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Mark Hollis - An obituary

Mark Hollis – singer, musician, composer

Born January 4 1955; died February 25 2019

Mark Hollis, who has died aged 64 following a short illness, was one of the most wilfully singular musical artists of the late twentieth century. As the vocalist, writer and driving force behind the band Talk Talk, which he formed with drummer Lee Harris, bassist Paul Webb and keyboardist Simon Brenner, Hollis moved from euphoric 1980s synth-pop to a form of exquisitely nuanced and timeless sounding contemporary classicism. After initial chart action, the band’s record label, EMI, found Hollis’ latter tendencies difficult to slot into a marketplace overloaded with saccharine gloss.

Hollis’ stubborn unwillingness to compromise his vision to an industry only interested in shifting units saw him eventually retreat into a private silence where only his family mattered. The small but perfectly formed body of work he left behind, however, was enough to leave its mark. Over five Talk Talk albums and a final, self-titled solo set, Hollis helped redefine what was possible with pop.

Moderate commercial success came with the band’s first two albums, The Party’s Over (1982) and It’s My Life (1984). The hi-tech studio sheen of the latter’s title track may have made for something deceptively anthemic. Like the album that sired it, however, the song was laced throughout with a sophistication and a melancholy that gave Talk Talk a depth beyond many of their apparent peers.

With producer Tim Friese-Green stepping in for the now departed Brenner, Hollis and Talk Talk moved into more organic waters with The Colour of Spring (1986). The latter record’s success afforded the band the resources to craft its follow-up, Spirit of Eden (1988), into an epic six song suite of slow-burning pastoral hymns, with Hollis’ whispered, barely there but utterly impassioned vocals framed by elaborately layered acoustic arrangements. Critical reaction to such an epic musical misfit helped give rise to that now much overused term, post-rock. The album also led to lengthy legal wrangles with EMI, with Talk Talk eventually leaving the label.

With Webb also now departed, Talk Talk went on to release their final album, the even more minimalist Laughing Stock (1991). It would be another seven years before Hollis would break his silence with his intricately textured self-titled solo album. As his final substantial musical gift to the world, Hollis was saying the quietest of goodbyes.

Mark David Hollis was born in Tottenham, London, the second of three brothers. He attended grammar school in Muswell Hill, and at various points claims to have left before taking his A-levels, and to have dropped out of a course in child psychology at the University of Sussex. Hollis was already writing songs while working in factories prior to forming his first band, The Reaction, in 1977. A single, I Can’t Resist, was released on Island Records, while a demo track, Talk Talk Talk Talk, later appeared alongside The Members, Slaughter and the Dogs and John Cooper Clarke on the Beggars Banquet label’s punk compilation, Streets.

The Island connection came through Hollis’ elder brother, Ed, who was managing Eddie and The Hot Rods, and had connections with London’s thriving pub rock scene. Hollis was briefly given his own Speedball imprint by Island, though nothing came of it. Ed Hollis had a huge record collection, and its eclectic range of free jazz and other out-there music undoubtedly rubbed off on his kid brother. It was Ed too who introduced Hollis to his future bandmates in Talk Talk, who formed in 1981.

The band’s first skirmish with the charts came with their second single, a reworked and truncated version of the Reaction song that gave them their name. More mainstream success followed, though it was when Hollis began writing with Friese-Green that his musical voice became increasingly expansive.  

With The Colour of Spring having already set the tone, Spirit of Eden was no ambient noodle designed for soundtracks and chill-out rooms to come. Here was a record full of space, an intense and insular affair which made demands of the listener even as it disrupted its own inherent beauty. Alongside Talk Talk’s core, Spirit of Eden featured a large ensemble of players, including iconic double bass player Danny Thompson and veteran jazz trumpeter Henry Lowther, with violinist Nigel Kennedy also making an appearance.

Despite their grandiose intent, the songs on Spirit of Eden were in no way pompous. They were developed organically through extended studio improvisations and recorded in the dark with the band surrounded by candles and psychedelic oil lamps. The various light and shade musical textures that saw the record move between meditative hush and fleeting cacophonies gave Hollis’ songs an emotional ballast that grounded them, even as they seemed to push towards something celestial and terminally out of reach.

Hollis’ vocals on Spirit of Eden are laced with a confessional vulnerability, which, while at times barely a whisper or a mumble, becomes something indelibly transcendent. Nowhere is this more evident than on I Believe in You, a six-minute paean to Ed, who by the time it was released had fallen prey to the fatal effects of long-term heroin addiction.

A remixed and edited version of I Believe in You was released as a single, complete with a video featuring a largely static but uncomfortable looking Hollis. Filming the clip was a move he later came to regret. Despite this, the song in both forms is as much of a masterpiece as the album that spawned it, and sounds holy enough to resemble a very personal prayer.

Hollis’ appearances on record beyond his solo album in 1998 were rare. He played piano and co-wrote a track on Unkle’s Psyence Fiction album, and produced, arranged and played on two tracks on Anja Garbarek’s Smiling and Waving record. The last piece of original music by Hollis to appear in public was a clip barely a minute long that appeared in 2012 as part of American TV drama, Boss, a vehicle for Kelsey Grammer.

In Hollis’ extended absence, the rest of the world seemed to catch up with his sense of widescreen ambition. Spirit of Eden in particular became a huge influence on a new generation of auteurs, with the baton picked up by the likes of Bark Psychosis, Graham Sutton’s indie noise band turned solo exploration of similarly inclined sonic sculpture. The 2004 Bark Psychosis album, ///Codename: Dustsucker, features extensive input from Talk Talk drummer Lee Harris, who also played on Webb’s collaboration as Rustin Man with Portishead vocalist Beth Gibbons, Out of Season.

Hollis, however, stayed determinedly out of view. Like contemporaries such as Kate Bush, with whom he might be said to have shared much in terms of aesthetic sensibility, Hollis was too often dismissed by a myth-making music press as a reclusive eccentric. In actual fact, while devotion to his art alone had pointed up a purity of intent, it was the profound importance of a family life lived in private that mattered most to him. A hint of this could be found in April 5th, a track on The Colour of Spring that marked the birthdate of his wife, Felicity.

In today’s arguably more eclectic times, and with the means of production easier to access, if Hollis had continued to release music, he might have been able to operate on his own terms more easily than when forced to deal with big corporations. While already a cult figure, he could also have become a respected elder statesperson of avant-pop a la David Sylvian or Scott Walker, both of whom made similar journeys from the mainstream to music’s more interesting outer edges. As it is, Hollis’ withdrawal from music has left behind a vital body of work that must now be regarded as complete, and which continues to take its listeners to the higher place its creator strived so hard to reach.

Hollis is survived by his wife, Felicity, and their two sons.

The Herald, February 28th 2019

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