Tiny Ruins: Ceremony

Since 2010, New Zealand singer and songwriter Hollie Fullbrook has been creating immersive, introspective folk music under the name Tiny Ruins. The very name suggests something intimate and irretrievably broken, but it also invites you to take a closer look. This is music that prioritises atmosphere over hooks, but once you get inside Fullbrook’s songs, they are little private worlds of their own.

With Ceremony, her fourth album and first since 2019’s Olympic Girls, she’s created something more akin to a private universe. Since her 2011 long-form debut, Some Were Meant For Sea, Fullbrook has steadily layered subtle instrumentation over her dexterous guitar playing. This is her fullest and most colourful release to date, but it’s still a dense work that takes time to reveal itself. Casual listeners are unlikely to be rewarded by Tiny Ruins.

Fullbrook’s band (Cass Basil on bass, Alexander Freer on drums and percussion and producer/engineer Tom Healy on everything else) is kept busy, even on songs that hew closer to her austere original vision. On the opening track, Dogs Dreaming, Fullbrook sings: “I always did know what to paint in an empty room / Thinking, this is more than enough”. It’s a apt self-description of her music.

But Dogs Dreaming is also a potent place to begin. It sounds bright and self-assured, lifted by the optimistic trill of Healy’s Hammond organ. “Don’t tell me what I already know,” Fullbrook purrs. “The body knows what it needs / like the beat knows the drum”. The song concludes with a dramatic tempo change to a slow waltz, as Fullbrook contemplates a possibly erotic obsession: “Like honey, deep in the hive, it stings to be there, but I go there all the time”.

Naturalistic imagery dominates the lyrics: Diving And Soaring has everything from seabirds to cicadas, with oysters in between and “the sea in her daily routine – gone to meet the moon”. Fullbrook’s close-picked acoustic guitar and soft, sibilant vocals are centred, but as the song unfolds, dark-chocolate notes of double bass punctuate the narrative, and a shiver of chimes gusts through.

It’s a sound that goes back to the English folk of the 60s, and Fullbrook can, at times, sound more like Nick Drake than a thousand sensitive boys. Closer to home, she also recalls her New Zealand compatriot Aldous Harding, minus the abstruse lyrics and theatrics (the two artists have toured together). But such comparisons feel inadequate and lazy on closer inspection: these are ruins with a view.

First published in the Guardian, 28 April 2023

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