“Oh, you’re not gonna like this analogy,” said Brigitte Naggar, the mind behind Common Holly. Unfortunately, it was the only one she found suitable, so she plowed forward: “It was like I was a cow that needed to be milked, otherwise I would’ve exploded.”

The Montreal-based songwriter confessed that she hardly picked up her guitar during her years at university but, after a breakup in the year following graduation, found much-needed relief in songwriting. It was then that her current project, Common Holly, began to take shape, though music had already been a significant part of Naggar’s life for many years. 

“I was put into piano lessons very early on, as we all were, I’m sure, and I did that for six years, and then I really just hated practicing so much, so I finally quit,” she said. Later, her father started giving her guitar lessons. She got her own when she was 16 and began writing songs at the same time. One song she wrote then, “New Bed,” is the closing track of her 2017 debut, Playing House, though she expressed that she had been hesitant to include it.

“Actually, it was Devon (Mane, the album’s producer and touring guitarist) that convinced me to redo (“New Bed”) and make it album appropriate, and now I’m bound to it for life,” she added with a tone of light-hearted resignation.

Though she has been writing songs since age 16, Naggar told me that she “truly despised performing. It’s not my thing.” This was interesting to hear, given that she would be performing on the main stage of Audiotree Music Festival on the day following our interview, and she admitted that her attitude toward it had changed, at least in part.

“I don’t (still despise performing). I like it, I think because — well, obviously because I’m used to it. I think I’ve almost found a way to make it feel sincere and not performative. I think that’s probably my struggle with it, is the separation between stage person and audience, and stage person versus ‘you’ person,” she elaborated. And although she is capable of finding that performer-audience connection more easily when playing solo, she does “try to tour with bands whenever it’s affordable … and then give a sort of surround sound experience.”

Bringing a band on tour is also helpful in purely logistical terms.

“I do tour solo. It’s hard though, it’s a lot of stuff to carry,” she said, and having a friend or two along might also keep her accountable itinerary-wise. When she does tour solo, she fills her downtime with almost excessive excitement: “Thumb twiddling … I don’t know, what do people do, Facebook? I sleep a lot. I visit friends if they’re in town … I spend a lot of time making sure I don’t miss buses or planes,” she told me, although it turned out she had missed a plane just the week prior: “It was like a major moment. You know when you consider yourself someone that doesn’t miss planes? And then you miss your first plane? I was really like, ‘Who am I?’”

This wasn’t the only time she confronted her self-identity during our interview. On the topic of when she had made the decision to pursue music professionally, questioned herself again: “I guess it was when … I had finished university — was that two years ago, or was it three? How old am I?”

Later, she would also mention a period of time over the summer when she found herself in crisis. She had studied religion and art history at school — “So I was really setting myself up for, like, tons of career options” — but had thought of continuing school to become a social worker or therapist, and was having doubts.

“I was like, ‘What am I doing with my life?’ and then I looked up the career path for therapists and the schooling and so on, and it seemed like by the time I was done with that and in the workforce I would be making the same amount of money as I would if I continued on in music, which is … fucked.”

She took a moment to express gratitude for support she’d thus far received in the form of grants from Canada and Quebec, and acknowledged that it’s pretty ridiculous that, as an independent artist, she hasn’t had to work another job for the past year.

It may be a tenuous link, but these aforementioned instances of self-doubt might just be related to her self-professed terrible memory. She mentioned her memory while discussing the concept of nostalgia, which flows freely from every corner of Playing House. Even the album cover, a photo of Naggar’s “grandmother and her cousin, in a ballet posture in Egypt, probably in the ’20s or ’30s,” invokes the vague but intensely melancholic feeling of time passed.

“I feel like I look at nostalgia in kind of a pragmatic way. I think it’s really useful as a processing function. I don’t think I’m a dweller, and that’s probably supported by the fact that I have a horrible memory,” she explained. “I think that that kind of manifests in Playing House, in the song ‘If After All’ — just talking about forgetting, learning lessons and then forgetting them and that being a constant source of frustration … I’m very much into processing now and then continuing to proceed with proceedings,” she added, the last three words accompanied by a self-deprecating laugh.

Before we wrapped up our conversation, I asked Naggar about her influences. She pointed to Chad VanGaalen, “who I’ve done shows with … You should check that out, definitely, the older albums,” she said after I expressed my unfamiliarity — “I know everyone’s like, ‘the older albums,’” she said with mocking affect, “But it’s true! There’s a quieter heart in them, or something.” This self-awareness and nearly constant qualification of claims was apparent throughout our interview, but shined here.

“Who else? D’Angelo, obviously,” she added, knowing full well that the R&B legend’s influence on her work is far from evident.

“Maybe Leonard Cohen for lyrics, maybe T. S. Eliot for poems. I used to like poems a lot, I don’t know what happened. I was, like, a poem kid,” she digressed, but we followed up on this idea of poems versus songs.

“If you’re writing a poem, the words have to stand for themselves, which is why I would never show anyone my poetry,” Naggar said. “I feel like singing and playing guitar, I can hide behind my guitar and my guitar can hide behind me, and it’s this great sort of protective coexistence.”

I pried once more about her claim to being a “poem kid,” asking whether she’d written a lot during her younger years.

“Didn’t we all?” she replied. “Don’t we still?”

Common Holly performed on Sunday, Sept. 23 at Audiotree Music Festival in Kalamazoo, but you can also catch them on tour with Detroit-based Anna Burch and Ann Arbor-native Fred Thomas — whose most recent album, Aftering, features Common Holly — on Oct. 25 at the Blind Pig in Ann Arbor. Tickets can be purchased here.

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