Sharon Van Etten w/ Tiny Ruins
Gabe’s — Monday, Oct. 13 at 8:00 p.m.
International Writing Program resident Yeow Kai Chai reflects on the work of Tiny Ruins’ Hollie Fullbrook, a musician he became acquainted with through a tour performance in Singapore and who appears with Sharon Van Etten tonight at Gabe’s.
On first glance, Tiny Ruins’ Hollie Fullbrook doesn’t have what you may call “edge.” She isn’t armed with a tormented back-story, has no fluorescent punk hairdo and doesn’t get into Twitter wars with twerking pop nymphets. Instead, she comes across more like a helpful bookstore clerk or an efficacious museum attendant.
As a matter of fact, the New Zealand singer-songwriter does have a song about a protagonist working at a museum. “Me at the Museum, You at the Wintergardens” is the title of Fullbrook’s exquisite opener to her incandescent second album Brightly Painted One.
“We’ll lie on the lawn / smile so stealthily, buttery and brief / We’ll lie through our teeth / Shock all the calvary statues watching us,” she lilts over finger-plucked guitars, Hammond organ chiming over her as starlit wonder.
Herein lies her métier: There’s steel in the zephyr of her voice, its subtle phrasing shaded and shadowed by the accompaniment of bassist Cass Basil and drummer Alexander Freer.
She’s talking about the thrill of a burgeoning romance, but everything is away from the public eye. She doesn’t stand up and make statements, but rather lets words just roll along, effortlessly, as if they have been smoothened over by a river for years.
Still, if you pay attention, her piquant observations about modern interactions cut when you least expect. It’s apt then that she would be performing here in Iowa City, Unesco City of Literature, where every word is held up for loving scrutiny. Her ambivalent lyricism is an undertow, placid on the surface, but once you wade into the water, you’re tugged along, imperceptibly.
In that respect, her music provides a counterpoint to Van Etten’s more declamatory art. Whereas Fullbrook’s songs are largely affixed with objective, descriptive titles, such as “Ballad Of The Hanging Parcel” and “Night Owl,” Van Etten’s songs are cris-de-coeur; heart-on-sleeve apostrophes such as “Your Love Is Killing Me” and “I Love You But I’m Lost.”
For Fullbrook, emotion is contained, hushed, almost a secret too good to be shared
beyond two persons. Her songs unfurl like palm-of-the-hand stories, flash fiction
missives that elucidate and elide in equal measure. In “Ballad Of The Hanging Parcel,” she zooms in on a lead weight, which is “hung by a thread from the guttering / When morning came it was still swinging — a gleaming rock, string vaguely glittering.”
The vivid image, as it turns out, becomes a metaphor, a metronome for the protagonist’s
heartbeat as she dreams of “when our next run-in will be.”
Her songs aren’t naval-gazers. Nor are they sloganeering anthems. Rather, they lend
voice to ordinary folk caught in everyday quandaries, whether evincing the rush of a love
affair, or contemplating the larger meaning of human existence. Her songs quest and question gently, and sometimes, with surprising levity.
For example, on her 2011 debut album Some Were Meant For Sea, she sings a song called “Priest With Balloons.” It was inspired by a 2008 report of a Brazilian priest who hurled himself off a cliff strapped to 1,000 helium-filled balloons, only to vanish at sea.
“What was he looking for? / Truth or was it heaven? / But did he just want to go out with
a bang / So to speak,” she sings, even-toned, tongue fully in cheek.
Yeow Kai Chai is a poet, fiction writer and music critic. A sample of his poetry and prose writing can be found here and the music criticism he has written for Singapore’s Straits Times can be found here.