Perfectionism can backfire, but not for Holly Macve.
The Galway-born, Brighton-based country crooner wrote the songs on her sophomore album Not the Girl — out last Friday, May 14 — several years ago, but at the time, she wasn't ready to fully realize them.
"I had a big vision in my head of how I wanted the album to sound, sonically, and I don't think I knew how to get there," Macve recently told me over Zoom. "I wanted to be the person to bring those visions to life, so it took me a while to learn lots of things," she continued. "I'm really happy with and proud of how it's come out in the end, but it was a big journey for me."
The final product of that journey is a record that makes me sad — devastated, honestly — for all the people I've ever met who've told me they listen to everything but country, which is a tragically large number of people. To fall under Macve's spell is to submit to something heady and sweeping and evocative, and that's by design. "I wanted [this album] to be really expansive and have a cinematic feel to it," she explains. "I knew that I wanted strings on it, and I found a really amazing string arranger, Fiona Brice, who wrote the strings for the album."
Not the Girl's eleven tracks find Macve twisting grief and growing pains into grand, gorgeous country stunners. Other contributors include pedal-steel player CJ Hillman, violist Emily Druce, and drummers David Dyson and Phil Murphy. Mixed by Nashville-based engineer Collin Dupuis, the album has a lush, psychedelic edge.
Holly Macve - Eye Of The Storm (Official video) www.youtube.com
Around the release of her 2017 debut Golden Eagle, Macve told an interviewer, "I was going through quite a lot and had many dark / sad thoughts going on in my head," adding that "writing is a way for me to release that and turn it into something positive that hopefully other people can relate to."
Macve's new album also deals with darkness, but it has a light side too. "These songs were written just after my last album came out, so I was definitely in a better headspace than my first album," says Macve. "I think in this album there are moments of hope, which I feel like in the first album that was more difficult to find."
The album is bookended by two of its most hopeful and arresting tracks, "Bird" and "Lonely Road." The former has an almost spiritual arc, while the latter, Macve says, "was written for someone very close to me who was going through some really difficult times with their mental health. That's all about letting that person know that she wasn't alone, and things are going to get better." Macve delivers the last line of the song — and the album — with a tenderness that will melt you: "You're not alone," she sings, her voice cascading over melodic strings and keys. "Oh, you're not alone."
Despite these moments of hope and reassurance, Macve gravitates toward more somber, mournful, and longing material. "I'm a very sensitive person," she explains, "and I'm always kind of drawn to the darkness and the sadness in life, so I think there's a lot of that going on."
Macve doesn't shy away from darkness in her songwriting — she embraces it.
Macve calls "Behind the Flowers" "probably the darkest song I've ever written," adding that "it's a murder ballad, so it's not true to my life." The track tells the story of a young woman who kills her abusive father.
"I was in Denton, Texas, and there was a little bookstore, and I found this book which was full of old murder ballads, and I was just so fascinated by it," Macve recalls. "I tried to write my own and that came about after being inspired by that book and visiting a place called Dungeness in the U.K., which is a really strange landscape — it's almost like a tiny Texas landscape in the U.K. I went there for the day and this story came into my head."
Holly Macve - Daddy's Gone (Official Video) www.youtube.com
Macve laments the loss of her own father on "Daddy's Gone," and laments the loss of her youth on "Not the Girl." "I feel pretty proud of the whole record, but 'Not the Girl' — that one means quite a lot to me," she says of the title track. "It's this transition, it's this coming of age thing, it's becoming a woman and leaving that child behind, but also it's about not being the girl that people expect you to be." Musically, "Sweet Marie" might be the album's heaviest number. "I think that it's quite different from the rest of the songs," says Macve. "It's definitely got that cinematic experience."
Overall, though, this is an album of heavy-hearted, highway-cruising classics. Macve says she drew inspiration from "quite a big range of things — mostly older music." More specifically, "I was listening to a lot of Phil Spector-produced stuff," she continues. "John Lennon and Shangri-Las and things like that. Velvet Underground. Nancy & Lee. I really got into that John Cale album Fear — it's become one of my favorite albums."
Not the Girl marks Macve's first co-production effort of this scope. "It was a laborious experience in lots of ways, but I learned so much and I've discovered that that's something I really love doing," she shares. "The other thing I've [picked up] is making films. I've done all the music videos myself and that's been a really cool experience, learning how to edit videos."
Holly Macve - Not The Girl (Official Video) www.youtube.com
Now the Irish songstress is looking forward to playing shows again, something she hasn't done since early 2020 due to Covid. "I'm very excited to get back on stage," she says, "and hopefully come to the States again as well!" Until that happens, you can listen to Not the Girl below and purchase it here.
Not the Girl