Hollie Kenniff: “It’s inspiring to see other women composers writing ambient music, in a genre which has been historically male-driven”

Hollie Kenniff

On her new release for Texan imprint Western Vinyl, Hollie Kenniff explores the complex relationships between memory and place through expansive, emotive ambient music. 

Fittingly titled We All Have Places That We Miss, the record deftly captures the bittersweet tang of nostalgia through gorgeously layered instrumentals that envelop synths, piano and guitar in a carefully chosen palette of effects and sonic processing, resulting in a quietly moving tapestry of sound that soothes and uplifts in equal measure. 

Working within a genre that’s traditionally been somewhat male-dominated, Kenniff draws inspiration from fellow female artists within the burgeoning ambient experimental scene, including Rachika Nayar, Ann Annie and Madeline Cocolas. “A lot of ambient music that’s been made up until recently has mostly been by men,” she tells us. “Hopefully, with more women composing this sort of music, it will push this genre into some new spheres, with their own experiences and perspectives.” 

We caught up with Hollie Kenniff ahead of the release of the new project to find out more about her unique approach to music-making. 

When did you start making music, and how did you first get started? 

“Although I had done various other music things beforehand, my husband Keith and I started making music under the moniker Mint Julep in 2010. It was mainly as a love letter to our shared admiration of shoegaze which we still continue to write and release material for.

“I always loved ambient music and started making that type of music specifically in 2017/18. It was refreshing to use my voice in a way that was not focused on traditional verses and choruses (in fact, no words at all) but more about texture and mood.”

Tell us about your studio/set-up. 

“Keith and I share a studio in our home. I have always found it easiest to work from home rather than to have to commute to a separate studio. The key is always trying to be aware of that work/life balance so I try to have a work ethic that when I am in the studio it is focused on music and very much treat that as an office space rather than another room in the house. 

Having simplicity in my workflow allows me to not get too overwhelmed by the number of tools

“Our setup is pretty minimal, everything is done in the box, and we don’t use any outboard gear, but I tend to use a lot of guitars in my work to create textures and parts, so I have a simple but effective pedalboard with a solid reverb/delay (Eventide Space), looper (ditto) and I love the Shallow Water pedal by Fairfield Circuitry. 

“I also use the piano quite a bit. I think having simplicity in my workflow allows me to not get too overwhelmed by the number of tools and rather to focus on ideas and have it set up so that I can easily just create rather than tinker.”

(Image credit: Hollie Kenniff)

What DAW (or DAWs) do you use, and why did you choose it?

“Studio One. Keith and I both use it and it’s the best of both worlds for mixing and music creation.”

What one piece of gear in your studio could you not do without, and why? 

“We have a G&L semi-hollow ASAT special from the late 90’s which I use a lot. There’s just something about an instrument as opposed to a synth, a slight imperfection. I think guitar is so overused in general, but there are lots of ways to manipulate the sound that makes it a unique tool.”

What’s the latest addition to your studio?

The hardest thing about ambient music is knowing when to hold back

“We recently got a new piano (Yamaha U3) and it has such a nice lovely warm tone. Although we have a good collection of tape recorders in the studio, I find it so fun to play around with a lot of the tape emulation plugins that are out now. I really like Reels by AudioThing and Sketch Cassette. They’re best used moderately but it’s a great quick tool to make something feel just ever-so-slightly worn.”

What dream bit of gear would you love to have in your studio?

“I would really like to start dabbling in modular synths, but that is quite a rabbit hole! Also, there are so many amazing guitar pedals nowadays, so there’s a pretty big wish list going right now on that front.”

When approaching a new track or project, where do you start?

“A lot of times, with the kind of music I write, I find it best to start with some sort of simple synth drone just to set up the overall texture or mood or a loopable riff on guitar or piano. I think the hardest thing about ambient music is knowing when to hold back. It’s a lot more difficult than it seems.”

What led you towards producing ambient music specifically?

“My husband Keith has been writing ambient music for quite a while (as Helios) and so over the years, even though I was a big fan of ambient music before he and I met, I’ve been exposed to a lot of aspects of this genre in the past 15 years or so. I think ambient music, even though it’s still quite “niche”, has a bit more traction than it used to and there are a lot of exciting things happening within the genre and the overall community.”

What other artists do you look to for inspiration?

“As a female making music in this genre which has been historically male-driven, it is quite inspiring to see other women composers writing music in this genre. Also, I think there’s been growing gains with women composers in other corners of the industry as well. 

“Rachika Nayar, Sophie Hutchings, Julia Kent, Aisha Burns, Ann Annie, Rachel Grimes, Karen Vogt, Midori Hirano, Claire Deak, Olivia Belli, Forest Management, Madeline Cocolas are among a few of many who I find inspiring.”

If you had to pick one song/album that’s been most influential on your work, what would it be?

“Kraftwerk – The Man Machine. I discovered Kraftwerk early on and it really made an impact on what could be done with electronic music and helped open the door to explore a lot of different kinds of music.”

What do you think makes you unique as a producer and musician?

Hopefully, with more women composing this sort of music, it will push this genre into some new spheres with their own experiences and perspectives

“I think not having a “traditional” trajectory in this genre and starting this specific project later on, has allowed for some perspective in regard to what my intention of this music would be. I spent the better part of the last decade making louder music and I think it’s been refreshing to switch gears in the past 5 years to do something almost exclusively textural, restrained, and open-ended and not to think about lyrics/song structure. 

“I think a lot of ambient music that’s been made up until recently has mostly been by men, so hopefully, with more women composing this sort of music, it will push this genre into some new spheres with their own experiences and perspectives.”

What are you currently working on? 

“My husband Keith and I are working on a new album as Mint Julep, as well as a new ambient project, and I’m continuing to work on more upcoming music for my solo material.”

Hollie Kenniff’s three production tips

1. Be patient

“Be patient. I think it’s important to take time and consider what the intention of a piece of music could be. Rather than just making a “cool track”, what does this add to the general musical conversation?”

2. Make the most of what you have

“Learn to use the gear you have. I don’t think gear is necessarily as important as it used to be, even though there are more options now. Nowadays people can make music very easily and I think it can be done on a very minimal setup. Sometimes restraint in this department can inspire creativity.”

3. Enjoy your own music

“It’s OK to listen to and enjoy your music. Sometimes I hear musicians (or artists/filmmakers etc…) say that they make something and then never listen to it after it’s released or send it out into the world and let it go. I think it’s OK (and not self-involved) to want to listen to your music! 

“You’re making music that is tailored to tickle your own ears, and hopefully will resonate with others, so it should be something you can sit with and enjoy as a listener as well.”

We All Have Places We Miss will be released February 10th on Western Vinyl.