Get to know Montreal artist Common Holly and the off-kilter world of her experimental new album

Brigitte Naggar and co-producer/guitarist Devon Bate discuss playing the guitar ‘wrongly’ and their new album, When I say to you Black Lightning.

Common Holly When I say to you Black Lightning
Common Holly aka Brigitte Naggar. Image: Max Taeuschel, Aaliyeh Afshar

This Friday, Common Holly – the project of Montreal musician Brigitte Naggar – releases When I say to you Black Lightning, an album that reveals its instrumental and lyrical multitudes on every new listen.

When I say to you Black Lightning twists the minimalist folk style Naggar developed with her 2017 debut Playing House, using finger-picked guitar, dissonance and off-kilter arrangements to create a haunting sonic world; the single Joshua Snakes even incorporates recordings of fidget spinners and bouncing balls. Amidst these textures that toe the line between drama and delicacy, Naggar sings about mental health, the precarity of life, and finding strength in the face of misunderstanding.

For this record, Naggar once again enlisted the help of electroacoustic producer Devon Bate, who also works with classical artists like Jeremy Dutcher and Jean-Michel Blais. Ahead of the album’s release on 18 October, Naggar and Bate sat down with Guitar.com in the middle of a recent tour to discuss their more experimental approach to the record.

How would you describe your relationship with the guitar?

Brigitte Naggar: I think that the guitar for me is the best way to translate whatever I’ve got going on into music. Especially on acoustic guitar, I feel like there’s something about the touch of the guitar and then the way that it resonates that just is a pretty seamless transition point for that, and that’s sort of the way it’s always been since I started writing. I have this really small travel guitar that I bought in France and it’s like a third of the size of a regular-sized acoustic guitar. It’s a small classical and it has this amazing dinky tone and I write most of my music on that.

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Is there a make or a model that you steer towards now?

BN: I think it’s less about makes and models, and more about individual-sounding guitars. The first acoustic guitar that I got, which I still play, is a Crafter that I got at a used guitar shop. I’ve never tried any other Crafter that sounds like it, so I think it was very particular. I like the idea of finding unique guitars.

Was the process for When I say… different compared to your first record, Playing House?

Devon Bate: The first one was definitely like a ‘fake it till you make it’ kind of scenario, in terms of learning a lot as we went. Nothing about the process was a conventional production process and I think, for me anyway, the second one was very much the same. It was just as unconventional, but at least informed by our previous project and previous album.

BN: I think the second one was more collaborative because in the first one, I think Devon was very much the producer and then the second one it was like, “Okay, how are we coming to this together?” Now I’ve gone off and tried a bunch of stuff and been touring and so on, and so there was a lot more of that [experience]. I feel like we got to dig into it instrumentally a little more as well… There’s more going on, there’s more that can be performed and a lot of guitar stuff as well.

Was there any part of the process that stood out for you?

BN: I feel like there were so many moments because we recorded at a cabin. It’s my mum’s cabin which is about an hour out of Montreal, and it was two weeks of ‘aha!’ moments.

DB: We’d usually work on about three tracks at a time and just bounce between them, so not [working on] too many but also not just narrowing in on one too heavily. When we circled back to [the song] Uuu, I remember both of us thinking, “This is terrible”, and then we went a completely different direction.

BN: We were actually bowing the bass at that time and it was way too dramatic, I think.

DB: It was just kind of gross and floppy-sounding. I think after that, Brigitte created an acoustic riff at the end which was much more crispy and bright and finger-picking, as opposed to drone-y and bowing.

It’s quite a dramatic album. Did you set out to create that kind of tone with the guitars?

BN: I think we did go into it hard, and then at the end, we did the first level of dialling it back. Then Hamish Mitchell, who mixed the album, ended up taking most of the tracks, putting them to tape and re-amping them and giving them this… Devon calls it ‘wiggly’ guitar sound. All the rickety, crunchy stuff that you hear, I think that was meant to both dial it back and also set it in a particular world. It’s still moody and dark, but I almost feel like those wiggly guitars give it occasional lightness.

Album opener Central Booking starts with a few bars of guitar and it takes a while for your voice to come in. Was it intentional to start the album off that way?

DB: Personally I tend towards drama quite a bit and so I think we started off really dramatic and then we dialled it back. Then Hamish took it and dialled it back even more, and it got even more dry and even more wiggly. And then I think my desire was to dial back the wiggly. I remember the beginning of Central Booking being super chaotic, and now it’s like a balance of using reverb but also having the wiggly tape [sound].

BN: In a sense, it definitely introduces an atmospheric guitar vibe for the album that’s also kind of ominous and mysterious and maybe shows [the record] is not all singer-songwriter-y. There’s some more instrumental, for sure, than the first album.

You mentioned bowing and you also played around with fidget spinners, bouncy balls and accidental recordings of roommates. How do you replicate those sounds on stage?

DB: It’s all about approaching the guitar as a sound source: seeing it as a device that makes sound and not worrying about the more conventional guitar tone. If you were to try and recreate the sound of a fidget spinner that’s sampled, what would you do to the guitar to make that happen? Or you know, I do a lot of cello parts, either with bowing or the very particular way of plucking a string that replicates a pizzicato on a cello. Approach [the instrument] with more ‘pure listening’, as opposed to ‘guitar listening’.

BN: We also emulate some of those sounds on some of the other instruments as well. I guess the idea is to replicate the placement and the feeling: What feeling did the flipping of the book pages have here? And then, how are we recreating it either on drums or as Devon would do on guitar? And so on.

You’re now touring as a four-piece. Does that allow you to be more experimental in your own playing?

BN: I think more and more, yes. I’m still learning to let go of what I’m playing because I was so used to playing solo for a while and that’s what I did for the first year or so. But even on this tour, every day I think I do a bit less and get a little more playful and try different things, especially on the guitar because guitar for me is second to voice.

DB: I think ironically, it was the opposite for me in that when you’re not just leaning on the conventions of different genres of music or how guitars work, you have to be very focused to make this fidget spinner sound, or to make this sound of the tuning fork. You have to do something very, very precise and it’s harder to play around with that.

So I think over the course of this tour, I’ve been able to play around with it more but in the beginning, because the sounds are so precise, you have to be very diligent in exactly what you’re doing. But once you have that palette established and you know how to make those kinds of sounds work, then you can play with them more. You have to sort of relearn the guitar just because you’re playing the guitar ‘wrong’. So you have to relearn how to play the guitar wrong and then you can play with that.

What would you like people to take from this new record?

BN: I think that I want people to listen for hidden messages of compassion and sincerity and feeling and communication. I would love it if they listened with focus, because I don’t think it works well as a background album. I think also often everything that Devon produces is meant that way.

When I say to you Black Lightning is out 18 October via Barsuk Records. Common Holly embarks on a North American tour next month. Find dates and tickets here.

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