Meet Holly Throsby: Sydney’s Renaissance Woman

Holly Throsby

Ever since I was a little girl, I loved stories. In fact, one of my fondest memories is of nestling into my blankets as I listened to my father read me my bedtime story. He would weave an intricate tapestry that glowed with princesses, witches, dragons, and fairies. In the versions my father told, the princess always rescued herself. Whether it was by singing an ogre to sleep, nimbly navigating through thorns, or cleverly bargaining with an imp, these princesses could do anything.

As a talented musician, novelist, illustrator, poet, and songwriter, Holly Throsby capably fills the roles of both storyteller and multi-talented princess (minus the tiara). She’s been nominated for four ARIAs, released five albums, written a novel called Goodwood that rose to #3 on Dymocks’ Best Books of 2016, and acts as a Council Member for the Voiceless animal protection institute. Not too bad for an Arts graduate who once worked behind the counter of a Balmain video store.

Holly’s story begins early. With a grandmother who was a cellist in the Sydney Symphony Orchestra and a mother who loved reading and playing the piano, Holly grew up in a house filled with music and words. “There were always lots of books around. I always wanted to be a reader, even before I could read.”

This precociousness extended to music as well. Holly began studying a range of instruments before the age of 10, and was composing not longer after. And, even though she studied classical guitar techniques, this never stopped Holly from breaking out some Beatles and Led Zeppelin.

“I felt pretty cool about that,” she laughs. “I was just so interested in it from a very young age. I took piano and violin lessons but the guitar was much more exciting to me - I guess because I was into popular music and songwriting.”

And yet, despite her love of music, Holly never actually thought she would become a professional musician, much less a successful one. “It didn't seem like a possibility at that time... more a dream.”

Holly didn’t see herself as a novelist either, although the possibility of academic writing or journalism was open.

“At university, I majored in English and loved literary theory. In fact, in my last year, I basically did all political theory and literary theory. I learnt to read critically, how to pose an argument, how to look at the structure of texts. My reading tastes were shaped a lot by the course material. I particularly loved American literature and the American Claims course with Dr Bruce Gardiner made a strong impression on me. But I didn't dream I could write fiction.”

If there is one thing I’ve realised about Holly Throsby, it’s that she’s amazingly talented when it comes to music and writing, but a hopeless fortune-teller. Because, despite never expecting it, Holly has become both a celebrated musician and author.

The amazing thing about seeing an artist approach alternative mediums is the way each one appears to have a distinct process. For Holly, creating music is about embracing intimacy and the subconscious.

“I try to work in a very instinctive space, a non-thinking space. I try to make the act of writing as free flowing as possible, and to suspend my critical brain. Songs are small fragments, without any need of 'completion' in a narrative sense. They are feeling-based for me and very dear. ”

Her music thrives on ideas and instinct, drawing on fleeting moments and emotions. The result is a dream-like collection of words and lyrics that evoke hazy memories and deep-seated feelings that tug at the heart.

Writing, on the other hand, is a more cerebral task. “It is very different process. My English studies definitely helped in writing Goodwood. Writing a novel was also incredibly dear, but far more expansive, complex and compulsive. I loved the density and sheer size of it; it was such a challenge to get my head around. But once I was in there, with all the characters and places, I didn't want to leave.”

Think back to your childhood, about what you wanted to be when you grew up. For Holly Throsby, becoming a musician had seemed like a dream. But now, she wears the title of not only musician and songwriter, but novelist and poet as well - living proof that we never have to be just one thing when we grow up.

Holly Throsby is a graduate of the University of Sydney (BA ’02), and spoke at this year’s Sydney Writers Festival of which the University of Sydney is a major partner.

Article by Theodora Chan (BA, MECO 2010; BA, HONS 2012), Co-Founder and Content Director at Pen and Pixel.