H. L. Grail (Goat Girl’s Holly Mullineaux) reflects on how collaboration defines her first solo collection.

The Goat Girl bassist releases her debut EP tomorrow and explains to us how it all came together.

Photo: Maximilian Hetherington | Words: Lloyd Bolton

Island by H.L. Grail is an understated delight. Introduced by the lapping waves of ‘Sandman’, it captures a moment beautifully. Predominantly melancholy themes are offset by its intimate gentleness and stirring instrumental swells that lend it a certain bedroom majesty. H.L. Grail (aka Holly Mullineaux) is joined by Goat Girl bandmates on the recording, but this project feels more personal in composition than the work of the group. We caught up with Mullineaux to find out how this project was shaped by a different kind of collaboration.

Through softly spoken vocals and homemade drumbeats, we become fifteen-minute confidantes across the four tracks of Island. It is perhaps appropriate that Mullineaux mangled the working name Holy Grail to become H.L. Grail, with the intention of sounding more writerly, “like H.G. Wells”. The delivery feels personal, establishing a similar relationship to that of a writer and their reader. With its recurring themes of escape and holiday, one might look upon the collection as something of a concept EP, tied together in a literary fashion. Mullineaux is reluctant to call it anything so grand. “I guess maybe I’m trying to make it sound less depressing than it actually is”. Certainly, the bleakness of the very first line in ‘Sandman’ is offset by its carefree placement in a pleasant setting: “With my feet in the sand, I wished you were a better man”. Similarly, the fractured situation sketched out in ‘OTD’ is brightened by its removal, not only to a holiday destination but also to a pleasant musical form, which Mullineaux describes as a “simple, nursery rhyme” style. Playing down her clever deployment of recurrent ideas and images, Mullineaux modestly reduces the collection to being, “Basically a breakup EP. Maybe it’s a cliché, but that’s what it is”.

“A little more depth”: On collaboration as a solo artist

Though it is an excellent body of work on its own terms, it is interesting to consider Island in relation to Mullineaux’s work with Goat Girl. The four tracks feel softer and more instinctive than the work of the band, built as they are on songs “written on the spot”, with words improvised over looping chord progressions. Though she insists that, “There is no set idea of what Goat Girl is” that might have precluded certain subject matter, these songs generally felt too whole and immediate to bring to the band for reconfiguration.  

Collaboration here came in the development of “a little more depth” for each tune, something that gives the EP its delicately ingenious sense of space and builds. Contributors include Goat Girl’s Lottie Pendelbury (on violin) and Reuben Kyriakides (cello), as well as “mates on backing vocals” and producer Euan Hinshelwood on saxophone. It is clear in the way Mullineaux talks about it that the EP really took on its own life with these contributions from trusted and capable friends. She wanted to keep the development of different parts, “Spontaneous and improvised, because [the players] are all good mates and really talented. I knew that whatever they would do would work”.

The collaboration runs deeper still to the visuals for the collection, and as Mullineaux says, “The whole EP has been an effort of friends, really”. The artwork and video for ‘OTD’ were created by a friend, London-based artist and musician Boil King. Even the press shots were taken by a mate from Mullineaux’s hometown of Portsmouth whom she “used to work in Topman with”. Mullineaux describes the process of finishing these songs as “therapeutic and necessary”, a way of teasing out meaning from a difficult period. In this light it is especially heartening to see the project brought to life by friendship and trust.

“You basically did everything”: On having a co-producer

Evidently, the most crucial collaborator was Euan Hinshelwood, frontman of Younghusband and a key part of many recording and touring ensembles, most recently that of Cate le Bon. He was given the credit of co-producer even though he turned around at the end of the project and told Mullineaux, “You basically did everything”.  Hinshelwood’s importance was clearly invaluable, however, in his providing a trusted pair of ears to bounce ideas off of, as well as guidance on how to get the best out of his studio, where the EP was recorded. “He’s got a really nice, kind, unobtrusive way about him”, Mullineaux explains. “He knows his stuff but he’s not pushy at all”. One telling example of this workflow in action is the drum sound of ‘OTD’. “I’d sampled them and they were quite weird”, Mullineux says, suggesting they were more of a placeholder. Yet Hinshelwood was unquestioning of them, washing aside any doubts by simply commenting, “Oh no I like it like that”. This attitude seems to have defined the pair’s relationship as co-producers. Understanding what he listens to and what he plays, Mullineaux says “I knew he’d get it and like it”, and this decided his role.

A spirit of trust and friendship elevates the four tracks of Island from their personal, improvisational beginnings to something more distinctive and developed without weighing the music down. There is a naturalness to the whole EP that can only come from this kind of working method. Closer ‘How Many Times’ is perhaps the perfect demonstration of this, developing from a simple sing-song over guitar and commandingly sparse piano into a rousing build incorporating all of the additional sounds of the EP. The strings and sax swell over a delightful piano hook as if this whole collection that has been longing for escape is finally taking flight.

Island is a beautiful collection of songs, set to be brought to life in by an appropriately familiar set of performers at Ivy House Nunhead on 9th March. H.L. Grail will be joined by Mushy P and Edna (also of Goat Girl).