Like Carver, the artist until recently known as Law has produced a series of dark, mood-laden vignettes that sound by turns strident and fragile, her vocal both timelessly soulful and other-worldly, wrapped up as it is in a dense mesh of beats and rhythms that fizz into murky life around her. The lo-fi video for her song, Hustle, is set in the sort of hotel room scenario that looks like it could be in the same neighbourhood where many of Carver's characters eke out their lives.
With such inherent drama in Holt's work, it's perhaps no surprise that the twenty-seven year old singer was asked to provide a soundtrack for the world premiere of Swallow, a brand new play by Stef Smith being produced by the Traverse Theatre for this year's Edinburgh Festival Fringe.
“I was really flattered to be asked,” says Holt, with her book of Carver on the table in front of her. “To be involved in something like that in this early stage of my career, I was really pleased. I don't really know anything about theatre, so I thought I'd consider it, because I thought it would be a good thing to learn about and try and get into. Then I read Stef's script and I thought it was beautiful.
“Speaking of Raymond Carver, I thought it was so sad and so beautiful, and the themes really need to be addressed, the themes about the strange person and the beautiful person and the people inbetween. Everything at the minute, everyone's trying to convince themselves that everything's fine and that everyone's beautiful and that we're all great and are all having sex all the time, but it's really not like that.”
Having broken through into the theatre world with her script for multiple award-winning sex-trafficking based play, Roadkill, Smith is no stranger to emotional intensity. In what sounds like a very Carveresque scenario, Swallow finds her taking a close-up of modern life through the eyes of three women who find each other's lives becoming entwined with each other in a morass of connection, betrayal, isolation and heartbreak.
“We've put a whole body of music together which I put down on a four-track in my flat after I read the script,” Holt says. “It'll have a lo-fi feel, which I think will suit the writing, which has a real simplicity to it.
“You know what I like about the theatre?” Holt asks in a rush of words punctuated by a warm laughter that belies her sometimes steely onstage presence. “It's one of the only examples in modern life where women really are being taken seriously. People go there and they do it, Stef's taken seriously when she's speaking to the director, and I'm like, yeah, man, this is how artists should be treated and pushed forward. It's important. At this stage in my career, we all have our insecurities, but because Stef comes from that theatre world, she took me seriously and said she'd like me to do this, and a lot of people don't. I've got a day job, and it's two different worlds, you know, and a lot of the time that other world doesn't care what you do or even know about it.”
Holt's involvement in Swallow stems from Smith hearing her play at a gig organised by her partner, and subsequently writing Swallow to a soundtrack culled from songs from two EPs that can be heard on Holt’s Soundcloud page. The melancholy noir of Hustle particularly stood out for Smith.
“She said it was the rhythm and the mood of it,” says Holt, “and that the writing poured out of her when she was listening to it. That was the first thing I ever did as Law, and it seems to have taken on a life of its own. I can't really remember writing it. It was written fast, in like half an hour or something, and when Stef said that to me I was like, Wow. I think about all the artists that I'm excited by or think about when I'm writing things, and to think that someone like Stef was listening to my songs and being inspired by it, that's amazing.”
Originally from Leicester, Holt started singing aged sixteen after joining in a class that ran alongside a dance class she was already attending. The teacher running the class encouraged her to take singing seriously, and she started playing open mic nights. With early influences including Destiny's Child and Eryka Badu, hearing Amy Winehouse opened Holt up to another world.
“All the hairs on my neck went up,” she says. “Jesus Christ, I'd never heard a voice like that, and from there I went backwards. In the CD sleeve there was a small picture of her CDs, and I went and bought them, and started listening to Sarah Vaughan and Billie Holiday and Dinah Washington, and then instrumentalists like Monk and Mingus. It was important to me, hearing all that.”
Holt decamped to Liverpool for university, where she started playing jazz gigs and singing “anywhere that would have me.” She moved to Edinburgh five years ago, working a low-key pub circuit and and joining a ska tribute band. She eventually came into contact with Young Fathers, the Mercury Music Award and Scottish Album of the Year winners with whom she shares management and has become kindred spirits with.
Up until recently Holt frequently sang live with Young Fathers, but is now in the midst of recording an album of her own. Such dedication to her work may be undercut by self-effacing charm, but there is a raw openness to her voice that sits so well with Smith's work.
Holt is conscious of the hard work ahead of her, as well as how women can be treated in the music industry. She quotes from the magazine of the Performing Rights Society, the organisation which oversees songwriters royalties.
“It said that only thirteen per cent of women are PRS members.” she says, shocked at such a statistic. “That means that just thirteen per cent of women are songwriters. It's only when you hear something like that when you think, 'Oh, God, well maybe I am a bit of a rarity', and so is Stef,” she says, returning to Swallow.
“Swallow's really important for women,” Holt says, “both for Stef as an artist and for the things the play is about. I think it's a really brave thing what she's done with the script, to really put herself out like that. It's honest.”
Swallow, Traverse Theatre, Aug 7-30, various times.www.traverse.co.uk
The Herald, August 13th 2015