Onion Talking: Holly-Jane Shears

© Holly Jane Shears

© Holly Jane Shears

Holly Jane Shears is one half of electropop duo DeadDogInBlackBag, together with her partner in crime Suzy Evelyn. She’s also a member of spoof Madchester band Wingnut, together with Steve Oram & Tom Meeten, and regularly plays as part of prog-folk band Circulus alongside Antony Elvin.

With DeadDogInBlackBag set to support Robots In Disguise on the Brighton leg of their UK tour on April 8th, {tickets here} we caught up with the lovely Ms Shears, to find out a little bit more about her work, collaborating with Rich Fulcher and her cameo on The Mighty Boosh, as well as a little bit more about the lady herself: from her obsession with long dead historical royalty to life in the wonder of Michael’s Garden.

Here, then, are her onion peelings.

Hi, Holly! Firstly, thanks for agreeing to be interviewed by The Velvet Onion. Have you been following the site?

It’s a pleasure. I did subscribe to your email update recently as I like to keep an eye on what my friends are up to… sometimes I can be really lazy with things like Facebook so it is a great concise way of keeping up to date! Say, for example, if Antony [Elvin] asks me if I am coming to a Hot Brew gig I can say ‘Yes yes, I saw that!’ Whereas on Facebook, I get so many event invites I often miss these things. So well done with your concise info sharing, Mr. Fox!

© Baby Cow

© Baby Cow

Your name may be unfamiliar to some of our readers, but they’ve probably seen you thanks to your cameo in The Mighty Boosh. Was that as fun a day as it looked?

Ooh, I was there for more than one day…three I think. It was fantastic fun and I would be an extra for a living if I could (after a musician obviously)!

Imagine, getting paid to hang out with your friends, be entertained and fed the finest wasp-covered cheeses??? It was funny actually, it was a hot summer and the wasps were going mental for all the delicious food on the outdoor buffet. Mike [Fielding] was terrified of them. We decided that they were all part of an evil stripy-jumpered army intent on taking over the world. We ran a mile every time one came close.

There were loads of different types of cheeses there so Antony and I – who are both absolute connoisseurs – were having a field day. It was a really nice bonding experience too. The guys are hilarious and watching the process of filming was sometimes like watching the outtakes on a DVD constantly! It was hard to be deadpan with expressions when all you wanted to do was laugh. So for them, I can appreciate that it’s hard work. I love it when people crack up when they aren’t supposed to. I used to do that at school a lot. I don’t think the teachers liked me very much…

© DeadDogInBlackBag

© DeadDogInBlackBag

And of course, you worked with Rich Fulcher on one of the early DeadDogInBlackBag songs, the infamous ‘Uncle Kevin’, which is probably the track, which got you the most attention in the early days of the band. How did that come about, and are you still in touch with Uncle Kev?

DDIBB were already friends with Rich and it was something that came up which we thought would be perfect for him. Rich is a lovely man, always game for a laugh and not afraid of trying anything creatively. He really adopted the character and was so natural at it! Worried?! Haha.

I still keep in touch with Rich. Wingnut did a gig recently with him for a Haiti benefit show. It was the first time I had seen him do Eleanor as stand-up. It was brilliant, I was crying with laughter. Eleanor has really developed as a woman since I first met her on the Boosh! And she makes a much prettier redhead than me with bigger (albeit, fake) tits; which is unfair in my opinion. I spend years trying to perfect looking like a woman and he surpasses me, instantaneously!

DeadDog’s songs are usually laced with black comedy or surreal reference points – do you see yourself as a frustrated comedian with musical abilities, or a musician who just happens to be hilarious?

In a way I do see myself as a comedian, but not really a frustrated one. I believe you can be as many things in life as you’d like. The content of DDIBB songs is generally of a comedic nature and thus there is an outlet via the music. I tend to write about stuff that makes me laugh, as (and this may sound camembert-ridden) laughing is probably my favourite thing in life. Music happens to be the other one. So it would be rude not to combine the two where possible. Personally, I think the two go hand in hand for me, and for Suzy. Suzy is a very funny lady and an amazing comedic performer, which is why she was always perfect for DeadDog. She did stand-up before that.

I think it is so important for women as comedians to have the ability to not take themselves too seriously and pull the focus away from conforming to please audiences merely as a product of sex and physicality. We share these qualities and beliefs which is why it works, and there is a great chemistry on stage. She is not afraid to act in a certain way that may make her look silly and has no hang ups about herself. She is hot too, so she can get away with distorting her face and jumping about like a smacked-up jackal, and still come out of it looking good.

It is great when we are creating something together, as it happens so naturally like an old, good habit. Essentially, we just do what we used to do when we were 13 in P.E. lessons. Not exercise… Avoid that at all costs. Making up silly jokes, noises, words, face shapes and mockery. In the music lesson in year 8 we teamed up with 2 other girls, Vicky and Angela, and wrote a country and western song. Perhaps this can go on the next album…

© Angel Ceballos

© Angel Ceballos

Is the humorous slant to your lyrical content something which you intended to be part of DeadDog, or did it just happen as a by product of your personalities?

Personally, I have never really wanted to write super-serious songs, despite having written a few in my angst-y teenage years! It is difficult to be original because love songs etc. have been done a squillion times over. I believe there is definitely a time and a place for them, and respect them greatly. I just always wanted to do something that was funny and enjoyable to listen to again as well as to create, and met Ami who was also into music. We had a laugh experimenting. And so DeadDog was born, and thus has evolved into what it is today with the precious element that is Suzy.

I think sometimes it can be more difficult if you are intentionally trying to be funny when writing. It has to be inspired or come from a certain experience or idea, and then it usually just happens to be funny. For me it is all about entertaining people. So instinctively I create the type of thing that I know would entertain me. You have got to enjoy your own work or there is no point to it. That usually consists of some kind of social satire or awkwardness, or fantasy and fairytales. If other people like what you do too, then that is a bonus.

Would you ever write a conventional song again, or does the thought fill you with dread?

No, that isn’t a dreadful thought at all. As I said, I wrote ‘conventional’ songs as a teen. I got them out of my system at the time because it needed to happen as a matter of catharsis. Every now and then, this comes around again. For example, I have written a couple of less comedic songs for the new record as a result of being heartbroken. (Queue: violins.) These couple of songs happened very organically, as the feelings needed to exit my torso, but I wanted to put them to good use instead of making it all ‘woe is me’ and isolating Suze in the process. I have tried to keep the ideas within the context of the album. Naturally, there will be elements of humour in a ‘sad’ or ‘serious’ song because that is part of one’s personality and a way of dealing with hurt. It’s self-deprecating and a very English thing to do! I think it is nice to open up a little to your listeners every now and again, but I never want anything we create to be too personal. That’s not what DeadDog is about.

Saying that, if somebody was to offer me a lot of money to write love songs for Shania Twain, I have to be honest, I would probably say yes as it is nice to be able to feed yourself! As long as I could still carry on doing what I did with Suzy and Circulus as well, obviously. Maybe I could write comedy songs for Shania – give her a new edge?

© Penny Emden

© Penny Emden

Circulus too, seem ideally poised to take an off-kilter look at the world around us. It certainly seems to be an exciting life, but not in a manner most of us would live it. Is it as fascinating as it looks being a part of such a radical folk movement?

It is very fascinating! It is like a family really. I would say a dysfunctional one, but most are these days, so I guess not.

It’s a family with lots of weird uncles (not like Kevin though) with mistresses and pageboys who come and go, and illegitimate kids that all share a love for beautiful music. I hasten to add, Circulus does not condone inbreeding!

For me, it has been an evolution and expansion on my musical tastes and interests. It has taken me way further back than I had ever endeavored. Will and Michael are specialists in there fields, and they really feel the music and where it came from. This has taught me to do the same… to feel an affinity with those who have gone before us who had the same passion for noise and words, telling tales and bringing aural pleasure.

I was always into history, and fascinated by the Tudors and Victorians and their bloodthirsty attitudes – tying in with my obsession with horror from a young age! I love the rawness of medieval music, and the intricacy and craftsmanship that went into making instruments and composing. Combine all of that with electricity and it becomes something else: something very special indeed.

How do you balance the two groups? Do you find people in the folk community accept your electro work and vice versa?

I find it easy and a pleasure to be able to work on both projects. I like to be involved in as many different things as I am able, to broaden my perspective on music and comedy. I find that people who like Circulus are always very open-minded, and if it is relevant I will tell these people about DeadDogInBlackBag. Although saying that, I haven’t really pushed it upon Circulus fans as they are separate things and I think Circulus is extremely specific, musically.

I think people who like DDIBB may be fascinated by other projects we do, but that is not to say they will necessarily like them. After all, they are two VERY different styles, but one hopes they would do! Sometimes they cross over. I recently made a song with Will and Antony, and stylistically it drew on Antony’s solo stuff, DDIBB and Will’s medieval sound and skill. He also has a dark sense of humour which has often been hidden behind instruments so it was nice to coax that out. It was hilarious.

© Paul Holmes

© Paul Holmes

I believe that the creation and performance of music is essentially about channelling your personality into what you do. It is personal, fundamentally, even if you don’t talk about or reveal elements of your personal life in literal terms. So, if people are entertained by you and like you in one context, it is very possible they will do so in another.

DeadDog took a bit of a break for a while. What have you both been up to in the meantime?

Yes, I realised the other day that we hadn’t done a gig since August last year! It’s mental how quickly that time has gone… it really doesn’t feel like that long. Suzy has been busy doing a lot of costume design work, she was touring with Coogan for a while and she has just done Lizzie and Sarah too (plug, plug – It’s genius.)

I have been doing a fair bit of writing and recording for DeadDog, as well as doing Circulus and Wingnut gigs. I have been collaborating and recording some stuff with other artists / friends too, but I can’t say too much about it at this point. All I will say is: watch this space… It’s all very exciting!

I have also been watching lots of fantasy films and obsessing over Henry Tudor.

Now yourself and Suzy are writing new material, I believe. Can you tell us anything about your plans?

Ultimately we are looking to put out a debut record. It is a bit of a concept album, not intentionally, it just seems to have fallen into place that way. We have so much material that we have built up over the last 2 years since Suzy and I joined forces – it feels like the right time. As you can imagine, the music industry is a tough one. It seems as if it’s all about money these days, which is a shame. We need to raise funds to do the record. We also have a lot of lovely supportive friends and people who are willing to help us, which is amazing. But other than that it’s just all so expensive.

Recently, the Robots did the ‘Pledge’ thing – which is a great idea, as it is funded by the people who really want the music because they love it. If we can get our fuzzy arses into gear, perhaps we can look into that scheme too. Do support the Robots with this at this vital time please!!

© Angel Ceballos

© Angel Ceballos

It’s quite difficult for cult artists to make a name for themselves now that the popularity of Myspace has died down somewhat. How are you finding the current state of affairs when it comes to getting your music ‘out there’?

I agree. Myspace is still a great tool for listening because essentially it is a free website for bands, but a lot of the time you have to rely on word of mouth. And of course, Facebook has overtaken it with its event advertising tools, so that helps when plugging gigs and other stuff. We have got an official Facebook page and group too. Check ‘em out and join the filth force!

Will there be an easy way for fans to get hold of your songs in the future? iTunes links perhaps?

We would hope that when we release our record, it will be available in all formats including downloads. That seems to be the most popular method of selling music these days. How old do I sound?! I am actually 83 years old. My face cream is okay, but I think I need to concentrate on trying out a few more.

You’re supporting Robots In Disguise in Brighton. Are you looking forward to it? And are there more gigs lined up?

Of course we can’t wait for it! It is our first gig of this year so it’s a bit scary, but it will be fun. Brighton is a lovely crowd, and Robots fans are always really lovely and supportive when we have played with the girls in the past. And of course it’s that thing about working with your friends too. I am sure we will have some fun.

We are really keen to get back into gigging, but we want to concentrate on the record at this point.

Finally, one for the Circulus fans, just how rosy is it in Michael’s Garden… really?

I take it you are speaking literally and not metaphorically? It’s not that rosy actually – it is quite green. With lots of sharp things in it. Twigs, not needles. Metaphorically, if you are looking at Michael’s Garden as his own world (which I believe is his intent), then it is in full bloom!

If you referring to his shame area – which I am sure a nice boy like you is not – I personally wouldn’t know, but if you are keen to find out I am sure you will see any available evidence through those two-tone minstrel tights at the next gig. (Which incidentally, is in London, Old Queen’s Head, 5th April)

Holly Jane, thank you very much!

Circulus perform as part of the Magpies Nest Takeover at The Old Queens Head, Islington on April 5th. The event is free before 6pm, and costs £5 for entry afterwards. Guaranteed entry tickets available here.

Dead Dog in Black Bag perform with Robots In Disguise at Digital, Brighton on April 8th. Tickets available here.

2 Comments on Onion Talking: Holly-Jane Shears

  1. great interview with H-J there good news about the album work i love their stuff


  2. Johnny Shears // July 20, 2010 at 8:11 am // Reply

    John Lennon’s Teacher wrote in a School Report ‘Music is all very well, but you’ll never make a living out of it’ good job his Auntie Mimi supported him eh ! I am Holly-Jane’s very proud Dad & I know that DDIB are very Unique, sometimes I feel that H-J’s Talent as a Comedy writer, Comedy Actor, Mimic, Singer/Songwriter, Musician and Producer is not always fully recognised, I know she could make it Big in TV if she tempered her Wild side a little, I would be happy for it to continue as is, but as she said in interview, it’s nice to be able to eat, she could make some excellent CD’s/DVD’s to get some returns on her God given Talent/s. long live DDIBB, love Holly’s Dad x


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