Common Holly Wants to Be Sincere Without Being Open-Hearted on 'When I Say to You Black Lightning'

Common Holly Wants to Be Sincere Without Being Open-Hearted on 'When I Say to You Black Lightning'
Photo: Alex Apostolidis
Brigitte Naggar, who performs as Common Holly, doesn't want to give too much of herself away. Even her debut album, Playing House, a wheezing, intimate breakup album Naggar wrote and recorded after graduating from university, didn't feature the blunt emotional transparency the source material can encourage. Instead, spare guitars teetered around the album, as Naggar sweetly described images, places and scenarios that worked as more suitable containers for her grief than stodgy, recounted fact.
On When I Say to You Black Lightning, out this week on Royal Mountain, Naggar sticks to a similarly artful, self-effacing approach, eschewing personal particulars in favour of metaphors that hold relatable emotional truths.
"The moment I start to perform the song — and not just perform it to a public, but play it on a guitar or sing it or whatever — it stops being what it originally was," Naggar tells Exclaim! "If originally it was some kind of confessional or journal or inspiration, it then just comes out as some sort of message or story, and so it removes itself from me."
Unrestricted by biographical fact, Naggar is able to show off her humorous, generous imagination. On "Joshua Snakes," an acoustic guitar lurches as Naggar sings, "You're like a hot supervillain at the top of your game." This villain becomes less charmingly comic and more alarming when he ties the narrator to train tracks, but even so, Naggar sings, "What will it take to say I don't think a rescue is in order?" In that moment, the breakup trope bows to something more subversive and compassionate, addressing unfair portrayals of helpless women and offering a relatable space in which to feel comforted and empowered.
For Naggar, offering this space involves sincerity. "A really big thing that I value in music and in art and in humanity is sincerity," she says. "And I guess sincerity and kindness run hand-in-hand for me. Maybe the idea is that it's an exploration, but it's not at anyone's expense. I think that it's meant to invite everyone in to play the game, and in some moments, to feel the feelings. And I think it's meant to feel familiar and supportive."
As tricky as it is to make supportive and kind music that isn't corny or glib, When I Say to You Black Lightning succeeds. Some of this comes from the rich, weird depth of its sound: co-producer Devon Bate and mixing engineer Hamish Mitchell helped Naggar in achieving an unhinged, layered soundscape that puts plucked acoustics and resonant strings in focus, while also adding swirling background ephemera — sirens, voices, pianos — that gives them, in Naggar's words, a "rickety," "off kilter" sound.
This textured sound lends authenticity to her lyrics, so that when she intones, "Don't be afraid," on "You Dance," the listener trusts her enough to personally consider the encouragement. There's a similar sense of consideration on "It's Not Real," in which a choir sings, "If I forget it, it's not real" over a jangly guitar. Sung live, Naggar says, it's this "crazy ritualistic community experience and everyone feels supported at the end."
For all its acute attention to kindness, When I Say to You Black Lightning is an emotionally rich album, offering meditations on pain and anger as well. On "Measured" Naggar plaintively sings, "I think we've been measured for pain since birth." A song later, Naggar is angry but restrained, singing, "Build your fire and watch everyone burn, is that what you're looking to do?" on the whirling, menacing track, "Uuu." It's a justified anger, redemptive and productive, expressing disappointment in the world and asking for more.
Being able to express anger artistically has been a healthy part of growth for Naggar. "I think I've spent a lot of my young life without anger, if that makes sense: very non-confrontationally and very peacefully and fine with most things," she says. "I think that anger can be extremely healthy — I think that's part of growth. You develop almost the entitlement to get angry — you have the right to stand up for something and to make some noise about something."
The noise Naggar's offers on When I Say to You Black Lightning is warm but dark, spacious enough to offer listeners hospitality, but cloistered and mysterious enough to convince them to stay. And, of course, this tension between emotional honesty and personal opacity centres around Naggar herself, who wants to offer kindness without sharing too much of herself.
Throughout the interview she returned to a sentiment she's found to be worthy, both as a musician and as a person. "Be sincere, but don't be open-hearted," she says. "Don't give away all of yourself."