Holding fast to the emotional honesty of Playing House (2017), Common Holly’s sophomore record, When I say to you Black Lightning is a look outward; an exploration of the ways in which we all experience pain, fear, and self-delusion, and how we can learn to confront those feelings with boldness.
The record is more experimental than Brigitte Naggar’s debut. It is rougher, looser, louder and more atonal. It feels edgy, but still kind. WISTYBL ditches fear without losing vulnerability, and trades in sadness for the healing powers of anger, and the strength of observing, recognizing and confronting. Through its 9 labyrinthian yet catchy tracks, shaped sonically by the seriously unique visions of Devon Bate, Hamish Mitchell, and Naggar herself, the album observes the complexities of mental health, the precarity of life, and the challenges of finding strength in the face of grave misunderstanding.
(Photo Credit: Alex Apostolidis)
Kenny Boothby is the frontman of Toronto-based indie rock band Little Kid; Brigitte Naggar is a Montreal-based artist who performs as Common Holly. To celebrate Little Kid’s new album Transfiguration Highway — out today via Solitaire Recordings — the two hopped on the phone to talk about how their songwriting processes have fared in quarantine.
— Annie Fell, Talkhouse Senior Editor
Kenny Boothby: I was mostly interested in talking songwriting, which we do often when we hang out — do you wanna tell me in general about your process, and how it’s changed over time, if it’s different between the two albums you’ve released?
Brigitte Naggar: I think the songwriting process was different and the same for me between my first and second album. Different in the sense that the first album was very much a product of my own solo time with no real plans to perform it; it was a breakup album, and it was like therapy I guess. The second album came after I had been performing the first album, and I felt like I had much more of an awareness of what would actually work on a stage, and I guess how important that is when you’re trying to tour with your music. So I was thinking about the arrangements, the drums, the bass, etc, as a full band when writing it. Most of the instruments were still performed by myself, or my producer Devon [Bate], but ultimately it was way more transferable, and [there was] certainly more option for groove, and more option for rocking out.
But as far as the songwriting process goes, I don’t know. It always comes from me first, on guitar or with lyrics. When the lyrics and the melody come together at the same time, that’s usually the fastest/most successful way that it happens. Sometimes it’s one, sometimes it’s the other; sometimes I go for a walk and I’m singing something and it works and I record it on my phone.
Kenny: Nice, without an instrument even sometimes.
Brigitte: Yeah, like in the shower, or on a bike, or walking.
Kenny: It’s been a while since that happened to me, but I think it has.
Brigitte: I feel like it really changes the process if you’re intending to write songs because your job is to make music, versus if songs are just coming out of you because you have the time and space.
Kenny: For sure. How about now when you have all this time?
Brigitte: I’m definitely writing. I had no intention to write. I definitely don’t have a lot of lyrics coming out of me — this is something we should talk about for sure, but I think in this wild COVID moment, it’s kind of hard, at least for me, to feel like I have anything of worth to express. So there’s a lot of melody, a lot of ambient stuff. A lot more piano — there’s something very therapeutic about it being dissociated from the guitar world. It’s like a different plane, a different sphere.
Kenny: It’s great you said therapeutic — that’s the word I use about playing the piano. The hardest thing about being over here is my piano is back in my apartment sitting there unused. That’s about all that is coming to me lately, melodic stuff. I always find when I’m — obviously this is an exaggerated version of having nothing to do in a way, but whenever I have a month free I’m always like, oh, hell yeah, I’m gonna write a whole album. I’m gonna come out of this thing with everything. And no, I just watch the TV shows I’ve already seen. I watch them again instead of writing.
Brigitte: What are you watching?
Kenny: We watch a lot of stupid stuff around here. Basically all stuff we’ve seen before. The other day, we were just hanging out all day and watched Willy Wonka, and Monsters Inc. and Monsters University, The Prince of Egypt, and Magic Mike. Then we fell asleep to some HBO cold case movie. That’s kind of the flavor, it’s all over the place. We watched all the Harry Potter movies, we watched the Twilight franchise, I’ve been watching Gossip Girl. It’s been an interesting mix.
Brigitte: It feels like the brain can’t intake any new information, because we’re just processing things day by day.
Kenny: Like you said, I don’t feel like I have much of value — my songs from before seem sillier now than ever. My life is so small now. There’s this massive thing happening, globally, that I’m seeing through my screen, but in terms of my actual lived life, it’s never been so small. What am I gonna write about? Who’s doing dishes or who’s not doing dishes? I had a couple songs that we already were starting on that I kinda finished, or at least ideas I felt like I could work on, but yeah, the lyrics are hard right now for sure.
Brigitte: What is your writing process like normally, and has it changed now?
Kenny: The last couple albums have been different, because they’ve been sort of deadline albums in a way — which helps me a lot, because I’m really a bad procrastinator. With might as well with my soul, Brodie [Germain] was going to be moving at the end of the year, so we were like, let’s record all the drums and stuff and have it ready before he goes. And then with Transfiguration Highway, there were some similar things where Brodie was back for a bit and we had limited time we could get together with the band. In those cases, I was like, “I’ll try to have three songs ready for this day,” or whatever. But sometimes I wouldn’t have them ready, I’d have one song ready and two that feel like they could be songs — I’d show them stuff I had in my voice memos, and just sing the melody with nonsense lyrics. We’ve got funny work-in-progress versions where I’m not saying anything, but it sounds really similar to the final version. Sometimes some of the nonsense sounds like words, and then end up sort of being words, but a lot of times it’s just garbage and we replace it.
Brigitte: So does everyone in the band, in those instances, contribute to the structure of the song?
Kenny: Yeah, for sure. It’s different if I’ve already written the lyrics, because that kind of dictates the structure in that case, but in the other cases it’s like, maybe I’ve got these three parts that feel like they could be a song together, like a bridge and a chorus or whatever, and then we’ll kinda just play it over and over and see what other instruments add things to it. We’ll make the structure until we like it, and then we’ll record it right then. With this one, it was all recorded on tape, so we had to decide right away, was that the keeper? And if not, we’d just record over it because it’s a little too expensive to do four or five takes. So that was kind of different.
Brigitte: So on tape, you’re not making massive structural edits.
Kenny: Yeah, we kinda try to get the bones of the song recorded, and then we can play with it from there. A lot of times, my guitar gets scrapped — as long as the bass and the drums are really something, then we’ll keep that. If we feel really good about those and good-ish about the rest of them, we’ll usually use that take and try to build something around it.
Brigitte: I find that at least for my last two albums, a lot of structural intervention happens during the recording process. Which I think often means that the recording process makes up the bulk of the whole journey, because we’re kind of reconfiguring things as we go. There’s always a basic structure before, but I guess the collaboration is in the recording between me and Devon. It’s interesting, there’s not a whole lot of live collaboration.
Kenny: That was something I was curious about asking you, because I feel like you’ve played with a few different lineups in the time I’ve known you, where I’ve been maybe blessed to have friends who [I’ve been able to collaborate with] pretty consistently. I think when I listen to your record too, you hear the benefit of that kind of written-in-the-studio approach. It’s got a lot more of that stuff that I don’t know if you can play live as naturally.
Brigitte: It’s kind of a downfall and an exciting thing maybe — we do a lot of stuff in studio that is either impossible to replicate or just isn’t worth replicating, because live it wouldn’t feel the same. Maybe that’s another difference between the first and second album. With the second album, we kind of came to realize that it’s more special to keep some things to the recording and then have the live thing be its own thing.
With you guys, I feel like the recordings and the live are very transferable, right? Is that a result of you guys collaborating on the live stuff quite a bit?
Kenny: Probably, yeah. I think the personality of the song is still coming from the live take. A lot of that is Paul [Vroom]’s influence. The first three [albums] — we recorded in different ways but a lot of it was more piecemeal. It’s such a challenging thing to do, but it was the most natural because I didn’t know anything. To start a song with guitar is such a weird thing if you want to add drums too it and stuff. I’m sure you’ve had this experience, trying to sing to some not-perfect guitar performance. We were doing that, and it all is a bit ramshackle for sure. Those are weird albums.
Then Paul came in, and there are a couple on flowers that we did together — the songs “missionary” and “think it over” started with drums and bass all at once. I think were learning from Paul coming in halfway through like, “We should try it this way.” We actually scrapped the version of “think it over” that we’d started because it was feeling kind of shitty; it’s just a song relies on groove, and we needed that groove that he kinda nailed. After that, it’s been every album since that’s there’s been maybe one or two songs on each that start that way.
Brigitte: As in, you start with the rhythm section?
Kenny: Yeah, I think we feed off each other, so having me be there playing the guitar is helpful for the flavor of the song still, even if sometimes we cut it. With Transfiguration Highway, it’s weird because the songs were written on the piano. We had an electric piano, but it kinda sounded like an Elton John thing — the tone was kinda stupid. It’s good to be able to learn songs on that thing, but I don’t wanna record on it at all. On “Thief on the Cross” we used it, but it’s really distorted and sounds kinda like a guitar almost, this crunchy thing.
So we had to do the tracks without the piano, which was kind of weird because it’s the main instrument of a lot of the songs. But otherwise, I’d usually be playing a guitar or something, even if it didn’t make it into the final recording.
Brigitte: How do you navigate being the central songwriter with being collaborative and having a band? Was it always like that for Little Kid? Are there ever ambiguities or tensions or anything like that?
Kenny: I mean, the first album was literally just me — I recorded it even, that’s why it sounds terrible. Logic Songs, it’s all 4-track; things are mixed very strangely. Then Brodie joined, and he kind of joined to help me record better and play drums. But in that case, I’d demo-ed all the songs beforehand. It seems like the system is, if I get enough of a spark and I finish a song, like I have all the lyrics, then I’ll record a demo of that, and the recordings end up sticking pretty true to that most of the time. The band will add very much — I don’t want to undervalue what they bring. Paul will maybe bring a bassline in that I never pictured that changes the feel of the song, or Megan [Lunn]’s harmonies might totally give the chorus a whole other deal. But the structure will mostly stay true to [the demo]. But then in cases where we want to get recording but I haven’t done my songwriting duties yet, or I haven’t felt enough inspiration to finish the lyrics, then it’s a little more collaborative. We’ll build the structure up and then I’m kind of trapped with the melody, or at least the measures — I’ve gotta work the lyrics around that.
Brigitte: Do you ever disagree with the parts that the other bandmates come up with? Who has final say?
Kenny: It’s definitely sort of democratic. There’s been clashes, but nothing too heated. On this album, the song “Pry” — it’s a really basic-ass song, it’s just two chords over and over again the whole time. Mostly when I’m nit-picking, it’s not a sonic thing but a melodic thing or a harmonic thing, like if you add a note that I was not picturing was in that chord, I get weird about it. Like, what is that doing there? It’s kinda fucking with the vibe I was picturing. In “Pry,” it’s just major sevenths over and over again, and Paul came up with this bassline that added this seventh — I don’t know if this is going to lose people — and I was like, “Paul, I don’t know about that.” It was not feeling right. He was like, “Think about it, we’re gonna leave it for now.” Then of course, I listened to the song four or five times more and I was like, “Actually that’s pretty good.” It’s kind of one of the best parts of the song, right before the change into the instrumental part.
So sometimes stuff like that will happen. I feel like the person who wins is just the person who feels strongest about it. Do you have stories like that?
Brigitte: Yeah, of course. [Laughs.] I mean, I definitely see myself as having final say. It’s a collaboration for sure, especially between myself and Devon, but ultimately it is my project. Devon is a huge part of it, but it’s not as much of a band as Little Kid. I guess what works the best is, I really trust his intuition and he’s probably the only person that I’ll let criticize what I’m doing and not take offense. Sometimes he’ll make radical proposals and I’ll be like, “I hate this so much, this is terrible,” and he’ll ask me to just give it a moment and listen. Sometimes that works really well and I’m like, “Actually, I love this, you’re a genius,” and then sometimes I’m like, “No, this is fucking stupid.” [Laughs.]
I feel like that was a really big part of the Common Holly development. I think in its conception, it started as a solo project, and then it was like, now this is a band because I want it to be a band. And then it was like, actually, I don’t think this is as good as a band. I think that the vision needs to be mine. There were feelings hurt all throughout the course of it with different members coming in and out, and it not being clear what the creative vision was or who really was in charge. I found ultimately that having that become clear really was constructive — like, “This is my project, I would love to have you collaborate on it,” and have people understand that. Offer suggestions for sure, but me having the freedom to accept or ask for something else ultimately was really good for Common Holly.
Kenny: I feel like a lot of that communication stuff you get a little better at over time. You have to negotiate certain things that maybe were unspoken, and maybe were misunderstood by other people. It’s challenging, because it is a very emotional thing; it’s music, and people are putting their true, sincere self into it.
Brigitte: It’s art, it’s emotional, it’s feelings. And you and me are nice. [Laughs.] It’s hard to navigate that difference between wanting to have integrity in what we’re making and come up with the best final product, and then also respecting our collaborators and our friends and making sure that they’re heard and that their ideas have a chance.
Kenny: I wanted to talk briefly about live shows and touring, because you have a lot more experience in that than me, and also because we won’t have the chance to play shows for a long time probably. Maybe you can tell me about what you miss about shows, or what you don’t miss about shows, and how the direction of what you record next might be affected by the fact that you’re not playing shows for the next year or so?
Brigitte: Well, I guess something I can say is that when the pandemic hit, I’d finished seven months of touring on and off — that was the tour cycle for my album When I say to you Black Lightning. I was exhausted, pretty burnt out and ready to not do that anymore. So the pandemic came and I was already thinking about shutting things down for a while. I had a bunch of festivals booked for the summer that I was pretty excited about, but that aside, it was a bit of a welcome break. I feel like I was maybe one of the few fortunate people who really had the opportunity to get a bunch of it out and then stop.
I did have some recording ideas on the go, but as we talked about, I did feel kind of a disconnect between the stuff I’d already written and the world that we live in now. [I was] just feeling like I no longer connected with the stuff I had written. It didn’t really feel valuable or important or relevant I guess. So I kind of took the pressure off of myself from writing at all. Just tinkling on the piano, and using it more as therapy is the way that I first came to music, so really just remembering that part of it. Eventually I started writing stuff and am feeling like it maybe could be an album. I don’t know, I do kind of personally welcome the break and feel pretty lucky to have it. I kinda feel like it’s an opportunity to readjust my relationship to music and what I want to say, and if I want to say anything with words or not with words. I have plans to record, but the business shark brain is off. I feel really good about being able to just take my time to whittle out something that is true and has integrity and feels sincere.
But I know for you guys, you are prepping to release an album and I’m sure it’s a completely different story, where you guys were just getting set up and starting to release singles. So how is that affecting you? What plans did you have, and what happens now?
Kenny: It’s definitely a bit of a bummer. We’ve played shows, but mostly just locally, or sometimes in Montreal or maybe two or three dates in a row just in Canada and stuff. So for me, playing shows is something I’m still very excited about. I was preparing to finally do more touring — we were starting to set up some dates for September — so it’s a bit of a disappointment because I haven’t done too much. I miss playing my electric guitar and playing solos, and giving that kind of energy; I miss that very much. But my favorite thing is recording, to be honest, so as soon as that feels safe, I’m excited to start doing that again. We have half of another album kind of started that we did in the winter, so I’m listening to that now and trying to finish the lyrics so that when the time comes, we can bang out the rest of it. But it does feel weird. It’ll be kind of cut into two halves.
I’m also getting a new computer — I just bought it for teaching online, which is going to be more of a thing for me now too. But I was like, I’m gonna get one that can handle some recording stuff, so I’m hoping to start doing stuff for myself too. I don’t know what shape that will take, but it’ll be kind of fun to do something a little different than what we usually do. It’ll be a little less live, a little more fractured and strange.
Brigitte: And that would be a solo thing, you’re thinking?
Kenny: Oh, I have no idea. It might be nothing, but maybe it’ll be something Little Kid-ish. Maybe not an album proper, but a strange collection of things.
Brigitte: You do love your strange collections of things. [Laughs.]
Kenny: I do. And I’m actually still doing those botched restorations tapes — I still have some of those left, so that’s good for this setting. I think more people should do it actually, right now is the perfect time as a replacement of live shows. Folks wanna order their individual live performances.
Brigitte: So are they requisition specific songs from you?
Kenny: Yeah, it’s a project that doesn’t respect my labor at all. I charged more this time — it’s $50 for the tape, which feels painful to me since it’s such a small little piece of plastic, but it’s an hour of me recording, and more time spent of packaging and stuff. But yeah, they pick 10 songs from Little Kid’s discography. Sometimes people ask for covers, and sometimes I’ll do that. They’re definitely rough around the edges, but kind of a fun little document.
Brigitte: And it’s just guitar and voice?
Kenny: For these ones, it mostly is. I walked home last weekend and recorded some piano too, because some people ask for songs that are more piano-heavy.
Brigitte: That’s so cool. I don’t have that dedication in me, I have to say.
Kenny: Just charge more. Make it $1,000.
Brigitte: $1,000, 10 songs — I’ll record them on my phone and email it to people.
Kenny: It’s been good talking to you. Wish it was over a couple plates of eggs.
Brigitte: We’ll have to get some eggs next time, in person.
Kenny: When eggs are possible again.