing to see new artists that are proud of their identity but also unwilling to accept any kind of label, whether it be an overt racial stereotype or something more subtle.
"In terms of attitudes and outlook, it’s interesting," says Holt. "Scotland just voted with London to remain in the EU. I think that shows there are a lot of people that are open minded and see the bigger picture.
"I was at N 26eu Reekie! recently and it’s great to see people so engaged with challenging stuff – that matters for music, too."
'City' is out on 26 August via Soulpunk.
Picture courtesy of Law Holt
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