Wednesday 16 October 2019

'I'm far more creative artistically as a mother' - former JJ72 bassist Hilary Woods

Former JJ72 bassist Hilary Woods tells our music critic how she's thrived on the freedom of making a solo album

Labour of love: Hilary Woods played every instrument on her new album, Colt
Labour of love: Hilary Woods played every instrument on her new album, Colt
John Meagher

John Meagher

Hilary Woods comes to the interview proffering a gift. It's a vinyl copy of her album, Colt, and it's the way she likes music to be heard.

The Dubliner released the album at the beginning of June and it has attracted several euphoric reviews, including one from this writer who mused that it could win next year's Choice Music Prize.

Woods says she finds all the sweet words satisfying, because she put her heart and soul into the music and she felt she had something worthwhile to say.

"It was a labour of love," she says. "I played every instrument on this album and produced it, too, [although she did work towards the final stages of the recording with the Berlin-based Irish producer James Kelly] and I made it exactly as I wanted to. The only person I was answerable to was myself."

And that's the way she likes it, especially as her early years in music were within the confines of a band. And it was no ordinary band: Woods joined JJ72 while still at school and the trio enjoyed considerable success. Their debut album sold more than half a million copies and she got to play in far-flung corners of the globe.

The music on Colt could hardly be more different to the alt-rock proffered by JJ72. It's sparse and haunting and has drawn comparisons to singers like Julee Cruise and Marissa Nadler. It's the kind of music that steals up on you and makes you feel as though you need to listen to the album again and again.

Colt fulfils the promise of a bunch of EPs that she released a couple of years ago, and it exceeds expectations. Partly as a result of her signing to the cult US indie label Sacred Bones, she has been getting all manner of positive notices overseas.

"It was made in Dublin, in my home," she says. "I feel lucky to be making music in a time where it's possible to record songs so well." She notes that 20 or 30 years ago, the business of recording and releasing music was far more complicated - and expensive.

And, she should know. Production software wasn't nearly as refined in the late 1990s, when JJ72 were at large, as it is today. Woods has little interest in talking about her old band today. It's not that she finds the subject awkward, it's more that she feels it is something that happened in the distant past and she's so much older now. "It's a lifetime ago," she tells me. "It's like being in a relationship in your teens and early 20s, but when you're in your late 30s, you don't think about it anymore."

She doesn't listen to the music the band made back then, but if one of their songs come on the radio, she doesn't move the dial. "I'm not embarrassed about it at all," she says, "but it's a different stage of your life and it's different music so it doesn't have much relevance any more."

It wasn't the sort of music she necessarily wanted to make either, but that's the compromise that people make when they join bands. As bassist, she was always going to play second fiddle to frontman Mark Greaney's vision.

When she spoke to Sacred Bones about the possibility of signing with them, she never mentioned her old band. And, she says, they only found out about JJ72 two months ago. It seems odd, as a routine Google search would uncover the connection, but Woods insists the label were only interested in her current work.

And, she says, they've given her carte blanche on all creative decisions. So a photo that she took adorns the cover and it's her choice to play sporadic dates in support of the album, including a night at Dublin's Sugar Club and a number of carefully chosen dates in America this September.

"I want to chose the shows carefully," she says, "rather than just take any opportunity that comes my way."

Woods certainly has little time in the sort of frantic touring schedule that was part of her life in the JJ72 days.

"No," she says, with a smile. "I don't miss those days at all. When my daughter was born, everything changed. I was 23 when I had her and I loved being a mother. It changes you, but it doesn't mean you have to give up the things that drive you - and for me those things are music and art."

Woods says she dislikes the idea that some believe that parents should postpone or relinquish their passions when they have children. "It's a strange attitude in society, but why should it be that way? I think I'm far more creative artistically as a mother than I was before I had a child."

The next day, after gathering her thoughts, she emails Review to clarify this point further: "I feel it is very important not just for women in music but for everyone to free themselves of other people's narratives and projections.

"In the making of Colt I simply just went ahead and made what I felt I wanted to make as an artist, particularly considering that I never stopped playing music or making art, albeit going about it in a far quieter fashion up to this point."

Woods is familiar with the difficulties of making music full-time but says she lives a frugal lifestyle.

"You couldn't do this," she says, "if you were motivated by money - and I don't know any musicians who are. It's something that's inside you and you want to express yourself. I mean, these songs" - she points to the vinyl copy of her album on the table between us - "they just had to come out. I had to record and release them."

Her album is available on the streaming sites and she feels there's little point on not putting her music out there. After all, there's a chance that she will reach a far wider audience than if she insisted on making the album available for sale only.

But it's a conundrum that she and like-minded artists have to wrestle with. "I feel musicians as a whole feel tied and cornered in that respect," she says. "If our music isn't on platforms like Spotify and so on, the work has far less chance of reaching any kind of listenership, and then of course if it is, you feel compromised."

Sometimes being a small artist on Spotify feels like being a proverbial needle in a haystack. But there's gold to be found amid the dross and you just know that, wherever they may be, unsuspecting streamers are going to stumble upon Colt and it will move them.

Colt is out now. Hilary Woods plays the Sugar Club, Dublin, on September 14

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