Portland – Hollie Fullbrook’s calm, pensive singing might lead one to believe that she’s already been defeated by the world. Maybe it’s because of that distant gaze, or her modest attire. Maybe it’s the way she gently sways on stage, or the way she glances down occasionally to reflect in the warm lamplight. She’s got the mild mannerisms of someone who watches what she says, someone who’s felt the heat of love and the chill of loss. Yet despite her plaintive outward appearance, I can assure you that she is an optimist at heart. For all the rebellious rock anthems I’ve belted in my day, I can’t place many moments when I’ve felt the kind of spirited liberation that Fullbrook’s performance stirred in me.
The stories threaded in her lyrics may be time-worn, but the singer-songwriter behind Tiny Ruins is still relatively new to the American music scene. Hollie Fullbrook grew up in Bristol, England where she learned to play the cello, before moving to New Zealand where she taught herself to play guitar. After signing with Spunk Records in 2010, she promptly wrote and recorded her critically-acclaimed full-length debut, Some Were Meant For Sea. For her follow-up, she enlisted the help of some talented instrumentalists to help flesh out her solitary sound. This year’s Brightly Painted Ones featured the subtle use of horns, strings and percussion to add new depth and clarity to Fullbrook’s vivid collage of memories. Her touring band in support of the record includes bassist Cass Basil and drummer Alexander Freer.
The set got off to a pleasant start with “Old as the Hills,” followed by “Me at the Museum, You in the Wintergardens.” The latter paints a portrait of two lovers in an eternal Eden between the daunting halls of history and the fragrant gardens nearby. “Nobody feels old in the museum,” she cooed, and the audience felt it. This song was love idealized, trapped in time for a few blissful moments. Her songs reside in the moment, however; unafraid to feel both the soaring highs and the dredging lows in life. If there is a silver lining on the horizon, Fullbrook has already weaved it into silk.
Hollie takes her time on stage, breaking often between songs to converse with the audience. Her presence is reserved and cordial, giving the room an aura of soothing calm. There is a refreshing sincerity in the way she engages the room, relating vivid memories and inspirations while occasionally pausing to complete a thought. As she began “The Ballad of the Hanging Parcel,” she retold a story of her childhood in Bristol, in which an unassuming hanging object became a supernatural legend to the neighbor girl. The personal tale helped to breathe a new kind of magic into her performance, rooted in memories and animated by imagination.
It was impressive how Tiny Ruins could build such a vast soundscape with so few people, mostly owed to Hollie’s delicate guitar tones. Her folk-style finger picking was so precise and seamless; I often couldn’t make sense of which fingers were doing what. There is a golden quality to her guitar that elevates her songwriting, something so natural and pleasant it could almost stand on its own. Alexander Freer’s jazzy, often muted drum rhythms were subtle enough to accentuate Hollie’s playing without overpowering the relaxed feel of the show. Cass Basil was adept in laying the groundwork on bass, though the volume was turned too far down for her to properly shine.
Tiny Ruins began the second half of their set with two inspired covers. The second, a spirited rendition of Bob Dylan’s “I Dreamed I Saw St. Augustine,” was just the right kind of meditation that the performance needed. I found myself drifting along with narratives of the song, like the tragic wind-rider in “Priest With Balloons,” who set off on a journey of ultimate faith. The set closed with “She’ll Be Comin’ Round,” a song about the limitless adventurous spirit inside us all. It’s a bittersweet ending, a triumphant call to pursue the unobtainable: “That old free will might be a myth, but I’m gonna try and get me some.”
Tiny Ruins made a big impression on the crowd that stayed behind that night at Mississippi Studios. If the audience was grounded in reality before the show began, they left floating just a bit higher in the clouds. The band’s stylings are sure to please, and Hollie’s cathartic musings leave you with a little more faith in yourself. If you’re in a pensive mood, feeling unsure of yourself, or just searching for that unattainable emotion you’re dying to feel, Tiny Ruins are not to be missed.