Los Angeles-based singer, songwriter, musician, and actress KiKi Holli recently released her own take on Roxy Music’s “More Than This” as an exploration of grief and loss based on recent personal experiences. This was followed by an accompanying video that draws on the comic art of Emmy Award-winning artist Dean Haspiel, featuring his long-running characters Billy Dogma and Jane Legit. Holli originally recorded “More Than This” with producer Ethan Allen (Throwing Muses, Tricky, Black Rebel Motorcycle Club) at his studio in L.A.’s Silver Lake neighborhood and intends to continue working with Allen on original solo work slated for release in 2022.
KiKi Holli has a background as a vocalist, instrumentalist, and actress, having appeared on stage on in the indie film Isle of Lesbos. Most notably, Holli also co-wrote and starred in Forever Dusty (as Kirsten Holly Smith), a stage musical based on the life of British Pop star Dusty Springfield, which debuted in LA, opened off-Broadway, and went on to run in London and Toronto.
I spoke with KiKi Holli about working on Forever Dusty, her movement into solo work, and the development of her latest single and music video. Also included below is a bonus Q&A with the artist about her biggest influences.
Hannah Means-Shannon: Can you tell me a little bit about working with Ethan Allen on your new single?
KiKi Holli: He’s someone who ran Daniel Lanois’ studio, Kingsway, in New Orleans for seven years and Produced as well. He’s a brilliant musician, multi-instrumentalist, and Producer. It’s quite an honor to work with him. It’s a real blessing.
HMS: Is this a situation where you feel like you’ve come to understand more about Production by working with Ethan?
KiKi Holli: Absolutely. The last Producer I was with was also a New Orleans person and was also an amazing musician, but he wasn’t in the vein of explaining things to me. It’s different with different people. With Ethan, I have ideas, as a trained musician and singer, but I’m not a trained Producer. So I’ll give notes and then Ethan will explain plug-ins and what they do. He’s really taken that approach with me, which is so kind.
HMS: I’ve had an evolving conversation with musicians who want to know more about Production and some people even do programs and training to make that step. The other option seems to be finding someone who you’re really compatible with who will explain things and you can pick things up in that way. There seems to be a trend of artists wanting Production skills also in this really connected world we are living in right now.
KiKi Holli: I think it’s good and also challenging. It’s challenging for people of Ethan’s ilk and I’ve worked very hard on my voice as an instrument. I’ve had to worked so hard on what I do, and Ethan has too. He had to pay his dues in a major way. I think it’s wonderful in a lot of ways that everyone can make music, but where is the discerning factor? It’s hard to get noticed even though you may work so hard on things for years and then, when you’re putting stuff out, there’s just so much noise out there. I think that’s true in general with the internet. I think everyone should be making music, but where’s the discerning factor for those who have experience, like Ethan?
HMS: This is the reality of the internet, and it’s fair to talk about it. This is part of this bigger conversation about huge shifts in the music industry, and part of it is digital access and digital release. It is very hard for audiences to decide what to listen to and how to find things. Given this whole vista, that hasn’t stopped you. How do you get past these realities and still feel the creative push to make music?
KiKi Holli: I believe in what I’m doing. I believe that I have a really great team. I have an amazing drummer friend who has been a huge support, Keith Larsen. I started writing music a long time ago but only now have somehow found the courage to release it because I feel like it is good enough to be released and I am working with world-class people. I just hope that somehow it touches somebody’s heart. It’s a gift that I’ve been given that needs to be shared with people. If I don’t share it, it just feels wrong.
With “More Than This”, I had lost a lot people who had passed in my life. There was one person who I was very close with, and it was devastating. There was just that grief, and I don’t think we talk about it in our culture. It is difficult that we don’t talk about it because there isn’t a clear path to get through it. There is that experience where the first time that someone you love deeply passes, and then you’re in this world and you’re in that other world, if you’re open to it. For me, I started listening to Roxy Music, and specifically Avalon. It was very soothing to me.
“More Than This” was a bold choice, but it was also because of the history of working with Ethan, whose mentor was Daniel Lanois. I played it for him, and he thought I sounded really amazing on it. I had a demo of it, and I worked on it with Ethan. I hope it helps someone to hear it or it leads them to Bryan Ferry, Roxy Music, or Avalon. If I can do a small part in directing people towards a place of healing, that was my motive in doing it.
HMS: How did you approach such a gigantic subject as Dusty Springfield’s life and work for your music Forever Dusty?
KiKi Holli: I started by reading a lot about her life, since there are seven or eight biographies. In would start writing monologs in her voice. Then I started singing her music at open mics. So that’s how I started, it was very grassroots. It took a lot of tenacity to make something happen, keeping working at it, and keeping working at it, and I have that same tenacity now with my music. It was a big breakthrough for me to have that show. It ran for five months, and I did eight shows a week. I sang 22 songs a show.
HMS: Wow, that’s a three-hour Rock concert!
KiKi Holli: I was definitely in great shape, but it took everything I had.
HMS: It’s huge that you chose to spend so much of your life with this person, Dusty Springfield. Did you know you were entering into a major relationship with this personality at the beginning of this process, spending days, and weeks, and years with them?
KiKi Holli: No, I didn’t really know. It is really deep. It was amazing and I am extraordinarily grateful for it. I had a screenplay that was in the finals at the Sundance Writer’s Lab that my husband, Jonathan Vankin, and I, wrote together. I’ve had a couple Producers on the movie, but I haven’t gotten it made yet, unfortunately. Mine is the only show about her to run in LA, New York, and London, so I’m just really proud of that.
But I have to say, if I picked one person to do this with, she is a really good person to done this with. Her catalog is so deep, with over 1,000, she has so much existing footage, and her story is just incredible. She was the first to stand against apartheid in South Africa and was put under house arrest, for instance. She did Murray the K shows with Stevie Wonder and the Temptations and brought that back to the UK. So many people credit her as an influence. The Soul sound became ingrained in British culture, really because of her. That’s what still blows my mind.
HMS: What a dynamo! It’s impressive to hear the enthusiasm and love you have for her because it continues to say a lot about her impact on people.
KiKi Holli: It does say a lot about her. I would probably be the ultimate super-fan of Dusty Springfield.
HMS: How do you think this experience influenced you on the musical side of things? Do you think that’s impacted the personal voice that you’re developing in music?
KiKi Holli: Oh, it’s been huge. It was like a master class. That may be why it’s taken me so long to release my own stuff. I’m picky about what sounds good to me and I’m making sure that I put something out there that has quality and that I’m proud of. There is a long list of amazing songwriters whose work she sang, and I’ve studied that kind of songwriting. Singing it over and over like I’ve done has ingrained it in me. All of that just makes you a better songwriter. I’m just grateful that I have the creativity to make my own original stuff.
HMS: How did the idea for the “More Than This” video come about? I know Dean Haspiel and am familiar with the comic characters Billy Dogma and Jane Legit, but I don’t actually know the story behind this video.
KiKi Holli: We’ve been friends with Dean for a long time, and husband more so because of DC Comics. He’s worked with Dean on several projects so Dean has been in our life for years. One night after the studio, I was talking with Ethan and his wife, with my husband Jon. Ethan knew that Jon was in comics and said that it would be great if we could find a comic artist who could tell this story for the video.
I called Dean and asked if he was interested. He was really swamped but he had an idea to use the high-res panel art from the Billy Dogma comics. I said, “Absolutely!” He sent me the files and I went through and did my best to create a narrative from the panels that were there. I mapped that out in a little script, and met with Jasten King, who is the editor. I also filmed myself on a greenscreen and Jast was able to put that in. It came out even better than I expected to.
HMS: I was struck by the use of those comics because everything about those Billy Dogma stories is a relationship arc. Just to be esoteric for a minute, I think that something comics and music have in common is creating emotional beats in a certain way. You can create an emotional narrative with both, and that really comes out when watching the video.
KiKi Holli: That’s a wonderful observation, and it’s true, you feel a lot when you’re reading a comic book, looking at the panels and the pages.
HMS: The colors from the comic just really worked with the song, because it’s a fairly dreamy, ethereal song with layers to it.
KiKi Holli: They really do. Obviously, Dean is extraordinarily talented, and I think the marriage of that art with this song just happened to work out.
HMS: How did Ethan react when he saw the finished product?
KiKi Holli: He loved it, and his wife did the wings! His wife, Zandrah Stoneburner, works in LA at The Feather Place and designed the wings and loaned them to me. It was amazing. I had this photoshoot coming up and my theme is the phoenix rising from the ashes. She had these phoenix wings, so I asked if I could use them for my photoshoot. That ended up being the cover for the single.
HMS: Is the image with the wings just part of this specific song and video, or is it something that will apply more widely to your solo work?
KiKi Holli: I think it will apply more widely, too. The single cover art will stay the same until I release an album. It’s striking and it feels like the image that I want to portray. Going through these experiences with Dusty, and then also going through this loss in my life, led me to the phoenix rising from the ashes as a beautiful myth. The phoenix uses her voice to melt the sun. It’s really beautiful imagery.
In a bonus Q&A about KiKi Holli’s Influences, she writes…
It’s tough to name your influences all in one interview. There obviously are more than this.
I am continually inspired, listening to & learning new things every day.
As for overall influences:
1.) PRINCE: He’s like my church and I listen to him daily.
2.) Dusty Springfield: I just love her on so many levels and am very grateful I chose her as a character study/muse in my life.
3.) John Lennon: I mean The Beatles in general. I love who he was as an artist and songwriter.
4.) Bowie: For his artistry, his originality, his voice, his songwriting, performance and he was a great music businessman.
5.) The Cure: Just everything about Robert Smith really. He makes my heart ache.
Some Female Rockers who continue to inspire with their incredible talent and voices are:
1.) Stevie Nicks: the goddess of rock
2.) Siousxie Sioux and The Banshees: Siousixie is a badass of epic proportions. I feel like she is the architect of Goth.
3.) Debbie Harry and Blondie: Just an amazing band and Debbie is a stunning talent both as a performer and a songwriter. I just wanted to be her. And she came to the opening night of FOREVER DUSTY and I got to meet her. Bucket list moment.
4.) Suzi Quatro and Joan Jet: They are sort of two sides of the same coin.
Amazing players, amazing songwriters and no one looks better in leather.
5.) Mavis Staples: The heart of rock n roll. So much of what female rock vocalists do come from her. Her voice gives me shivers every time and she was Melody Cool in Grafitti Bridge. We all owe her a debt.
6.) Patti Smith: The poet of rock . Always blown away by her in every way. I was able to meet her and see her live at the Bowery Ballroom on NYE.
7.) Joni Mitchell: The angel, an endless inspiration. Her songwriting and her artistry, her voice.
8.) Kate Bush is our queen really. She moves me every time I listen to her. Thank God for her.
9.) Ani Difranco: The Righteous Babe. Fucking brilliant. Everything about her.
I listen to a lot of new music too.
I love Ethan Allen’s band ASHRR, the freakin’ rock. Leon Bridges is amazing. The Black Pumas, Dua Lipa, John Baptiste, Wolf Alice & Billie Eillish are incredibly inspiring.