By Joshua Maloni
Once in a while, I'll hear fellow reporters tell stories of watching a younger Taylor Swift perform in Buffalo-area clubs. This was, of course, long before she became a music superstar with unimaginable fame and fortune ... and a string of well-known ex-boyfriends whom she artfully demolished in song.
They say T-Swift was plugging away -- figuratively, and literally with a guitar in hand -- just trying to do her own thing, as she worked to establish a country music career.
I can't help but think of Swift as I consider the journey Hollyn is now embarking upon as she begins to make a mark in the music business.
Swift is from Pennsylvania. Hollyn hails from Ohio. Like Swift, Hollyn has girl-next-door charm, looks, and a southern twang in her voice.
She, too, is plugging away -- though her opening sets are in arenas, and in front of TobyMac, one of the biggest acts in Christian music.
Hollyn sings about boys, too, but she's considerably kinder than Swift.
Back in those Buffalo days, I imagine Swift thinking to herself, "How long do I have to play these tiny rooms before someone, anyone, will give me a bigger stage and my own tour?"
Hollyn, on the other hand, admitted she wondered if anyone would listen to her music. Divinely inspired, she questioned if this was the path God called her to travel.
And, whereas Swift bucked traditional country music to forge her own pop-country sound, Hollyn overcame the wiles of "American Idol" (where she exited after "Hollywood Week" in season 12) and signed with TobyMac's Gotee Records.
TobyMac said a friend and former bandmate of his alerted him to Hollyn.
"He said, 'There's this girl making some noise on 'American Idol.' And she's really incredibly gifted,' " TobyMac said.
"I just then went to YouTube and I watched a bunch of videos of her that she had put up doing covers. She had an incredible voice, first of all, but there was a purity in her perspective, in the way she communicated, that kind of moved me," he added.
Just like Swift wasn't long for small Buffalo clubs, Hollyn won't be opening for TobyMac, or anyone, for much longer.
Earlier this month, her debut album, the aptly titled "One-Way Conversations," swiftly ascended to the top of the iTunes pop charts -- just below a certain Super Bowl halftime headliner.
The pop album is scoring rave reviews from fans, and for good reason. Smart lyrics and Hollyn's soaring vocals are well-paired with hip-hop elements and intelligent production. The result is a set of songs that could just as easily play on "Kiss" 98.5 as they do on the Family Life Network.
There's no doubt Hollyn is a rising star ready to take her place among music's biggest acts -- Swift included.
As Hollyn's words become musical hits, it certainly appears people are listening -- and that God has, indeed, ordained her journey.
On the road with TobyMac's "Hits Deep" Tour -- and calling from someplace considerably warmer than Western New York, where she'll appear March 11 -- Hollyn opened up about her album, the benefits of a good team, and one-way conversations.
Q: If my research is correct, you just turned 20 last month. How's that going?
Hollyn: (Laughs) It's going good. In my 20s now; it's crazy. I feel pretty much the same, but it's kind of nice not being in the teens, because now people are like, "OK, she's in her 20s, so we can give her some credibility." (Laughs) It's kind of weird, just the stereotypical, like, "She's still a teenager" kind of vibe.
I mean, I loved my teenage years, but it's nice to be in the next little phase of life. And with that has actually come a lot. When I turned 20, for some reason, a whole bunch of more responsibility just started pouring in my lap -- just with my personal life and business and hiring people and moving and all kinds of stuff. It's been great so far.
Q: That's quite a lot to come to grips with, and then to follow that up with your album hitting No. 2 on the iTunes pop albums chart - you were just underneath Lady Gaga (and top 10 overall). How did that feel?
Hollyn: Oh, it's crazy. ... Oh, man it was insane. I remember the night that it came out. We had a show in Lafayette, Louisiana. We were there, and my whole team -- they came down from Nashville. We were all hanging out, and they were like, "Oh my gosh, your record is No. 10." And I was like, "Oh, wow, on the Christian (chart)?" And they were like, "No, on pop. On iTunes!" ... I've labeled this album a pop album, so it's not going to show up on a Christian chart. And so, I was like, "Oh my gosh! No. 10." Then they went back, and we kept refreshing it. And the next morning I woke up, and it was No. 2. And it stayed there for a while.
It was kind of crazy. I was like, "How many eyeballs are getting to see that?" It was just insane. Definitely surreal.
Q: When you think about what the past two months have been like, and when I look at your bio and you talk about the fact you already had to grow up quickly, are you starting to get more used to the idea of being a recording artist, of touring, and becoming famous, too?
Hollyn: I don't know if I'm really getting familiar with the whole process exactly yet. I think I'm pretty in routine, and I know what to expect on a tour. I know what to expect going into the studio. And I know what to expect in my business, and how that works. But I feel like I'm a new artist, and especially this year I feel like there's going to be a lot of changes for me and my career and direction.
I'm just really praying that the possibilities and doors will open that I can't really do by myself. And just kind of using this platform that I have now to create a fanbase that will be with me for the years to come, you know? And just thankful that Toby can take me out on these tours, and get me exposure to these markets and these areas. It's been great.
I don't know. It's kind of weird, like hearing someone be like, "Oh, yeah, she's famous." I don't really feel that way. I feel the same as I've always felt. It's just now I get to sing and perform on stages and in arenas. ... It just feels very surreal, and I'm really blessed to get to do what I'm able to do.
Q: It's a great album and I've really enjoyed listening to it. There's a couple of big focal points on there, including the title ("One-Way Conversations"). What does it mean?
Hollyn: There's a lot of different things that I thought about with this title. There's a lot of different backstories I could say, but one of them really is, honestly, sometimes, I feel like -- as we're humans in general, but even more so as artists -- when I pour my heart and my soul into my music, I kind of feel like, "Oh, man, I hope people respond to this. I hope they relate, and they enjoy listening to this."
And so, I felt like it was almost a conversation that I was having with myself. These songs were just struggles in areas of my life, and even joyful times in my life that I've had over the past couple of years.
And so, taking those experiences, and kind of hearing them again, through song, is kind of like a one-way conversation with myself. I get to hear all of these experiences that I've walked through, and listen to those, and go back and be like, "Oh, yeah, I remember when that happened," or "This song is tied to this memory." ...
I just kind of feel like, sometimes too, am I talking to -- who am I talking to? Am I talking to a wall, almost, or are my prayers just hitting the ceiling kind of thing? You know what I mean? I'm having a one-way conversation with myself.
And I feel like sometimes you struggle with getting the point across. In my single "Can't Live Without," there's a line in there that says "One-way conversations got me worn down/pouring out my heart/wish you could speak a sound." And that was me, just kind of talking to God, and being like, "You know, I just kind of feel, like, alone, in this sometimes." I feel like everyone goes through that.
Q: It's interesting that you talk about not knowing if people would listen to you, or now knowing if they would hear what you trying to say. It's especially interesting to me because your bio talks about how you took a chance with some of the subject matter in some of your lyrics - things that other Christian artists are not necessarily writing about. Obviously the record sales are strong. It would seem like people are listening; it would seem that the message is resonating with your audience. What kind of reaction have you been getting from fans at your shows?
Hollyn: Yeah, I've been getting a great response from people. I'm so happy about it, and I pray that it lingers for a few months and even into the year and for however long. But, especially at shows, people are really loving the album. We're selling a lot of them.
And especially on social media and YouTube, people are really, really excited about the content of the album. And the fact that I do talk about relationships that I've had that have not worked out; or disappointment that I've faced; or just enjoying my friends and my family; or just speaking of how much I marvel at what God's doing in my life. And I feel like, when you write music that is relatable and genuine and vulnerable, that people gravitate toward that. And I'm just glad that I'm able to write these songs with amazing people, and collaborate and get that point across.
Q: I think that the songs are really intelligent and creative. I'm listening to what you put into the record. How does that translate to a live show? How do you take all of that and present it in a concert?
Hollyn: Basically, my live show, as of now, on this tour that I'm on currently, the "Hits Deep" Tour, I'm one of the openers. So, I get about 10-12 minutes; and so, I'm singing about three songs. And it is called "Hits Deep," so I do some of the older songs that I put out about a year or so ago, like "Alone" and "Love With Your Life." But I'm also doing my single "Can't Live Without." And on that one we really had to just kind of listen to the song and be like, "OK, what does this feel like?" We try to make the lights feel like the mood of the song. And to me, that song was inspired by the ocean and the West Coast, and so I love a lot of blue lights and white lights and just kind of different movements and things.
Q: There are many Christian artists who don't chart anywhere near this high, and there are many "American Idol" alums who promise we'll see them again, and then disappear. What are you doing differently?
Hollyn: Oh, man. Honestly, when it comes down to it, I'm no different than anybody else, in a human standpoint or anything like that. And talentwise, I know a lot of people, and friends of mine that I've met through "American Idol," that are ... amazing singers. But I think when it comes down to it, it's all about your team. Because they will make or break you.
And, honestly, I'm thankful that I got cut from "American Idol," because I feel like that pushed me to do better, and do more, and to strive for more. Because, I don't know, I just felt kind of -- it was a great part of my story, and I loved being part of the show, but it was also really hard for me to kind of grasp what ... the goal ... was -- like, what is the goal? Is there a team around me that I know I can count on? Who are the people that are going to be in my life if I win, businesswise? And what am I really signing? ...
(Hollyn signed with Gotee Records.) They are the best team that I ever could have asked for. I'm just grateful for them, and they care about me as a person, and not just as an artist. And so it's nice to be in a family that not only cares about your business ... but wants you to write great songs and be successful. And they'll do anything they can do help you with that.
And so, I think it all comes down to your team, and understanding the calling that's on your life. Because I'm still trying to figure out exactly what it is that God wants me to do. And I don't think I'll ever 100 percent know for sure what that all looks like in whole, but I know that, for right now, this is where God's called me to be. And so, I think you've just got to listen to his voice, and do what he tells you to do.
Hollyn performs inside the Blue Cross Arena in Rochester on Saturday, March 11. Click HERE for tickets or more information.
Speaking of her album artwork, Hollyn said, "I feel like, as a new artist, you need to start off with something that people will remember, and something that's not generic, and something that's unique and different. A lot of people know me because of my hair; it's really curly and crazy."