If there wasn’t a West Coast bluegrass idiom before, there is now – emerged fully- grown from the imagination of South Surrey-raised singer-songwriter Lydia Hol.
Sea imagery and metaphors run through the sensitive lyrics of Hol’s aptly-titled debut EP, Boats, a six-song, bluegrass-inspired folk album.
It was also – just as appropriately – recorded close to the sea, in a four-day marathon session on Galiano Island with producers Georges Couling and Ben Brown and the members of her backup band The Barefoot Boys: Davin Miller (banjo, guitar, mandolin), Damian Ritchie (fiddle), Wesley MacInnes (bass) and Brandon Holm (drums).
“During breaks we’d watch boats sailing past the island, through binoculars,” Hol said.
“The guys were saying to me ‘I get it now.'”
And, indeed, the carefully-crafted, beautifully sung and played compositions on Boats – which has its release show Friday, Sept. 14 at 8 p.m. at at Ocean Park Community Hall, 1577 128 St. – sail past the listener like self-contained vessels, each carrying its own individual character with a story to tell.
The 2005 Semiahmoo Secondary grad has worked with a wide variety of bands since she started to pursue music seriously, most recently touring with the Fox Seeds 2011 winners, Head of the Herd.
Ironically, her musical light was hidden well under a bushel when she attended Semiahmoo – it was her brother, trumpeter Daryl Hol, who was in the musical limelight then in the school’s famed band program.
“I was always singing, but I was just so shy,” she said, adding that moving home to South Surrey as a musician has been an eye-opener for many of her classmates. “Everyone hearing about the EP and the show is so surprised, although they’re very supportive.
“But I always knew I wanted to sing – and one day I decided I had to do it or I’d always regret it. As soon as I went to university I started doing open mics and gigs at bars.”
Although gifted with a warm, melodic voice, Hol, who also has a degree in English Literature from UBC, has an overriding passion for stories, which manifests itself in all of her original songs.
“Storytelling is the most important part of music for me,” she said. “I’d say I’m almost more of a storyteller than a musician.”
Some of the maritime-tinged imagery for Boats was inspired by John Steinbeck’s novel Cannery Row, she acknowledges.
Other influences include a university exchange to Dublin, Ireland, where in addition to soaking up the culture she acquired a bodhran, or traditional drum, which she has since played in live shows.
Studies in jazz singing at Vancouver Community College further honed her performance skills, and working in bands in various idioms – including the blues-rock of Head of the Herd – has also broadened her range.
But she knew she had to find the right sound – different from hackneyed pop models – to bring out the quality of her original songs, she said.
“In Ireland, people would stand up and sing with no instruments, and that was way more powerful than the two-guitar-and-synthesizer thing – that takes away the power of a song rather than adds to it.”
Travelling in a more acoustic folk-oriented direction seemed natural for her, she said.
“I started playing mandolin this year. Now I play guitar, mandolin and bodhran, but my first instrument is voice – and I’ll still do an a-cappella number in a set.”
Adopting a bluegrass sound was a way to ensure her music was lively, Hol added.
“It’s very easy to write slow-singer-songwriter-sad songs,” she said. “I was trying to challenge myself a bit with more upbeat songs.”
Although she waited a long time to get the sound she wanted, the actual recording of the EP came together very rapidly.
The catalyst was meeting fiddler Ritchie – and the rest of the pieces, including musicians she had worked with in other bands who were willing to go in a bluegrass direction, fell into place very rapidly.
“I got everybody together in a month,” she said.
There’s nothing that seems rushed about the EP, and Hol, herself, projects the very calm energy of someone who knows exactly where she’s going.
“I’m generally a quiet, calm person – but I’m also a really good actor,” she said, adding that her experience performing seems to have knocked all the shyness out of her.
“Once I get a mic in front of me, I’m rarin’ to go,” she said.
“And I love making jokes. A lot of bands come on and say one or two things and then it’s all music.
“I really want people to come away from the show knowing where the singer is coming from.”
Tickets ($15) are available from Live Yoga, or at www.lydiahol.com