Hearing Lydia Hol’s music, or seeing the video for Heading North – title tune of her first full-length indie album – it’s clear this is one musical artist who knows exactly where she wants to go, and the compass bearings to get her there.
It helps that the Peninsula-raised 2005 Semiahmoo Secondary grad projects a calm, collected and personable presence, both onstage and off, (“I’m a good actress,” she comments, a little wryly).
Heading North, which debuts with a release show Jan. 16 at Coast Capital Playhouse, 1532 Johnston Rd. (doors 7 p.m., show at 8 p.m.) delivers on all the promise of her first recording, the EP Boats.
Hol’s smoky, yet tuneful voice; her rhythm guitar playing and trademark mix of melodic folk and bluegrass-influences – and poetic lyrics that present a series of polished, self-contained stories – are matched with strong arranging and tight, clean production, the latter courtesy of Vancouver’s John Raham (whose credits include the Be Good Tanyas and all of Frazey Ford’s recordings).
“The first recording was an experiment,” she admitted. “I had songs and I wanted to see if people would like them. I was surprised – people liked what I was doing. Now I feel like I’m in it for life.”
Boats offered confirmation that her original music resonates with audiences listening for more than pop hooks and mind-numbing repetition – and while Hol is cautious about an over-complicated approach to her lyrics she does acknowledge such disparate literary influences as William Wordsworth and Federico Garcia-Lorca on the new songs.
But, above all, she says, she wants her songs to be relatable.
“Any sort of music is a gift of expression,” she said.
“It’s meant to be a pleasurable experience, to bring light and beauty into the world.”
She’s been busy ever since the first EP debuted at Ocean Park Hall in 2012 – she’s toured across Canada multiple times, been a top-20 finalist in the Peak Performance Project, a regional finalist in the CBC Searchlight contest and has had showcase concerts in several North American cities, including New York and Kansas City.
The contests, particularly the Peak project, have helped get her music much better known – although Hol acknowledges that for a couple of years she felt the lure of other musical directions that tend to come with the opportunities that such showcases afford.
She toyed with a more electric and commercial approach, she admits, before returning to her original acoustic sound and individual balance of folk and bluegrass inspirations with the current album.
“The Peak project kind of wants you to do the indie-rock thing,” she said. “But I’ve also been to a couple of folk conferences that, for me, were almost too ‘folky’.
“It took me a really long time – I went a long way ’round, but I got back there,” she said.
“I think the album turned out the way I wanted it to. It’s folky but the instrumentation is lush. I did a lot more with strings – and at the White Rock show I’ll have a violinist and a cellist with me. I love the sound of the cello.”
Heading North began with recording sessions almost a year ago and has since included intensive mixing and design work, concluding with a live-from-the-floor promotional video shoot in December.
The setting of the video (https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=YMqzWzsSq1Y) is also typical – an open-to-the-elements boathouse at a family home on Pender Island (also Hol’s writing retreat), where she and a small group of musicians played with a storm-whipped sea in the background.
“I’m definitely an ocean-dweller, whether it’s White Rock or Pender Island,” she said. “The sea can be a metaphor for everything that’s going on in life.”
Attempting a video under such circumstances was risky, she admits (the crew even got stranded on the island for a spell due to the extreme weather), but the results were worth it, she said.
“(The video) sounds so clean – I didn’t think it would, but my engineer said he had it covered,” she said. “It also looks so warm, but it was really freezing in there!”
While Heading North started with 12 songs she pared it down to nine, she said.
“I went with the very best songs, and the musicians on the album are some of the best in the city. It’s challenging to work with people like that – they’re intimidating, but their ability to listen in to a song and tell exactly where it has to go is amazing. And they’re telling me ‘we’re so happy that we don’t just have break-up songs to play on’!”
Two of the songs are co-writes, she said, and while she’s usually a creative loner, she found the collaboration valuable.
“They say that working with other people teaches you a lot about writing songs, and I’m becoming much more involved with songwriting,” she said.
That includes travelling to Austin, Texas for an international songwriting workshop this February, and also launching and hosting a regular Monday night ‘open stage’ for songwriters at The Yale in Vancouver.
She’s also working on a collaborative music project with another notable singer-songwriter reared on the Semiahmoo Peninsula, Terence Jack (also known as T.J. Hermiston).
Moving forward in the music business has been a lot about setting herself personal challenges, Hol said.
“The whole vibe behind the song Heading North is the idea of chasing after something that scares you. The North is an unknown region – that’s what it means to me.
“All of this – creating an album, doing interviews – is a challenge. It’s putting something that is so personal out there and letting people see what they think of it.
“But putting this out is exciting and satisfying for me. Everyone in White Rock has always been really supportive of me – and I’m very excited for this show.”
Tickets ($20) are available at lydiahol.bandcamp.com/merch/tickets-to-album-release-show-white-rock
For more information, visit www.lydiahol.com