This year, our series of “Women That Are Making It” is something that I am most proud of because we are featuring strong, ambitious ladies that are running the world with their wit, talents, and knowledge. When I first heard Macklemore and Ryan Lewis’ latest track “White Walls” on the radio for the first time, I had to know – who was that girl singing the catchy hook? After doing some digging, I quickly found out that not only was Hollis Wong-Wear living in Seattle, but she was also an alumni of Seattle University who was a senior when I was just a freshman! From that point on, there was no question. We needed to get Hollis on Yow Yow!
Q: I heard that you first got started in music and the arts by writing poetry. How did this come about for you and what was your inspiration behind it?
Hollis: Literature and reading have always been central to my life. I started reading at a freakishly early age and was always the girl that was posted up at the library after school. The librarian in the children’s section at the Larkspur Library by my elementary school was my homie; she saved the best and latest books for me to check out first and tear through. I was the first one in the county to check out Walk Two Moons when I was in 2nd grade, an accomplishment I have clearly not forgotten! Because I honestly felt a closer affinity to books and reading than I did to most of my peers, I have always identified as a writer first and foremost. The necessary solitude of a writer mirrored the isolation I felt as a kid.
I grew up in the Bay Area and my life was fundamentally changed by an organization called Youth Speaks, which organized poetry slams and spoken word performances and showcased immensely powerful young poets and famous poets on the same stage. It ignited me. I felt empowered to write my own story and perform it in a raw way – I had always been theatrical. I left the theater behind to pursue performing my own words, and because of it, grew into a performer and writer who saw community and social justice as my catalysts and centers. Performing spoken word poetry as a young person is the foundation of my identity and work as a writer.
Q: From poetry, how did that lead you into music? Is this the direction you always thought you would head in? Did you have any other career aspirations that you saw for yourself?
Hollis: I sang a lot in choirs growing up and have always loved music, but didn’t feel like I had a true talent for it. My mom attempted to cultivate me as a pianist and failed miserably; I didn’t have the passion or the discipline to be anything better than a competent beginner.
I only started doing my own music when a girl I had met through Youth Speaks in Seattle, Madeleine Clifford, and I became fast friends, bonded by our shared biracial experience, love of hip hop, and ferocious politics. We looked around and saw an absence of women like us making music we wanted to listen to. So we decided to do it ourselves. We parlayed our poetry into rap fluidly, and performed as Canary Sing for five years. We were bold, political, lyrically deft and a lot of fun. Performing with my best friend made the plunge into music much more manageable as we learned how to make music and navigate the music scene together. Both of us are unsure of whether we would have ever made that leap without our friendship to enable it.
I still have tons of other career aspirations that I still entertain: professor, novelist, education policy specialist, music video producer, public radio producer… I didn’t know exactly what I wanted to be, but I knew I wanted to be creative and make a difference. I still hope that, even as I continue to place more and more of my eggs in the music basket.
Q: You graduated from Seattle University when I was just a freshman. Being in a music-centered city like Seattle and even more so a neighborhood like Capitol Hill, did that help your involvement with music at all? Did you spend your weekends frequenting Neumos or the Showbox? On a typically weekend at college, where would we have found you?
Hollis: Going to school straddled between Capitol Hill and the Central District was a huge part of my education – learning the history and the culture and the tension of Seattle, growing a rich network of artists and community members, and being in an urban environment. I went to see hip-hop shows at Neumos and Chop Suey regularly, and wrote in writing circles and read at open mics at the Langston Hughes Performing Arts Center. I was a serious student during college so you could find me in the library quite frequently, but I was also always off campus: freestyling in the back seat of a friend’s car driving through Lake City or on Maddy’s back porch in the Central District; eating late night treats in the International District; studying at cafes on the Ave.
Q: You’re producing music videos for Macklemore, running operations for Blue Scholars, and at the same time are recording music, yourself. What does a typical day look like for you?
Hollis: There’s no such thing as a typical day for me! I am a nomad. I typically wake up at 9 AM and start immediately with e-mails, then will go off to do a variety of things: meetings, recording sessions, work sessions, poetry meet-ups. I also tutor high school students for SAT/ACT test prep and general enrichment, so there’s some of those sessions sprinkled in there. I’m anywhere from Beacon Hill to Capitol Hill to Greenlake to West Seattle. Over the last couple of months, I have made sure that I am in the studio working both on my solo material and The Flavr Blue’s new music every week for a significant amount of time.
Q: How did you get hooked up with Macklemore and the Blue Scholars?
Hollis: I met Blue Scholars through an Isangmahal poetry open mic where Geo and I were the featured performers. I was so nervous; I knew every syllable of their self-titled LP and was hugely inspired by their music. Geo was hella nice and I felt so cool that he remembered who I was a week later when they headlined Quadstock. We ended up hanging out two summers later in New York City and I was friends with Geo and Saba ever since. When they changed up their management to handle it themselves, they hired me to do coordination and communications, which allowed me to quit my non-profit communications job and essentially freelance full-time. It’s been 3 years since that happened.
I met Macklemore through my friend Gabriel Teodros and Khingz, who were huge early supporters of Canary Sing. Canary Sing actually opened for Macklemore at a show at Chop Suey in 2007 or 2008 (we’d then open for him again at Showbox in 2011). But I didn’t really get to know him until he, Ryan Lewis, Zia Mohajerjasbi and I worked tirelessly for months on the “WING$” song and video. It was such a huge process and learning experience for all of us, and I became really close with all of the guys through that. It was great in particular to grow a friendship and a creative relationship with Ben, who I consider one of my closest friends.
Q: At 25, not many people can say that they’ve performed on stage with mainstream acts like Macklemore and Ryan Lewis in front of thousands? What is that like? Is it something that felt natural to you or did it take some getting used to?
Hollis: I feel grateful that in my young life as a performer I’ve gotten to perform on some pretty impressive stages that have made it so that performing, say, on the main stage of the Gorge for Sasquatch isn’t a harrowing experience. At 19, Maddy and I performed at the Apollo Theater in Harlem for Brave New Voices, the national youth poetry slam; we performed in front of over a thousand opening for Saul Williams two years later. Performance has always felt natural to me, and more than anything, it’s confidence and comfort on-stage that makes a performance truly great. As long as I know exactly what I’m doing on stage, I feel good. If anything, I need to combat my overly analytical, totally lucid mind, and appreciate and take in the experience that so many performers wish they had. It’s a crazy lucky thing that I’ve been able to perform on the stages that I have and hopefully will continue to in the future.
Q: Tell us about The Flavr Blue. How did you guys get together? How long have you been performing with each other? This summer, fans can catch you at Capitol Hill Block Party and Bumbershoot. How does it feel to be performing at two of Seattle’s major music festivals?
Hollis: The Flavr Blue was originally a duo—my bandmates Lace and Parker—and they invited me into the studio to sing on the last song of their debut EP. The studio happens to be in the house where my boyfriend lives, so I was frequently on the couch right outside. We made that song, “In My Dream,” and suddenly the debut EP of a duo became the first half of a debut LP from a trio. Right away there was a natural chemistry between the three of us: they were heavy into production and experimenting with vocals, and I was interested in writing solid, fun pop music after having recorded hip-hop and acoustic R&B for years. It was a musical departure for all of us, and we realized that the three of us had a great synergy to make The Flavr Blue a thing. That was two years ago. And we’re still growing and learning so much.
It feels like a great accomplishment and a huge challenge to perform at Block Party and Bumbershoot. It’s my first time performing on music stages at both festivals, and they’re the big ones for local bands: Neumos stage and Fischer Green. We are determined to put on a spectacular show and it’s definitely pushing the limits of what we’ve done in the past. I’ve learned a lot about live show production in the last half-year and look forward to growing the experience of The Flavr Blue as more performance opportunities emerge.
Q: Should the audience expect any surprises from your set at all?
Hollis: We’re performing four completely new songs with surprising instrumentation, and we’re working on a really stunning visual show. Hopefully it all translates! We’ve felt so grateful for the support we’ve received thus far.
Q: I hear you are originally from the Bay Area. San Francisco is becoming a fast favorite for me after Seattle of course. Can you let us in on some of your favorite spots?
Hollis: Oh man! Too many awesome places in the Bay Area; hard to say what my favorite spots are. I’d say one of the most underrated neighborhoods and one that shaped my teenage years was the inner Richmond and Clement Street. Burma Superstar, Genki crepes, Green Apple Books, and King of Thai Noodle II were all regular haunts of mine. My favorite venue in the Bay is probably the New Parish in Oakland.
Q: How does your family feel about the career path? Are you all a musically talented bunch as well?
Hollis: My family is very supportive of now, although it was definitely an adjustment for my parents during college that their academically motivated, for-sure-headed-for-grad-school daughter was making hip-hop music. My mom in particular has always wanted for me to go to grad school and be educated and successful, but over the last year both of my parents have recognized that the work I’m doing is groundwork for a veritable career; that I’m not a drugged up deadbeat just because I’m pursuing music as a vocation. It was a gratifying moment to invite them to see me perform with Macklemore and Ryan Lewis at the Fillmore in SF, then invite them again two weeks later while I was tour managing the Blue Scholars for their winter tour.
We are not a particularly musical family honestly. I’m the only person in my immediate and extended family on both sides that’s pursuing music as a career.
Q: You mentioned to me that you are currently based in Seattle (since you’re not touring) what are you most looking forward to this summer in the city?
Hollis: Sun and work! I am so busy. But this nice weather has been really great and allowed me to relax in between tasks much better :) It will be really cool to be at Seattle’s two biggest festivals as a performer and a fan.
Q: 2013 has been an incredible year for you and we’re only halfway done! If there is one accomplishment that you are most proud of so far, what has it been?
Hollis: Thanks so much. It’s hard to pinpoint. My bandmates frequently make fun of me for being “unimpressed” and “uninterested” while I move through my life. Sometimes I think I overcompensate for the potentially overwhelming amount of things going on by being super level-headed and not getting particularly excited about what’s going on in my sphere. But weird things will pop out at me sometimes. Like when I saw that the Billboard Awards had nominated “Thrift Shop” as a video of the year, and I was like… “I produced that! Holy shit!” Or when I was going on about how intense and stressful my summer was going to be, a friend of mine said, “So, you’re basically performing in every major music festival in the Seattle region this summer.” And I was like, “Oh shit. Yes. This is basically my dream come true I think.”
I’m actually extremely proud that “Same Love” by Macklemore & Ryan Lewis featuring my friend Mary Lambert is on the verge of going platinum and has become a watermark for the year of progress on gay rights that we’ve had. It was a gorgeous union for me of my musical spheres and my poetic past, as I met Mary as a youth poet in Youth Speaks and was able to introduce her for her feature on that song. I am immensely gratified by that collaboration and the fact that a young queer musician and spoken word artist whose work has touched me greatly has broken into the mainstream. So dope.
Q: Hollis, this year on Yow Yow! we are focusing on the life of a 20-something and being a recent post grad transitioning out of college. What advice do you have for young adults our age and moving into the adult world? /// In a city like Seattle, teenagers are always trying to break into the music industry whether it is on the performing or the booking side. I started booking when I was still in high school for the Kirkland Teen Center and I wouldn’t have gotten there if it weren’t for the adults already involved in music helping me get my foot in the door. What advice do you have for people who aspire to work in the industry?
Hollis: I think we’re in an amazing time to be a young person. More than growing a career in one path, it’s more about growing your capacity, particularly in the creative sectors. In music, success is equal parts artistry and entrepreneurship, which means we have to be original, inspired, and savvy in order to prevail. It’s a great challenge. I also encourage all young people to have purpose in their work – a drive and a passion, but also a motivation larger than self. No matter what your focus is professionally, there is always a way to connect it to a larger cause, to be aware of how what you do in the world can either silence or empower people with less opportunity. All people are capable of teaching and of learning constantly. It’s easy for us to be isolated in the age of social media even though there is an illusion of immediate connectedness, and to be instantaneous experts because we have the latest technology or we can Wiki really fast. Truly great work takes time to cultivate, and humility, and thoughtfulness, and exertion. There’s no replacement for it.
There’s also no need to rush. Working with intention is way better than hurrying down a road you didn’t want to go down. I used to think that I was too old at 22, 24, even 26 to be an emerging artist; if it was supposed to happen for me to be well-known or successful, it would have happened already. Not true. I’m so glad that I’m the age I am now, with the self-knowledge that I possess, where I can really focus on the work I have to do. It took me those years out of college to try new things and struggle financially and fail gloriously and build the relationships that now have proved fruitful for me as an artist and a human being.
I facilitated a panel conversation and Jake One, arguably Seattle’s most renowned hip hop producer, had an amazing insight that spoke to me greatly. He attributes the success to the relationships he forged in his early years as an artist with people who were just as earnest and ambitious as he was. As his career grew, their careers grew; they grew together, probably exponentially so. We are nobody without our people, our networks, and the genuine relationships we form with our peers that aspire and inspire to new levels of greatness. It’s better to not look so high into the stratosphere and get disheartened by the gulf between where you are and where and who you want to be ideally, and instead look at ground level at who is doing the work and has the passion and fire you have, and let those people push you up.
Q: At this point, what is next for you? You’ve accomplished so much coming out of college already with your multiple projects. Are there any solo projects in the works or things going on outside of music that you are pursuing?
Hollis: I appreciate that even though I feel like I’m really at the beginning of what I hope to do. I am working on a solo EP and honing what my individual sound is like. I am grateful to be working with my friend Budo, an amazing producer, on that end. The Flavr Blue’s new EP is something I’m also really excited to release to the public. It will be kind of crazy to see what happens when the video for “White Walls” is released to the masses. I’m not really sure what’s in the cards for me, but I definitely feel like it’s now or never, ya know? I’m working hard to be ready for whatever comes my way.