Common Holly’s Uncommon Songwriting – AdHoc

Common Holly’s Uncommon Songwriting

The Montreal singer-songwriter spoke to AdHoc about her darkly incisive sophomore album, When I say to you Black Lightning.

As Common Holly, Montreal singer-songwriter Brigitte Naggar has now released two very dark, very beautiful albums. 

There was her 2017 debut, Playing House, which dazzled with its crafty, incisive songwriting and haunting vocalis. She sang lines like these with wilting honesty: “And every night the desert sang a love song / And inside my languid body was a fight / And every night I hoped that he would come home / But by daylight I knew it wasn’t right.” Was this folk? Not quite. Was this bedroom pop? Not quite. Was this post-punk? Not quite. It was, according to her bandcamp, “darkfolk.”

On When I say to you Black Lightning, her quietly audacious sophomore record, Naggar sings about fear and shame and confusion with grace and clarity. Her lyrics range from direct to abstract, and she slips into metaphor with ease. “You unbuttoned your shirt / And I looked at your heart,” she whispers on “Measured.” “If I forget it / it’s not real,” she repeats in “It’s Not Real,” one of the album’s most tender, atmospheric numbers.

“I think that in listening to the album, you’ll hear that it’s not an easy listening, background music album,” Naggar told AdHoc over the phone. “It definitely demands something from the listener.”

Naggar recently spoke to AdHoc about the Montreal DIY scene, writing from the heart, and drawing inspiration from motorcycles. Read the interview below, and catch Common Holly at Trans-Pecos on December 6.

When I say to you Black Lightning is out now via Barsuk Records

AdHoc: How long have you lived in Montreal?

Common Holly: I grew up here. I was born in New York, but moved to Montreal when I was ten months old. So it’s been a while.

When did you start playing music?

[I’ve played] in different forms since childhood. I first took piano lessons when I was probably 7 or 8. I did choir and all that stuff, but I didn’t really start writing any songs until I was about 16.

Did you start writing as Common Holly then, or was that a later adoption?

That was a later adoption. I had a very embarrassing “Brigitte acoustic” myspace account. Common Holly came later. I think Common Holly is about four years old as a name.

How would you describe the music scene in Montreal right now?

It’s popping. I’m not as in with the DIY as I used to be, so nowadays I think the projects I know about are the ones that were underground when I started. 

There’s a band called Pottery. There’s a band called Anemone. Another one is a solo project called Helena Deland. I guess Braids has been around a little longer, but they’re definitely still in Montreal, thriving. And there’s a band called Sorry Girls. Ada Lea–who recently signed to Saddle Creek–[is] a friend of mine.

I wanted to ask about the name of your new album, When I say to you Black Lightning. Can you tell us a little bit about it?

The first thing is this idea of black lightning, which is actually the name of a motorcycle design by a brand called Vincent. I don’t ride motorcycles, but when I first started thinking about the whole thing, I liked this idea of macho symbolism. I was looking into pro wrestlers and motorcycles and snakes and all those kinds of things. Black lightning seemed to strike me—no pun intended.

As far as the phrase goes, I [was] pretty influenced by a Montreal band called Godspeed You! Black Emperor. I thought it was a fun little nod, and I also liked this idea of putting out this mysterious sentence and seeing what people do with it. When I say to you Black Lightning­—what do you say back, or what do you think, or what image does it conjure? That’s what the whole album is supposed to do.

It almost feels like you’re asking listeners to do something.

Exactly. I think that in listening to the album, you’ll hear that it’s not an easy listening background music album. It definitely demands something from the listener. I’m asking for participation.

How do you think the new record compares to your debut?

Something that I’ve been thinking a lot about is what happens to a band or a solo act when they start to have more of a following. The first album was not meant to be heard by a lot of people. Not that I didn’t want people to hear it, but I had no expectations. That album was definitely for me in that way, and it’s very personal. The second album was like, “Now that some people are listening, what do I want to say to them?” I think that influenced the music. I tried to incorporate more rhythm and more variety of feeling. I wanted it to be more engaging and experimental and a little less singer-songwriter-y.

As far as similarities, I hope to always project [an] honest message in the music—something that feels intimate, even though it’s not necessarily going to be about me and making confessions. I want it to feel like sincere communication.

What was the songwriting process like?

I usually write everything on guitar and voice, and then I bring it to my producer Devon [Bate], and we discuss it and he takes notes and we go from there.

I was struck by the lyrics of “You Dance,” which is built around these three directives: “Don’t be afraid,” “Don’t panic,” and “Don’t freak out.” Does making music helps you work through those emotions?

Yeah, definitely. It’s catharsis for me to write. I write because I have to, and then I figure out the rest later. Maybe that’s what people can feel when they feel something from it.

On a separate note, what are you listening to right now?

Obviously I’m obsessed with the new Aldous Harding record, ‘cause it’s amazing. Big Thief, for sure. Andy Shauf, for sure. Whitney Ballen–I just discovered her recently. I’ve been booking opening acts for the tour and discovering a lot of people through that as well. Anamai is really good; she’s from Montreal too.

And what are you most looking forward to on your upcoming tour?

I’m going to be touring across the whole of the US in December and then touring across Europe and the UK in January. So those are all big things that I’m trying to get organized for!