Nicky Holland’s Opus: Singer-Songwriter Looks Back at Greatest Hits
Holland celebrates digital-only release of 'Noboby's Girl' career retrospective.
If you were one of the lucky fans hip to singer-songwriter Nicky Holland’s soulful pop back in the 1990s, her eponymous debut and follow-up, Sense and Sensuality, will already have a loving place in your record collection.
For those of you unfamiliar with Holland’s smoky-sweet vocals, addictive melodies, and transportive lyrics, you are in for a rare treat. Besides re-releasing both records digitally for the first time ever, Holland’s giving fans, new and old, a chance to dip into her personal favorites from each on Nobody’s Girl, out July 28 on Sony Legacy Recordings. “I learned a lot from going back and looking at what I did all those years ago, and really breaking it down and reworking it,” Holland tells RealClearLife.
Basically a self-curated “greatest hits” album, Nobody’s Girl features 13 newly remixed versions of songs like “Hat Full of Stars,” which she co-wrote with Cyndi Lauper (see below); “New York Inside My Head,” co-written with Andy Partridge of British New Wavers XTC; and the non-album track, “I Just Don’t Know What to Do With Myself,” a Burt Bacharach/Hal David number that appeared on the soundtrack for My Best Friend’s Wedding.
Maybe the album’s most personal moment for Holland is “Face the Moon,” taken from her debut album. It had been her mother’s favorite song and was playing in the hospital room when she passed away. “I couldn’t listen to it,” says Holland, of the time leading up to its remixing. “When I first heard it, I wept. It took me right back there to that moment. I think music’s incredibly powerful in that way. The way you can time travel. It can take you to different parts of your life.”
Growing up in Hertfordshire, England, Holland grew up in a musical family, her mother a concert pianist, who taught her daughter the piano from ages two to six, before Holland won a scholarship to the prestigious Royal Academy of Music in London. What that really meant was from ages nine to 18, Holland sacrificed every Saturday, spending anywhere from six to seven hours a day working on everything from piano and cello to ear-training and singing. That would eventually lead her to a dual-degree at the City University of London and Guildhall School of Music and Drama.
About three years into her stint at the Royal Academy of Music, Holland tells RCL that she had a rock-and-roll epiphany, discovering Carole King’s Tapestry. “We had the same vocal register, and I literally learned every song on that album,” Holland tells RCL. “That’s where everything changed for me; I found I could play by ear and pick up other people’s material [just] by hearing it. That opened the door for me as a writer.”
Somewhat ironically, it was by and large American music, not British, that spurred Holland on as a young songwriter. “The Beatles were brilliant, but it didn’t resonate in the same way that a lot of other writer-arrangers did,” she says. Among her earliest influences were Tom Waits, Randy Newman, and her “heroes,” Steely Dan (we’ll return to them in a second).
After college, Holland could’ve easily become a professional classical musician like her mother—but instead, she sold her soul to rock and roll.
We decided to tease out the “greatest moments” in Holland’s career, given that she both worked and recorded with so many incredible and seminal bands. Below, find our top eight moments—including an exclusive video.
The Indie Years: The Ravishing Beauties – 1981-82
Fresh out of college, Holland joined her first band in ’81, the Ravishing Beauties, a keyboard-based trio founded by Guildhall School classmate Virginia Astley (no relation to Rick) and featuring another classmate, Kate St. John (think: Syd Barrett–era Pink Floyd meets The Zombies.) The band never found its way to vinyl, but their live material, which was performed on a number of occasions, is floating around on YouTube. Above, listen to a 1982 BBC Radio 1 session the band did with legendary DJ John Peel.
Fun Boy Three – 1983
After a four-night-a-week gig as a lounge pianist at Gatwick Airport’s Hilton Hotel (“very sexy at the time,” deadpans Holland), she finally got her big break, hooking up as an arranger with another buzzing U.K. act, Fun Boy Three. (The New Wave group was founded by three former members of British ska powerhouse the Specials—Terry Hall, Neville Staple, and Lynval Golding.) “They were big stars in England at the time, and they came and sat in the Hilton, and they said, we want you to leave and come and work with us,” says Holland. Her first gig with them was working on an upside-down arrangement of the Gershwin classic “Summertime,” which she ended up playing on and adding a violin lick too. It hit No. 18 on the U.K. charts.
So when the time came for Fun Boy Three to record its second album, Waiting—now, with Holland as its full-time arranger—the band recorded its own version of “Our Lips Are Sealed.” The album was notably produced by the Talking Heads’ David Byrne, whom we can thank for the funky rhythmic backbone of the Fun Boy Three version: “David Byrne got a bass guitar and held it across his lap and just started hitting the string with two fingers, and that produced this trance-like feeling,” remembers Holland. “Then we did these plain, chanty layered vocals, and then dubbed the vocal over it.” Fun Boy Three’s version reached No. 7 in the U.K. (the Go-Go’s version only made it to No. 20 in the U.S.). That’s Holland singing backing vocals and playing various instruments on the track (listen above).
Tears for Fears Part I: The Meeting
While recording a TV special with Fun Boy Three for German music program, Rockpalast, in 1983, Holland first met Tears for Fears—whose core members consisted of main songwriter Roland Orzabal (vocals/guitar/keys) and Curt Smith (vocals/bass/keys). They’d just released their first album, The Hurting, and were virtually unknown. “Roland had been a fan of my first group, the Ravishing Beauties, and he’d listened to our radio program on Radio 1, and then he came to see us [play] in Bath,” remembers Holland. After leaving Fun Boy Three, she joined a band called The Escape, which was signed to the same label as Tears for Fears. They ended up asking the Escape to open for them on The Hurting tour. “I was still in the Escape when Tears for Fears asked me if I’d like to start working with them,” says Holland. “I declined,” she says with a laugh. “Regrets, regrets.” The reason? She would’ve been featured on the band’s breakthrough album, Songs from the Big Chair (1985), which had a string of international hits and has since gone five-times multiplatinum. In a way, though, she didn’t really miss out at all.
Tears for Fears Part II: The Touring
When the Escape parted ways, Tears for Fears sent Holland a tape that included future single “Everybody Wants to Rule the World” on it. “I just went, ‘Oh my gosh,’” she remembers. “I could see the shift in the music from The Hurting. I remember Neil Taylor’s guitar solo on ‘Everybody Wants to Rule the World’ made me immediately think of Steely Dan, and so then I started working with them. I thought I was doing a three-month tour, and ended up working with them from ’85 to ’89.” Just one of three women on the tour, Holland held her own, learning a lot along the way. “The thing about playing live with Tears for Fears [at the time] that I’ve never experienced before—and I wasn’t sure about—was that everything had to be played exactly as it was on the record. Because you were playing along with programmed materials.” Holland believes that, throughout the course of the tour, lead songwriter Orzabal “started to realize that some of this was a straightjacket.” And that led to their songwriting partnership.
Tears for Fears Part III: The Seeds of Love
Maybe Holland’s least rock-and-roll quality—the ability to show up on time—ended up getting her co-writing credits on five future Tears for Fears songs. Orzabal and Holland would always be the first ones to a gig—and it turned into a quasi–songwriting workshop. “We started writing on various stages across the U.S., and he found writing with me, I think—I hope—a bit more fluid [than his previous, programmed work].” Those sessions eventually led to Holland’s London apartment and some taped demos, which she recently unearthed in the back of a closet. Those would become the building blocks for five of the eight songs that would end up appearing on Tears for Fears’ 1989 hit album, The Seeds of Love, including “Advice for the Young at Heart,” which charted in both the U.S. and U.K. (watch the video above); and “Famous Last Words,” the album’s final single—and a full-stop for the band, which would break up shortly thereafter (they’ve since reunited, and are currently on tour).
The Solo Years: Nicky Holland (1991) and Sense and Sensuality (1997)
After gaining momentum with her contributions to Seeds of Love, Holland released her two solo albums, which feature a handful of famous-in-their-own-right co-writers. One of the most memorable? Cyndi Lauper, who ruled ’80s airwaves with hits like “Girls Just Wanna Have Fun” and “Time After Time.” “She’s one of the most emotional singers—most expressive singers—I’ve ever worked with or heard,” says Holland of Lauper. “I think it must be hard to get to that place, put yourself on the line, and make yourself vulnerable in order to give that much.” What was writing a song with her like? “She and I actually lived in the same building, and went up and down in the elevator, and wrote ‘Hat Full of Stars.’” Lauper recorded her own version of the song in ’93 and named her fourth solo record after it.
Exclusive Video Premiere: Lady Killer
Holland befriended English musician Lloyd Cole, who scored a number of hits with his band the Commotions in the U.K. in the ’80s, when she worked on the band’s 1987 swan song, Mainstream. He then relocated to New York City, and there, hooked up with Holland, who can be found all over his ’90 solo debut. For her solo debut, out a year later, she returned the favor, enlisting Cole as a co-writer for “Lady Killer,” a noir-y novel of a song set in the Big Apple. The pair recorded a video for the single, but it never saw the light of day. That is, until now. RealClearLife has it for you exclusively above.