It’s Monday night, which is one of those nights that you associate with – I’m not sure what – nothing much really (I think there might be something good on TV?) but Holly Norman’s chosen it as the night to launch her debut EP, and that’s convenient for me; after a pretty insular weekend, I feel like wandering the streets of Northbridge and ending up in a dimly lit jazz bar. So, as the sun sets, that’s what I do.
The Ellington is probably the only music venue in Perth where you have to book a table, and I hadn’t, so I lean on various vertical surfaces like an unclaimed umbrella until JACOB DIAMOND starts his set. When he does, it’s with a lovely tune that boasts an unpredictable, left-field chord progression; one that’s nevertheless satisfying, underpinning assuredly melodic vocals, and recalling songwriting greats of the 1970s. As if to read my mind, Diamond skates into a Neil Young cover – “Tell Me Why” – prior to two more compelling originals. Alternating between electric and acoustic guitars, he invariably betrays a jazz influence (dude’s studying jazz guitar at WAAPA), but it’s an influence, not a template: these songs steer clear of genres per se.
When you see a guy singing and playing guitar, there seems to be some unspoken onus for them to reinvent the wheel; so familiar is this performance model, it’s half-presumed to be exhausted. Jacob Diamond allays those sorts of prejudices, with rich and complex tunes by turns redolent of James Taylor, Jeff Buckley, Joni Mitchell, Don Maclean – as well as contemporary reference points like Dave Longstreth, Devendra Banhart and Grizzly Bear. He slips in a Paul Simon cover, takes a polaroid of the crowd, and mentions that the camera was a 20th birthday present the previous day. Barely pushing the two-decade mark, Jacob Diamond is writing some amazingly accomplished – dare I say it, “mature” – songs; his voice and guitar skills are more than ample tools to carry the tunes into the stratosphere. If he tones down the occasional American inflections (the accompanying vibe of affectation cheapens some of the sentiment here and there), he’ll have a pretty flawless thing going on.
There’s a substantial intermission between acts, and anticipation mounts steadily until an assortment of musicians looking more like a big band than a pop group appear on stage. They start clapping and stamping a beat to herald HOLLY NORMAN’S arrival.
Though you may not have come across her by name before, Holly Norman is no stranger to the music scene. She honed her skills as a classical/orchestral percussionist, studying at the University of Miami and WAAPA, performing in Berlin and Amsterdam and guesting with The Cat Empire. In the last few years she made her foray into Perth’s folk/indie/jazz spheres as freelancer, frequently appearing with Ensemble Formidable and Joe Black Trio (also contributing vocals to the latter). Yet despite years of avid creative collaboration and performance, last winter’s recording effort HOLLYPOP was Holly’s first excursion into the realm of solo singer-songwriting, seemingly a sort of revelation from behind the drum kit: “hey, I can do that.”
A pozible campaign and (no doubt) countless phone calls and rehearsals later, Holly is launching that EP and performing front-and-centre with a band of impressive allies. The clap-and-stomp beat bleeds into the tongue-in-cheek showtune pop of “Drowning at the Bottom of the Gene Pool” before the juicy, doo-woppy “Doctor Time.” These two tunes sit somewhere between the giggly, referential irony of Kate Miller-Heidke and the more oblique, clever, wispy piano-pop of Regina Spektor, and you could be forgiven for assuming that that’s Holly’s schtick early in the piece. Ensuing tune “Lara Enter The Room” mostly follows suit too, a motivational-type song aimed a friend, laced with that vintage showbiz kitsch favoured by Jens Lekman on tracks like “Friday Night at the Drive-in Bingo” – notwithstanding its weird and wonderful outro, reconfigured in 3/4, with heady weaving horns.
But a song about a donkey (“It’s Alright, Francine”) quells any fears of one-trick-ponyism. It’s a mellow, complex bit of songwriting with one of those melodies that you can hardly believe hadn’t been written already; the addition of piano accordion infuses it with a bohemian, Montmartre-type wistfulness. Sidestepping her tendency towards quotidian themes, Holly here spins a would-be fable told from an unexpected point-of-view, and it works a treat.
The next few entries in the set boast killer flute solos, and angular horn-section riffs reminiscent of those on David Byrne and St. Vincent’s recent “Love This Giant” album (kudos to Dylan Cooper, who’s handling tenor, for the arrangements). Lyrically, Holly begins to grapple with themes of contentment despite daily misfortune, and uneasiness despite privilege; she handles both with grace. There’s a song called “Grace” in amongst all that, actually – a folky, shuffling ballad recalling equal parts The Veils, The Whitlams and Julia Stone. With its shifting half-come-double-time chord pattern, intriguing lyrics, tessellating harmonies and lilting textures, it’s a strong contender for Holly’s best song.
For a debut EP and, effectively, a debut solo performance, Holly Norman’s well and truly triumphed. Despite having “nothing to hide behind” (as she mentions between songs) Holly the percussionist is entirely convincing as a standalone singer. She does jump on the piano for the last song, mind you (a cover of Hugh Laurie’s “Let Them Talk”) and it feels like a natural move; maybe the singing-only approach was a requisite kneejerk to depart from the drummer role, but given Holly’s enormous talents as a percussionist, it seems a shame not to exploit them during her solo outings. In any case, this is a great set, with an enormous amount of love and care put into it; a sense of crafty devotion and emotional investment that’s palpable when the EP’s producer, Noah Shilkin (the “Elvis Costello of Margaret River,” Holly laughs) joins her for a musical tete-a-tete on ballad “Deliver Me.” Some songs are a touch too vaudevillian for my tastes, but hey, that’s my tastes, and I can’t fault the delivery. In any case, the more understated and layered songs win me over by a good margin. The performances are solid, at times spectacular. The arrangements, the unexpected musical detours, are fantastic. As far as debuts go – you don’t get much better than this; Holly Norman has set the bar high for herself. But with the work ethic she’s shown so far, I’m pretty sure she’ll raise it again with her next venture down the winding chamber-pop path.