Musicians carry many tools in their armoury – heartbreak, travel, experience – contentment isn’t usually one of them. But after leaving behind a record deal and a band, contentment is exactly what Holly Lerski found back in Norfolk.
It was here in the leafy enclaves of the east where Holly first began to pen songs. Born and raised in Finchley, London, Holly’s family moved to Norfolk when she was 9 years old. From there onwards life consisted of playing guitar, drawing pictures and exploring the fields and woodlands around her.
Fuelled by the fertile grounding of Art School, Holly would eventually go on to form the folk-rock band Angelou with old school friend Jo Baker in 1996. They signed to Norwich indie label Haven Records in 1997 and soon found themselves on tour supporting Eddi Reader (Fairground Attraction) and Boo Hewerdine (The Bible) across the UK, complimented by their first release: the Hallelujah e.p.
If that’s a title you’ve heard before, you’re right to conjure up images of Jeff Buckley. Describing her discovery of Grace in 1994 as “the green light to begin”, his influence has resonated throughout her music career. Uncut Magazine nicknamed her “the spiritual sister of Jeff Buckley”, and Q Magazine noted her songs had “a deft touch and, like her musical hero Jeff Buckley, an air of spiritual redemption”. Angelou’s e.p release was to share an uncanny timeline with Buckley’s tragic drowning, coming out the week after his death. But Holly would in time pay homage further to her musical inspiration with Little Sister, a song written for the artist and later contributed to the Buckley documentary, Amazing Grace.
After the Hallelujah e.p., a debut album from the band followed and in 1998 the industry received Automiracles enthusiastically. Produced by Calum MacColl (son of Ewan MacColl & Peggy Seeger) and recorded and mixed in just 10 days, it was described by Mojo Magazine as “achingly lovely” and The Independent as “the best debut of it’s kind since Eddi Reader’s Mirmama…indeed even The Sundays first effort Reading, Writing and Arithmetic“.
The album’s positive reception gave the band the force to stride into their second self-produced album, While You Were Sleeping. Released in 2000, The Sunday Times gave it a resounding 8 out of 10, calling it “brilliant folk-pop with a gorgeous voice…a real find”. In the words of Folk Roots Magazine: “introspection rarely sounded stronger”.
The creeping tendrils of Angelou soon found new roots overseas, with Spanish label El Diablo picking up on their music and releasing an ‘Introduction to..’ album entitled Midnight Witcheries. Invigorated by two national tours, including the Benicassim Festival Tour with Spanish Indie Rockers La Habitación Roja , the band comfortably made a name for themselves on National Spanish TV and Radio with the follow-up Summertime e.p. It was a name that travelled back to London and finally caught the attention of major record labels.
In 2001 Sanctuary Records became the new home to Angelou, and they were immediately sent off on tour across Europe and Scandinavia supporting blues legend John Hiatt. Soon after their return work began in Denmark and Manchester on their third more poppier album, Life is Beautiful. Released by Sanctuary under the solo name of Holly Lerski, the album had much commercial merit, but with the music industry in a state of flux with the imminent arrival of the downloads, even the attention from Radio 2 and support dates with The Cranberries, Jason Mraz and Josh Rouse couldn’t give the album the spotlight it deserved. The ailing label was soon to fold and be swallowed up by Universal Music Group, along with Life Is Beautiful and the rest of Holly’s songs.
Listeners always have the blissful innocence of enjoying music without awareness of artists struggles, and though disillusioned by the industry, Holly plugged away independently with Life Is Beautiful until it eventually fell into the lap of Starbucks who were looking to add tracks to their in-house playlists. Proud and vilified, now living in Manchester, Holly’s own imprint Laundry Label saw this as a vehicle for a limited edition sampler e.p. Greetings from N.Y. Featuring a postcard Jeff Buckley sent to Holly on it’s cover, the Greetings e.p. once again found welcome ears at Radio 2 and was regularly played on the breakfast show until the end of 2005.
By now the fractures in Sanctuary Records mirrored the fractures within the band, and in late 2006 Holly returned to Norfolk, playing a few solo dates, including a spot in New York’s famous ‘Living Room’ in 2007. That same week Hallelujah was featured in the finale episode of US TV drama Close To Home. Holly was indeed home, and ready to begin a new life away from the music industry, and back to writing, drawing, painting and playing music for herself.
Which takes us to 2013, her a house on the hill, and the infamous little shed at the bottom of the garden. A shed which became home to a tiny recording studio equipped with one mic, one old Macbook and a large helping of determination. Inside Holly sang, strummed, drummed and recorded ‘The Wooden House, playing every instrument from banjo, uke and tenor guitars to coffee cups and spoons. If she couldn’t play it, she asked kith and kin to help, including old friend LA bassist James ‘Hutch’ Hutchinson (Bonnie Raitt).
Finally, with producer/mixer and folk artist Stu Hanna (Megson) on board, and an album cover painted by English artist Dee Nickerson, The Wooden House was released to critical acclaim with The Sunday Telegraph picking it as one of the best folk albums of 2015.
In 2016 Holly began her YouTube series, the Sunday Shed Revival. She then started to write a series of short stories. Finally in 2017 she began to paint again under her birth name Holly Elmhirst.
Hand-played and hand made, she continues to work away in her little wooden house. Independence rarely sounded sweeter.