INTERVIEW: Hollie McNish | NARC. | Reliably Informed | Music and Creative Arts News for Newcastle and the North East

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When living poetry legend Benjamin Zephaniah says that he can’t take his ears off someone, you know you’re dealing with someone special. Hollie McNish is a poet who straddles the boundaries between the literary, performance and pop music. Much like her contemporary Kate Tempest, she’s a young woman with bags of talent who can turn her hand to almost anything, including making her own highly intelligent, yet fun, album. She’s also one of the country’s biggest advocates of poetry in education, having set up the organisation Page to Performance with rapper Inja, running workshops all across the country. She’s now embarked on an extensive UK tour, bringing some of the nation’s best poets with her as support, so I decided to ask her about her amazing career and what it was like to put her poetry to music.

What has been the most exciting thing about producing and releasing an album?

The best part was getting the tracks back from the producers. We recorded the poems first and then sent them off and waited for different producers to do their magic! It was great. Boxsta’s heavy dance track to Embarrassed and Inja’s Spanish sounding guitar piece to Bricks were probably the two I least expected- and really enjoyed. Recording the poems at Abbey Road Studios in London was a pretty big highlight too! The microphone was used in Lord of The Rings I think, it was amazing.

What was it that made you decide to express your work in this way?

I’ve always written poetry – obsessively really – since I was a kid. All my diaries are written in rhymes. So when I went to make an album, I didn’t want to take away that side of it. I hear a lot of poets with music and sometimes I’m like, stop the music, I wanna hear the words! So I thought I’d do both. A double album with each poem twice, once solo and once with music. Then everyone can choose their favourite way to listen.

What influenced your decision to use music on your album?

I was just really intrigued to see how and if it’d work. What’s the point in not giving things a go?

Have you had much musical experience?

I like music a lot if that counts! And I played the recorder in a band till I was in my twenties. In terms of doing poetry with music, or producing music, no, nilch. I was always obsessed with the lyrics really. I get an ache in my head when there’s a beat or sound I love and the lyrics are just speaking garbage. Especially if I’m out dancing. Like, I wanna dance, but I don’t wanna dance to someone singing that crap! Depends how many beers I’ve had normally!

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“What’s the point in not giving things a go?”

How do you think the music enhances your poetry?

I think the music is all so different and does different stuff in each. Like Megatron, I think the sound effects in that make it much funnier. Massive blasts when I’m talking about my boobs exploding! And Touch, Bricks and Language Learning, the music makes me sound way sexier than I am! Embarrassed – it totally changes the tone and Reverse I think the music makes it step up a gear. I feel a bit like Rocky when the music is there! So yeah, different things in each case.

How does recording differ to performing live and which do you prefer?

I love recording because there’s no-one watching you and I don’t feel like I’m gonna vomit, like I do each time I do a live show. But I love the atmosphere in live shows. When there are people and dark lights and comfy seats and snacks and drink, I think all that makes poetry a good night out! There’s something about listening to music, comedy, stories, poetry, anything, in a group which is so different than on your own.

Who influences you in the poetry world?

I love kids’ poets. I think Michael Rosen, Julia Donaldson, Allan Ahlberg are geniuses. I always loved kids’ poetry, it’s what got me into it in the first place. I never read many poets when I was older, at school like. But now I’m reading my own stuff out on stage, I get to see so so many great poets at shows. I could list loads, but I’d say instead, go check out a gig by Neu Reekie up in Scotland, Jibba Jabba in Newcastle. Or come to the tour, cos I’ve asked loads of my favourite poets to do the support slots: Deanna Rodger, Vanessa Kisuule, Sabrina Mahfouz, Michael Pederson, Kate Fox, Kate Tempest, Inja, Raymond Antrobus, Keisha Thompson, Dean Atta. Loads loads loads. Come to the Gateshead gig. Kate Fox is a genius and she’s the support on that!

On your tour you are collaborating with several other poets. What do you like about working with other artists?

The company! No, I just think it’s nice to have variety. If people are coming for a night out and I’m gonna stand and read poems to them for an hour, I think it’s so cool to have another poet, so they can see what else there is out there and how great all these people are. I think it’s good for the audience and good for us.

What challenges did you face in making it to where you are now?

Childcare and sleep deprivation! I think really those are the biggest. I was really lucky in that I got asked to do a lot of gigs from when I started reading my poems out. Till my daughter was about 1, my partner came to every single gig because I was feeding her. My mum walked her around Chinatown when she was 8 months old cos she wasn’t allowed into Ronnie Scott’s Jazz Club where I was doing a show. Being a parent and a poet is tricky. To be honest, any job it’s hard to juggle it all huh!

What advice would you offer to young or emerging poets, musicians or performers?

Start reading your poems to other people. Start in the real world, not on youtube, because real people are nicer and more supportive. If you do do stuff online and people troll you, send them my links and tell them to troll me instead cos I’m used to it and don’t care! But really, go to gigs, listen to other poets, join a poetry group if there is one. Share your poems and don’t get too obsessed with it all. Life is more than one thing!

Hollie McNish comes to Gateshead Old Town Hall on Friday 17th April.

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