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Finding a Way to Feed your Passion and Still Pay the Bills with Holly Henderson

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Holly Henderson | Interview

Holly Henderson is a 24 year old singer/songwriter and composer from Maidstone, a town in Kent, England. In school, she was taught that a career in the arts is ‘utterly ridiculous and unrealistic.’ She took this as a personal challenge and pursued studies in the arts at UCA and at just 16 years old, she released her first EP. In 2017, she decided to immerse herself in the music scene, doing a stint in a successful punk band and sofa-surfing in Los Angeles, meeting the who’s who of L.A.’s music world. Soon, Holly began working with producer and Youtuber Pete Thorn on what would become her full-length debut album, Monday Green. 

Holly also began forging a career as a commercial composer which has allowed her to learn even more about the industry, make key contacts and learn how to produce her own music. She’s a realist in her approach to her passion and understood quickly that to make music, one also needs to make money. While the pandemic has forced her to put her tour plans on the back-burner, she’s been using lockdown to connect with fans through social media and combine activism with releasing new music. Her latest single, History Repeats | Holly Henderson was released on September 4th, with all its proceeds going to the #SayHerName campaign, which supports Black women and girls who have been victimised by racist police violence.

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What drew you to a career in music?

I can’t remember a time when music wasn’t a part of my life. I started quite simply when I discovered and listened to music I love. I took it a little further than most when I picked songs apart and rewrote them!

I’m an out and out musician at my core, but I think over time that role has changed. In 2020, you need to take on a lot as a musician. You have to be an authentic artist but also manage all the other aspects of creating a brand around your music. 

Music was always something I did in my spare time. I didn’t think I could actually forge a career out of music. In the past 5 years, I have had to learn about production, management and marketing. I feel like you need to take on 10 different roles to survive in the music industry, so in many ways the title of ‘musician’ doesn’t quite capture all the work that goes on behind the scenes. 

My family is a heavily academic one. We don’t really have any musicians in the family and I don’t have any formal musical training. I don’t really even know how to read sheet music, even though I’ve been playing guitar since I was a teenager; I’m a little embarrassed about that. I studied art because I thought it would be easier but I dropped all that when I joined my first band. I was in various bands after that – and during this time, I learned that there’s much more to being a musician than being a session player. I had to understand marketing, navigating band politics and all the other challenges new musicians face. Eventually, I started my own band, where I realised my natural place was to be a singer-songwriter. 

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I actually released my first EP when I was about 16 – which may or may not be the worst thing your readers ever hear – but somehow this guy from Red Bull noticed me and invited me to go to LA and shoot a video. I ended up sofa-surfing my way through LA and met a ton of cool people in music production, and started seeing the viability of production as a career direction. 

I’ve tapped back into that recently, and for the past three years I’ve been a commercial composer. Music I composed when I was 22 has randomly made a resurgence on TV shows now! It’s on Undercover Boss, Gordon Ramsay’s 24 Hours to Hell and Back and an artist from Universal has been working with me. 

What do you believe is the key to success in your field?

I’m constantly searching for inspiration in people who do what I do, but better. Pure stubbornness is the reason I’ve been able to pursue my career and come this far because I’ve always thought ‘why not go further’? Imposter syndrome often takes over and you think you’re not good enough to be where you are. I overcame that by forging my own path. 

I think as a musician you must be able to do, or be willing to learn how to produce, run your own sessions and record your own vocals.

How do you generate revenue? 

I have a merch store (see: Holly Henderson Merch)! I have a Brooklyn-based manager who suggested we get an online shop up and running. I have some loyal fans who’ve always wanted to buy merch with me or my work on it, so I figured why not! 
You need to make money to make music, there’s no two ways about it. Yes, it’s fuelled by passion and raw talent but you also need to pay the bills. We set the store up ourselves and designed all the products. It became important to me to have tangible ways to interact with my fans alongside the music, it’s all part of the story. Take Bowie for instance: the music was one thing but his style, his visuals and trends he inspired all formed layers to his brand and story. I just think it makes an artist all the more interesting.

Can you tell me about your creative process? Do you work alone or get input from others?

I have a tiny attention span. I need to finish writing a song within a single day. I’ll play the first few snippets of the song to myself and have all my equipment hooked up so I’m recording as I go. Every song I write, I’ll make a demo as I’ll be producing it too. It feels a lot like cooking (if you cook by instinct, that is), you taste as you go and add or remove what feels right, without overdoing it!

I’ve written all of my music and work with a band to perform it live (they’re absolutely amazing). I wanted an outlet for my original music, which really started with me being at home creating things for my own enjoyment. Soon enough I wanted my work to be out there and sought out people I’ve always wanted to work with to make new music. I’m always thinking about how to expand, push boundaries and grow the project that is my music.

I rely quite heavily on social media for someone who works remotely! I’m naturally a studio musician and like creating music in a silo and then presenting it to the world when it’s ready. So my use of social media is mainly to build out a base for my music. 

That being said, I absolutely love the feedback loop connecting with my fans on social media has given me. I’ll release 60-second clips to see how people react to the music, and I’ll take their reaction and go back into the studio to tweak. 

When I started out as a punk artist I never gave enough credit to the people who were listening to our music, even when we tried new things. As an independent artist, I get my confidence from my fans online to constantly try new things and experiment with my music, I feel as though they fill in the ‘something’s missing’ bits from my work. There was always the misnomer in bands I was a part of: that you alienate fans when you evolve and experiment with your music, and I’ve learned it’s the opposite! The fan base comes right alongside you when you push your genre and I don’t think I’ll ever stop being a community-oriented musician.

What tools do you use?

Logic Pro (Apple’s digital audio workstation) is probably my best pick for making music. If you can get yourself to the point where you can record basic tracks on Logic – even if it is a bit rough – you’ll have a foundation for making commercially viable music out of it! You really just need a good interface, a mic and a keyboard.

How well do you know your fans? 

My image and the type of music I listen to has somehow started to attract like-minded people to my own music. I guess it all makes sense with the way we know the internet works but discovering that my fans are people just like me still feels quite novel. 

Some of my work is pretty political and I feel like I need to know that those who listen to my music get the message I’m trying to convey when they engage with it. Every time I get onto a platform, be it Instagram, Twitter or Facebook, is when I feel most connected with my audience. The advent of Stories on Instagram opened up the possibility of there being a back and forth with my fans. It’s allowed me to invite people into my day-to-day, the sort of music I listen to and my creation process, and see what parts really interest them. 

Anything else you would like to add or promote?

Here’s a single from my debut album, Monday Green: Pride can wait  

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What advice would you give musicians who are just starting out?

I just think it’s really important that anyone getting into the music industry truly believes in themselves and gears up to take on new skills all the time. There is nothing wrong with realising you don’t know everything, learning what you don’t know and going the extra mile to do so – you’re completely in control of your destiny and where you’re heading. If you feel like you want to contribute to the creative commons, you need to know your voice and stick with it and the more tools you have to do so, the better.

Passion and talent are simply not enough. You have to learn about how the industry works, how to market and brand yourself and how to network to get to the place you want to be.

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