Words JoJo Marshall Photos Zoe Rain
Hollis was in a hotel room in Philly when her Twitter started blowing up with links to the 2014 Grammy Awards nominations. “There are very few times in my life that I get overwhelmed or surprised, but when I saw my name listed next to ‘Album of the Year,’ I was really taken aback,” she says. “My heart started beating really fast.” She is credited for songwriting and vocals on Macklemore & Ryan Lewis’ album, The Heist. If it wins album of the year, she gets to walk up onstage and accept a gold gramophone trophy.
She’s shared the stage with the socially aware rap duo numerous times, including playing with them at Madison Square Garden and Seattle’s Key Arena on their 2013 world tour, and she’d produced their videos for “Thrift Shop” and “Wing$.” Standing alongside the rappers on their meteoric rise to fame has made her immune to surprises. “Their momentum is so unstoppable that nothing seems out of reach,” she says. “But for some reason the Grammy’s nomination, seeing my name, I just freaked out.”
Hollis (whose last name is Wong-Wear, though she drops that for the stage) has been a performer since she was 13. At 26, she’s been in bands with styles that range from hip hop to soul to jazz. At the moment, her primary focus is on her solo work and her main band, The Flavr Blue, a synth-pop trio that just released their second album, Bright Vices.
Catching Hollis on the street, you would never peg her as a hip hop girl. She’s tall and thin with rectangular glasses that slide down the bridge of her nose. Her glossy black hair is dyed merlot red at the ends. (Her roommate, who doubles as her stylist, insisted that she try something daring.) She speaks with a soft lisp that gives her voice a whispering quality, but she articulates her thoughts with a precision that reveals she is a poet, carefully tasting each word before she spits it out.
Hollis grew up in Marin County – the oldest of three – with a mother from Hong Kong and a father from Omaha. “Growing up in the suburbs, being biracial, having a very immigrant mom, it was common for me to feel disoriented in my environment,” she says. Her high school classmate, George Watsky (now a hip hop sensation himself) introduced her to Youth Speaks. Youth Speaks is a nonprofit youth development program that presents spoken word competitions. Her first year, she made it all the way to the National Grand Slam Finals. “Pursuing music as a career didn’t seem applicable to my life,” she says. “I didn’t think I had a story worth telling. Poetry allowed me to feel confident in my own narrative, confident that I could say things powerfully.”
Moving to Seattle for college in 2005, Hollis met Maddy Clifford through the local Youth Speaks and the girls formed Canary Sing. The “femcees” – known for their sharp, unapologetically political lyrics – opened for the likes of Zion I, Saul Williams and Dead Prez. “We were tearing through our Ethnic Studies readers and frothing with thought,” Hollis says, laughing as she looked back on her eager, young self. “And we endeavored to rhyme.”
Being a woman in the often misogynist realm of hip hop wasn’t easy. “So often women are just accessories,” she says. “We have that inevitable desire for attention that is both conditioned and authentic. We want to be cute and feminine, but then you’re thrust into this place where no one takes you seriously. So we had to take us seriously. We worked damn hard to be good.”
When Maddy moved back to the Bay Area in 2012, Hollis was looking for a new project. She founded The Flavr Blue with two Seattle natives Isaac “Lace” Sims-Porter and Parker Reddington. All three musicians have been steeped in the Seattle hip hop scene, but their sound is more moody electronica. “It takes on a lot of iterations: R&B, electronica, soul,” Parker says. “We were listening to a lot of Rhye, STRFKR, Möller and MSMR while we were making Bright Vices.”
The boys admired Hollis’ deliberateness. “She takes her music very seriously and doesn’t approach things like she’s wingin’ it,” Lace says. Parker noted her inclusivity. “She’s always offering to fold people into projects she’s working on,” he says. And, boy, does she have a lot of projects.
Despite being pulled in so many directions, Hollis doesn’t seem to lose her perspective. She is still a teaching artist at Youth Speaks Seattle and sits on the jury panel of The Leeway Foundation, which gives grants to women and trans artists. How women are represented in the music business is something that Hollis thinks about a lot. “I want there to be a more diverse expression of womanhood in pop culture,” Hollis says. “The reason that Miley Cyrus is dominating it, the way that Britney Spears dominated it before her, is that they’re easily fallible public figures. The public enjoys them being a hot mess. It’s easier to sell a woman that’s a hot mess than it is to sell a woman who is articulate, put together, intellectually driven. You’re more easily validated if you’re hitting the archetypes of the highly emotional, highly impulse-driven woman.”
During the making of The Heist, Macklemore hit writer’s block (rapper’s block?) and he turned to Hollis, who he’d been friends with for five years. They became friends after Canary Sing opened for him in 2007. “Ben has this energy that just draws people to him,” she says. “He’s had fans chasing him since he was like 13.” As their friendship developed, he asked her to collaborate on his projects as a producer, writer and vocalist. “We met probably six times to write in the winter/spring of 2012,” he wrote on his blog. “I wish it had been more. We’d pick a spot, eat a bagel, drink some coffee, catch up about life and just start writing.” It was Hollis who suggested that he try writing about his Cadillac, an exercise that became “White Walls,” which now has 19 million views on YouTube and peaked at number six on Billboard’s Hot Rap Songs chart.
A year later, Hollis was performing “White Walls” with Macklemore at the Key Arena in Seattle. Was she nervous singing in front of 17,500 screaming fans? Nah. “The energy that fans have in Seattle is like nothing else,” she says. “It’s just such a high to perform here.”
Hollis recently wrote a blog post reflecting on her work with Macklemore & Ryan Lewis. “I know how many years, sleepless nights, plane flights, missed parties, shitty venues, open browser tabs, infinite e-mails, and at the very least 10,000 hours it’s taken Macklemore, Ryan Lewis and their team to achieve what appears so polished and effortless,” she says. “Success means sacrifice and a shit ton of work, and may I never forget that as I strive to hustle harder and be better every day as an independent artist.”
Hopefully her hustle will pay off at the Grammys tonight, but if it doesn’t at least we know that she’ll still be out there trying to make a name for smart, thoughtful women in music.
JoJo Marshall is on Twitter: @achimneysweeper