Holly Norman: ‘As a drummer, I give the music space to take shape’

At first, I thought that there were several Holly Normans; there is Holly Norman, who worked in some festivals I was attending; there is Holly Norman, the singer – songwriter from Perth, who wrote some beautiful, sun-filled pop/folk /bluesy/swinging tunes; Holly Norman the yoga teacher I came across on YouTube; and the cool jazz drummer who showed up to our little jam session at the Paris Cat on International Jazz Day and had us all eating out of the palm of her hand with her feathery touch and energy. It was then that I realised that these are all the same person. Now Holly Norman – the singer songwriter and drummer, that is – returns to the Paris Cat to present her music, which is a great opportunity to discuss things and clarify this multiple personality situation. Not to mention learn about yoga for drummers.

What are you going to present at the Paris Cat?

I’m going to be presenting a pretty diverse program of music that I feel really represents what I’m about as a musician. I’ve always been very drawn to lyrical music, either in terms of the melodic and harmonic content, or tunes with actual lyrics that take the listener on a journey. On top of the ability of music to tell a story, I love tunes that just feel good, so hopefully everything that we’re going to play will have a pretty nice pocket – there are some well-loved standards on the set list as well as a few of my originals that I’ve re-harmonized to suit a jazz context a little more.

Could you introduce the band?

Gladly! I’m super excited to play with these musicians – Robert Simone on saxophone, Vashti Sivell on keys and Claire Cross on bass. It didn’t take too long to figure out who my top picks were for this gig; I’m drawn to each of these players for their great feel, sensitivity, and authenticity. Above all, I think it’s important to have a good rapport with people you play with, and feel comfortable throwing ideas around the band.

How would you describe your music to someone not familiar with it?

Expressive, melodic, and with an ‘icing on the cake’ philosophy. As a drummer, I tend to sit back and listen to what’s going on, and try to give the music space to take shape. I think this perspective developed from my classical roots. In orchestral percussion, you count a lot of bars of rest and this really gives you time to listen and play a supporting role. In terms of my writing, I’m a shameless Disney wannabe, so that sense of musical narrative influences my writing!

How did you decide to become a drummer?

I was a late starter on the drums. I went through high school and university as a dyed-in-the-wool classical percussionist and back then you couldn’t have paid me to get behind a drum set. Once I started playing in bands in my mid-twenties, I realised that there was a whole world of music that could become accessible to me, if I moved over to drums. I was reticent to even call myself a drummer until quite recently, because it’s such a different skill set to percussion, in my opinion at least. The drummer’s role is to drive the music with 100 per cent conviction, to be the beating heart of a tune and these are things I’m still very much working on.

How has your experience as a woman in music been?

When I attended university as a percussionist there was an overwhelming majority of female students in my course, so it was never really something I noticed. I’ve never missed out on opportunities – that I know of – due to gender, although I think that our access to opportunities can be determined by the extent to which we feel comfortable really putting ourselves out there, and this can vary from one individual to the next. Of course, people will always make remarks about how extraordinary it is to see a female drummer, and there’s sometimes that concern in the back of your mind that you’re getting booked based on something other than just your playing. When it comes to the actual music, I think we all have an equal responsibility to ourselves and to our audiences, and that’s to show up and kick ass and just try to make a contribution to the music.

Who are your heroes?

Anyone who expresses themselves authentically and makes their way through life with integrity as a high value. David Bowie, Tina Fey, Michael Jackson, plus many Australian born and bred musicians in the Melbourne and Perth music scenes, who I am honoured to call friends.

You are a musician, an events management professional and a yoga teacher; how do these activities complement each other?

For a long time I wrestled with the multi-passionate nature of my lifestyle, but the truth is that these different elements of my life all feed into one another and positively influence each other. I think all artists can benefit from seeing the industry from the other side of the looking glass; as a community, we’re able to work the most optimally together when we understand each other. The yoga and wellness part of my lifestyle is hugely important in maintaining a balance, and I get so fired up and passionate about how all of us working in the arts can be more aware of and improve our health. It’s really only the time management side of things that can sometimes be tricky; getting up at 5am to teach or practice yoga is difficult when you’ve had a late gig or worked a show the night before!

What is ‘Yoga for drummers’? Can I do it?

Yoga For Drummers is a class series that I’m continuing to develop, focused on improving functional mobility, reducing pain and stress and promoting mental wellbeing, specifically relating to drummers and their bodies. It’s evolved from my own experience of playing with pain, working out how to reduce pain through trial and error, and eventually realising that prevention is even better than cure and wanting to share that with others. It’s not only for drummers, in fact I’m looking at tailoring different online class sequences for lots of different instrumentalists, as well as technicians and arts managers. Generally, most people will share certain common physical ailments that are related to our working lifestyles revolving around either standing or siting for long periods of time, not to mention staring at screens or devices, and not optimising our breathing, which doesn’t make any of us feel that great.

So yes, Nikos, you too can do it

How did you get into jazz?

My dad used to listen to big band jazz records at home, and early on I was listening regularly to classic swing and big band – Frank Sinatra, Ella Fitzgerald, Louis Armstrong and so on. When I studied classical music at university, many of my friends were in the jazz course and I played in a second line brass band for five years in Perth, so I guess I was starting to develop more of a jazz skill set, but I was absolutely terrified to call myself ‘jazz’ for fear of being held up to the mark and found wanting. I think this is something that many of us do with the word ‘jazz’, I certainly still do!

But at end of the day, it’s just another word for music, and music is meant to empower, uplift, and unite us.

Which tune best describes your current state of mind?

There’s a tune by the Texas-based band Fall River Footmen that I fell in love with recently, so much so that I decided to add it to the set for this gig. It’s called ‘Little Boat’ and it’s just a really beautiful folk song about the ebbs and flows of life’s direction – or so I interpreted it.

The songwriter is a friend of my husbands and, when asked what the tune was about, he replied that he actually came up with the hauntingly melancholy lyrics whilst watching a cigarette butt swirl around in a puddle, and didn’t intend to convey anything more transformative or existential than that. So, it goes to show that the meaningful properties of music can really be in the eye of the beholder!

Holly Norman is playing at the Paris Cat on Thursday 27 September