“Everybody’s got demons,” Holly McNarland insisted. “I just threw it all out there.” For over a decade now the Vancouver based singer-songwriter has penned her autobiography through music. Each album is like a chapter in the book that is her life.
“I can listen to this one and not cringe!” Holly admitted of her recent release Chin Up Buttercup. “Maybe one day I will, but right now I like it.” McNarland favours her confident fifth album to its predecessors. Since Stuff, her 1997 major label debut, and its colossal hit lead single “Numb”, success has not been a stranger in Holly McNarland’s world. Each album garnered significant applause and Chin Up Buttercup is no exception.
This fifth installment documents the artist’s move to Winnipeg, her return to Vancouver and her rocky relationship resulting in a painful divorce.
“I moved to Winnipeg with my ex-husband, I bought a car there and drove it all the way back to B.C. I love that car. It’s called Buttercup,” McNarland exhaled. “Chin-up because I went through a lot with my separation.”
Her sincerity is nearly painful. What does the honest truth sound like? You’ve a choice of five audaciously gutsy records. Take your pick.
McNarland’s unrivalled powerhouse vocals are equally notorious as her lyrical witticisms. If she wasn’t candid enough in song, Holly McNarland opens up about her lyrics and shares more of her core.
Is your bad ass reputation a misconception?
A bad ass? I can be and I totally have been. I’ve got one of those personalities where if you put a bottle of Vodka in front of me, I’ll drink the entire thing! But I keep myself grounded when it comes to home life. I’m very domestic and I’m with my kids all the time. I think that’s what I’m meant to do.
I have an absolute love; my kids then music.
Has motherhood changed your song writing habits and softened your edge?
Lyrically maybe. I wouldn’t say I’ve changed. But I’ve evolved, hopefully. A lot of stuff that I write about is very autobiographical. I don’t make things up out of my head very often. There’s always been a softness like “Stormy”, “U.F.O” and “I Won’t Stay”. Those were easier for me to write than “Numb”. Chin Up is my favourite album. I can listen to this one and not cringe. Home Is Where My Feet Are was tough album because I had the label wanting me to write rock songs and I just wasn’t feeling it. That’s just not where I was in my head.
On the new album in your song “Dear Pain” you sing, “Just get out of my head. Want you out of my head, why you always around?” Do you get headaches?
I get headaches all the time (laughs) but that’s not what it’s about. I don’t think I drink enough water.
Funny how you don’t intake enough water, yet water shows up in your music, for example your song “Mermaid” on your new album and “Water” on Stuff.
I bathe a lot. I’m always in the tub. When I was pregnant I was in the tub like five times a day. In the winter, at least twice a day. I love swimming and being near the ocean.
“So cold” is about an unmentioned location that doesn’t sound appealing, where is this “Town X”?
That was Winnipeg.
And now, is Vancouver home?
It’s been home for years now. We spent six months in Winnipeg and moved back to Vancouver .
Songs like “Dear Pain”, “So Cold”, “Numb” and “Mr. 5 Minutes” exude anger and resentment. Is writing music a form of anger management and release?
Absolutely! If everybody wrote it would help. It’s free therapy.
At what point in your life did you discover liberation through music?
I learned to play guitar when I was 14 and I started writing when I was about 16. When I moved to Vancouver from Winnipeg I was home sick. I lived with these women that weren’t the best women to live with and I would just hide in my room and write.
When you write a harsh, incriminating song does the person in question know that they inspired it?
Oh sometimes! I have a song called “Mr. 5 Minutes” and he wasn’t pleased with it. But he was young at the time, so we’ll let him get away with it.
Can you tell us about the lyrics of “Da Da Da”? How do you “hate gracefully”?
My ex-husband and I hated each other gracefully until we hit the walls and started to hate each other aggressively.
The word is out that someone special supplied some of the lyrics to “Fly”.
Oh yeah! My eight year old. He was five at the time. He just says so many amazing things. We were out walking and it was really windy that day. He asked me why the wind wanted to play with us and why it was always following us. I wrote it down and used it in my song and now he wants his cut! (Laughs)
Speaking of lyrics, are you “still thinking about Elmo?”
(Laughs) When I go through old pictures and see a photo of the guy. He was a drummer’s childhood friend’s grandfather. He had a secret and whiskey was his five o’clock special.
There is a special song on Stuff that stands out from the rest of your compositions called “Mystery Song”. Would you get the same release if you just composed wordless instrumental songs like that one?
I think so. I often do. I start with guitar and come up with a melody without lyrics, sing that melody and place whatever is in my head on top of that. I use mini discs to record what I’m doing because I have a shitty memory. If you went through them you’d find tons of those types of songs with no lyrics.
Would your music have the same force and affect without words?
It would be a little boring! My vocals are strong. I’ve sung since I was able to talk. First I’m a singer and I’ve slowly become a good song writer.
Is it hard to sing these personal, potential diary entry lyrics out loud in a venue filled with strangers?
I’m not a very private person. I wish I was more so, but I just throw everything out there. For some songs I think, “Oh my God, I can’t believe I wrote that and then played it!” I don’t really ever want to play “Mr. 5 Minutes” again.
I know eventually some songs I’m writing will make an album or be played for the public, but I don’t think about it. When you do think about that and worry about what people are going to think you don’t write honestly.
I honestly don’t give a shit what most people think. But it feels good when people like it. So I try to just do it.
This is just who I am. I’m an open book and I think that comes across.