It all started when a friend of Hollie Stephenson’s mum tweeted Dave Stewart a link to a YouTube clip of the singer performing Stone Tears in Camden’s Bar Vinyl (remember: her first song, her first gig). Within five minutes Dave replied. Within a couple of months, on his next trip back to London from his adopted home in Los Angeles, he met Hollie and her mum.
Explaining his enthusiasm, the legendary artist/producer says: “She was 12 or 13 by then, and I know how tough it is to get up and sing your own song in front of people. And the fact was that the song wasn’t a cover or a throwaway thing – Stone Tears was a very moving song that she’d written. It was obviously heartfelt. So there was something about her standing up there straight, having learnt the guitar in a month or something, and saying: ‘I’m gonna play this song.’ There was just something very interesting about that.”
Stewart and Hollie and her mum kept in touch. He was keen to work with her, but no one was in a hurry.
“She had that gift, that gift to write songs. But she needed experience. I told her to write at least 16 or 20 songs that she really felt were connected to her in every way, and that she really meant. And she had to learn them on the guitar and be able to play them to me, as well as be able to record them.”
Three years later, the Stephenson’s and Stewart were ready. Early last year, he invited them to his studio in LA.
“I said to Hollie that I thought she’d have the most fun, and feel most connected, playing and singing with real, great players. So everything was recorded live, in a circle, with drummer, bass payer, piano player, brass section. And,” he adds, “I decided to split the album in two – do some in Los Angeles, and some in Jamaica, in Port Antonio. And there we got players in from Kingston. It was just a deep-dive in that whole experience, musically and culturally, and she just went bonkers for it.”
The recordings were also filmed, as part of a forthcoming BBC documentary, Lost Archives Of 17 North Parade. It’s directed by Mark James, who had seen Hollie live in London and, in Stewart’s words, “flipped”. The film tells the story of the legendary Jamaican artists who recorded in this tiny studio, and the rediscovery of the audio tapes of their recordings. As part of that project, Hollie “duetted” with the late Dennis Brown – on a track, When You Get Right Down To It, that he had recorded, but never completed, when he himself was 16 too.
Late last year, having left school, Hollie went back to LA. In a two-month period she and Stewart finished her debut album, including co-writing one song, the string-flecked, soul-gospel gem Sunday Morning. They also shot a video for Broken Heart Strings, a back-to-black tearjerker. Hollie also played some LA shows, including a rave-reviewed spot at Hollywood’s Hotel Café. “A momentous night, the debut of a shining new musical star,” wrote American Songwriter. “Hollie proceeded to enthrall the crowd with her singularly soulful songs, commanding the big band like a seasoned soul diva. It was amazing to see, and to hear, and to register that this is a 16-year old girl we are experiencing, yet as vital and inspirational as the best of the best.” High praise indeed.