Going hire and higher: Nicky Holland is available for string arrangements, backing vocals, weddings and bar mitzvahs. Giles Smith met her

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The Independent Culture
NICKY Holland's new album - titled, uncannily, Nicky Holland - is her first, but it comes after 10 years of working on virtually everybody else's. Holland is among pop's most flexible hired hands. Tears for Fears, Lloyd Cole, Cyndi Lauper, Oleta Adams, Ryuichi Sakamoto . . . they've all called her in to arrange strings, or assist with a tune, or sing backing vocals, or set up orchestral parts, or play some piano. She's an all-purpose musical troubleshooter. If you're David Byrne, and you need some folk songs from the Bahamas transcribed, then Nicky Holland is your woman.

'He asked me if I would do a little job on some tapes he had. They were field recordings, I think - quite rough - and he said, 'Wherever you can't make out what's going on, just make it up.' I think he ended up using them for some theatre pieces.'

There are many reasons why Holland has never gone short of work. For backing vocals, she simply makes the right kind of noise. ('My voice is fat, so it doubles well. Lloyd Cole told me he used me because I was good, but not that good. He didn't want anyone too pro.') But she also has a degree from the Royal Academy of Music, a qualification as scarce in pop circles as skinheads at a Cliff Richard gig. People turn to her for the difficult bits.

Holland was born in Hertfordshire. Her mother was a concert pianist, her father's mother played piano for silent films. 'I remember Prokofiev blaring out in the house on Sunday mornings. But also Mum had all the Bacharach / David records, and a lot of Herb Alpert and the Tijuana Brass. She sat me at the piano on her knee from age two. She used to play music for me and my sister to dance to. By the time I was six, we were fighting if we tried to have lessons together, so I had my first proper teacher at six. At nine I won a scholarship to the Royal Academy. I went to ordinary school in the week, and then every Saturday morning I had a three- quarter day of music lessons - ear training, choir . . .'

When she left the Academy, she set about abusing everything she had learnt in a three-woman group called the Ravishing Beauties. Possibly not entirely serious, they wore perforated brown suede dresses that they called 'tea-bags' and sang mournfully to pre-prepared backing tracks on a tape recorder. Their repertoire included the less-than-cheering number 'Arctic Death', which made them, in some ways, the ideal support act for the Teardrop Explodes.

What it didn't make them was any money. Holland resorted to playing four nights a week as a pianist at the Gatwick Hilton. She says she went into this knowing about 100 songs and came out knowing 500 - 'cocktail music, light classical, blues . . .' It may explain the breadth of her subsequent work. Finally, she got a job scoring the strings on the Funboy Three's version of Gershwin's 'Summertime' and found herself appointed as keyboard player and musical director.

'And while I was on tour with them, I met Roland Orzabal from Tears for Fears.' Much later, Orzabal sent her a tape of Songs from the Big Chair and asked her to join a tour. Holland says she went because 'the guitar solo on 'Everybody Wants to Rule the World' reminded me of Steely Dan's 'Reelin' in the Years'. The whole thing took off in such a huge way that I ended working for them solidly for three years.' Five of her collaborations with Orzabal turned up on the Seeds of Love album, on which Holland worked as an arranger.

She lives in New York now, where she moved with her husband in the late 1980s (when she performed last month in a smartly-executed one-off show at Ronnie Scott's, she was seven months pregnant with their first child). Her first employment in New York was as a string arranger for Lloyd Cole. Then she worked with Sakamoto and Byrne. Byrne put her on his Uh- Oh album. 'I noticed that very often he would treat the guitar like it was some kind of foreign thing that might attack him, or like it was a hotplate. He wanted me to play organ once, which I'm not very good at, but when I adopted his method, treating it like it was strange to me, I suddenly started to get all this encouraging feedback from him.'

Sakamoto pulled her into his touring band and set her voice alongside Brian Wilson's in the track 'Calling from Tokyo' on the Beauty album. 'When Wilson did his vocal, he was there with Dr Eugene Landy, his therapist, and someone who was employed simply to write down in a diary everything that happened in the studio.'

One of her songs has just been recorded by both Tia Carera from Wayne's World and Gladys Knight. She also has a song on the next Cyndi Lauper album. 'I thought about what I like about Cyndi Lauper - and it's not the dresses and the wild hair, but the moments on 'Time After Time' and 'True Colours' when she sounds vulnerable. We went after that, and I think the song is about the best thing I've had anything to do with.'

The 10 songs on her own album were mostly written 'at home, in the morning, while I was still in my dressing gown, without my contact lenses in, in a blur'. The album is meticulously arranged, and Holland's underplayed voice might put you in mind of Carole King. The sleeve-credits teem with studio- smart sessioneers. Nicky Holland's name is on the front, though, in a big gold smudge. If you'd spent 10 years in the small- print, you'd probably want to make a statement.

(Photograph omitted)