We talked to her about playing live and the joys of botany
I arrived at Quai des Brumes and pulled out my notebook. I didn’t know what to expect. The bar was relatively small, leaving little room between the performer and the audience. Montrealer Brigitte Naggar, also known as Common Holly, had just set up with her band and started to play.
In that small room, Common Holly managed to produce a sprawling and dynamic sound. Smooth and clean guitars complemented the drum and synth textures. Their sound floated somewhere between gentle and raucous, sometimes coalescing when the whole band joined in. Naggar’s vocals, along with the backing vocals, tied the whole sound together.
The performance was great. It had an intimate but huge energy. A few days later, I spoke with Naggar.
Q: First of all, it was a great show Thursday. How do you feel about that performance?
A: Yeah, I feel good about it. I think the audience’s response was really nice, and the band sounded good. Actually, we
had played the night before as well, in the same venue, and I got acquainted with the sound guy. He brought a special mic for me the next night for extra clarity, so that was very nice.
Q: One of the things I noticed about the way you played is that, even though it was a small space, it was kind of a large sound. Is that the sound you were going for?
A: I mean, it kind of fluctuates a little bit because I do perform solo and duo as well, so when we have all five people there, it’s definitely a big sound. I think that, in part, reflects some elements of the record that is coming out, because it’s quite produced and there’s a lot going on and there are arrangements and drums.
Q: Now let’s do a little history about you. When did you start playing music?
A: I played piano as a kid for like nine years or so. That was my first foray into music. Then my dad gave me my first guitar lessons when I was 13. I got my first guitar when I was 16. It was supposed to be a surprise, but then [my dad’s] girlfriend at the time called me to say: “So did you get the guitar?” and I was like: “Um, I don’t know what you’re talking about.” [Laughs].
Q: What type of guitar was it?
A: It was acoustic. I actually only started playing electric about a year ago, so I feel pretty new to it still. I’ll occasionally go back to acoustic and be like: “Oh God, I’m so much better at this!” [Laughs]. But I really love playing electric. I think it gives it a bit of that hard edge that I’m looking for.
Q: And what music did you start playing? Did you do covers or did you just play around?
A: I started with covers for sure. I was very much like a 16-year-old doing Elliott Smith and Postal Service and Emily Haines covers, that sort of thing. And then I started to write my own music and some really terrible songs on Myspace, and it was very much in my bedroom for myself, super quiet. I think that’s also how I developed a really quiet sound. It was not that I never wanted to be heard at all. I, you know, slowly started to emerge more and more, as people were showing signs of wanting to hear my music. I kind of got over my fear of being heard a little bit.
Q: Were you always comfortable with your voice? Did you just want to sing for yourself?
A: It wasn’t necessarily that I was afraid that my voice wasn’t good enough, but it’s more an aspect of my personality. I have never been a very external kind of person, and it’s something I had to learn to do. And I do quite enjoy it, now that it’s something I do. I do really like it and it continues to be a challenge for me to get out there and perform and be expressive, because I definitely feel introverted.
Q: Are you anxious before a performance?
A: Less so these days. I think it’s because it’s becoming more habitual, but I just get a little nervous stomach, a little stomach ache. [Laughs].
Q: So, how did you get your stage name, Common Holly?
A: I started in a brainstorm circle with a group of my friends. We were looking for imagery that reflected the sound of the music, and we decided that plants and botanical imagery suited it best. So I did some research into plants. When I came upon common holly, I really liked the idea of this very understated, general plant. But it’s also a plant that blooms in the winter, and it has these lovely red berries. It’s a plant that has cultural and religious significance as well, which I liked—I studied religion at McGill, so it’s always been something that has been fascinating for me. And also a plant with dark, spiky leaves, so I think I liked that juxtaposition of pretty and understated, but also with a stark undercurrent, a little bit sharp.
Q: Are you touring to promote your new album?
A: I have a couple of tours in the works, nothing officially announced yet. I know I’ll be touring the first week of November, and I’ll be doing a little bit at the end of October.
Common Holly’s first album, Playing House, was released Sept. 25.
Photos by Mackenzie Lad