Holy Balm are a Sydney-based band which usually get filed under “house music”, typically with some kind of amusing adjective thrown in front (wonky/mutant/funky). Although Chicago House is oh so popular right now, they’ve been rocking these vibes for years. I would have gone to my first show of theirs about 6 or 7 years ago – back when GoodGod was La Campana, the Sydney night was young at 2am and Holy Balm were in more of a “calypso” House phase. They’ve progressed over the years but retained the same M.O throughout – to bring the party and good times to their audience.
The following interview was done over fbook chat. I spoke with vocalist/percussionist Emma Ramsay about sexiness, melancholia and euphoria.
David Sullivan: Do you say GIF with a G sound or or J, like JIFF
Emma Ramsay: I say Jif like the cleaner but it most def ‘G’ like google..I had it wrong my whole life
David Sullivan: It’s meant to be said Jiff apparently
Emma Ramsay: what?? hang on but ‘G” stands for graphics right? Jiff is more fun though cause it ties to the Australian domestic vernacular
David Sullivan: you are correct. I only ask because I like all your new promo things, with the GIFs ,very A C T I V E
Emma Ramsay: Yes – the JIFs were our friend’s idea, Daryl Prondoso. He did design for our LP riffing off Robert Pulie’s paintings…and the bunch of visual items we have been using for promo. He is a wizard, an old friend, and music confidant.
David Sullivan: You guys seem to have a big fan/friends base. Like lots of people who you work with from Sydney eg Marcus Whale etc would you agree with that? do you think Sydney is a good community for music?
Emma Ramsay: It is the only music community that I know intimately, that I have been a part of for lets say half my life now. So as a band, I think the curiosity and pleasure we get from a few facets of the bigger music community here and a cross section of ‘scenes’ in Sydney is yeah – good to us. There are some long form and new music friendships that have evolved alongside being in the band. It’s more of a new thing for us to work with mates on material.
David Sullivan: There’s some other sax that pops up in other tracks other than ‘Fashion’ is that Marcus too?
Emma Ramsay: No, that is some gorgeous synth sax from Anna.
David Sullivan: Delightful. I was kinda taken by surprise listening through the album it’s quite melancholy in parts I felt anyway undertones of melancholia perhaps do you feel that at all?
Emma Ramsay: Yeah I feel that, have had people comment on this actually. There is a fractured thread in the album between newer and older songs, particularly lyrically which is kinda my area.
Around recording, I had some temporary body malfunction with sensation & movement, so suddenly themes around the body, sensation and activity came to the forefront. They operated beautifully though, in reference to the way house or weirder dance music is primarily concerned with desire & the body. Anna, Jonathan & I have an unreal way of reading each other tonally so I think that ‘other sense’ we share has formed some interesting tension in the songs.
Melancholy is there in a lot of dance music actually, which kinda binds it the dance floor somehow – as much as feelings of euphoria & pleasure. It’s maybe what makes it such an addictive space or environment to keep frequenting. Sometimes dropping a melancholy or sentimental vibe at the height of a set, it just like a breath of fresh air to get you to the next swing – up. Listening back to the album, & now performing the songs live, the songs have lifted in vibe since those recording sessions. The songs seem like they have grown into themselves in sensation & other ideas they evoke.
David Sullivan: The album certainly doesn’t sound fractured, and melancholy definitely isn’t a negative, I was just struck a few times with some brooding horns and desolate ambience… Really powerful actually. i feel like it was balanced with classic Holy Balm upbeat bass lines also it was a lil sexy in parts lyrics + music together
Emma Ramsay: Oh yes – quite forthright erotically at times – but there is an awkwardness too.
David Sullivan: naturally interesting point to link awkwardness + sexiness very obvious now you say it but I guess it’s not addressed so much like that
Emma Ramsay: yeah – it natural for a sensuality to have a healthy dose of awkwardness I think. But they don’t always go hand in hand in pop music huh. Like the narratives of pop music are either really proactive & successful, or directive & successful
or total failure/yearning…but maybe not much in between?
David Sullivan: so true
Emma Ramsay: In terms of ambience of the tracks – the album really has more going in the detail and placement of parts..the composition I guess. Listening to the first LP yesterday and feels like a different chapter of writing.
David Sullivan: I’m really into the song ‘All Night Long’, I think maybe – now we’ve talked about it – that it exhibits that balance between melancholy and upbeat. The title and beat suggests something euphoric but the lyrics perhaps say something different….? It’s a clever little bait and switch. Any particular inspiration for that track?
Emma Ramsay: Ooooo I like that idea – bait n switch..I guess that way of applying that ‘switch’ is something I get pleasure from in art, in life, in humour, or writing. So yeah – it’s definitely there…It kinda spun from the Lock Out laws actually. The ‘stairs’ are the stairs of old La Campana & Goodgod. It’s a lock out law anthem. And waiting for a hot crush to arrive at the club…Not being able to tell if its them in the dark..
David Sullivan: you guys really nailed those vibes
Emma Ramsay: PS I’ve never told Anna and Jonathan about those ideas hah. But over time the personal meanings of the songs shift with things people tell you about their experiences of the band live, or their time with the songs. As more people have ownership of your music..
David Sullivan:How do you guys communicate as a band? Seems like a very homogenous situation. You got a solid aesthetic together, but it all seems very jammy and loose at times too – still reminds me of you guys playing many years ago, but you have obviously worked on everything since those times.
Emma Ramsay: I guess there isn’t a lot of direct verbal communication actually that happens when we write, not until we sense that there may be a song sitting amongst the jam. There hasn’t been a lot of time/space for writing recently, so actually preparing the set for the album launches has proved to get some of those cogs turning again. Whilst the live sets may come off smooth n jammy and fluid, we do find that final assemblage of a song a real challenge actually. Often when it gets to that crucial point, we all realise we have internally been referencing certain parts a chorus or a verse, only to find it is inversed for the other person!
David Sullivan: back to the Lockout Laws, which I don’t want to talk about for long but it kinda prompted me with a question which maybe I’m asking myself too. Do you feel like Sydney is still your city?
Emma Ramsay: Hmm well I definitely feel the tension in Sydney for independent art and music communities having to rationalise existence under neo-lib agendas of key decision makers particularly at a state level. Only my history here makes it feel like ‘my city’ at the moment. Thinking about these recent forced cultural shifts to the city though – there has been a great swell of awareness around access, who holds privilege and power over the culture of the city, amongst my communities anyway. It is a pretty raw and intense time to live here I think.
Whenever I feel that way, or territorial about Sydney, I remember it was never my city to begin with. It’s well worth interrogating feelings of cultural affinity to place, it can be both humbling and complex, and you’ll find even more questions arise.
Activity is out now. You can find more information here.
HOLY BALM – ACTIVITY ALBUM LAUNCH TOUR
Thursday September 15
Brisbane – The Foundry
with Scraps + 100%
Friday September 16
Melbourne – Hugs & Kisses
with Lucy Cliche + Shouse + Andras (DJ set)
Saturday September 24
Sydney – Newtown Social Club
with Enderie + Phone + Sex Havers DJs
Sunday September 25
Canberra – Lobrow Gallery & Bar
with California Girls + Honey + Playful Sound