Gavin Holligan: Striker-Turned-Singer

It is often said that in life, when one door closes, another window of opportunity opens.  Never a truer word was spoken in the case of native South Londoner Gavin ‘Hollerz’ Holligan, the former Wycombe Wanderers and West Ham striker, whose premature departure from football gave him a chance to focus on his other great love: music. Alongside Lynden David Hall, Amy Winehouse, Leona Lewis and Adele, Gavin is an alumnus of the renowned BRIT School. An autodidact pianist, Holligan received his first Casio keyboard at five years old and never looked back.

Fast forward nearly 25 years and Gavin is not only a sought-after session musician but a singer-songwriter, producer and entrepreneur currently doing the promotional rounds for his debut EP, We’re Coming.  Soul Culture joins him in the hustle and bustle of London Victoria Station to discuss his musical odyssey, including how he made the transition from full time sportsman to music-maker.

“To be honest, when I was playing professional football the intensity of training and games was so immense,” he confides, “it was just a case of trying to keep up with the workload on that side and then having music as an outlet.  I wasn’t really concentrating on developing my music from a career stance. However, I knew that at some point there would come a time I wouldn’t be able to play football anymore.  I always kept writing and recording at home when I’d come home from training.”

A succession of injuries and other misfortunes, however, left Gavin feeling disillusioned with the beautiful game. Some personnel clashes also led to Holligan re-considering his career options. A severe thigh injury in 2006 was the final straw and he quit football: “I thought, ‘I can’t keep doing this’… I just got fed up.”  There was a sense of relief for Holligan that he could now concentrate more on his music.

Gavin brings some of the same discipline he developed as an athlete to his music, not least to his live shows. He calls himself meticulous. “Often I can be singing and hearing stuff that’s going on in the band and thinking, ‘What’s happening there? You were supposed to go to that note’. It’s very difficult sometimes for me to detach myself from the composition side of what I do.”

Gavin has an eclectic array of vocal influences ranging from perennial soul favourites Stevie Wonder and Donny Hathaway to Sting, Jeff Buckley, Omar, Shaun Escoffery, Bob Marley, Dwele and more recently Cee-Lo, Justin Timberlake and Daniel Merriweather. However, rather out of the norm for a male vocalist, he also cites certain female singers who have inspired the way he uses his voice. “Obviously, Kim Burrell – can’t really argue with her, I love her stuff.  Brandy – I think her vocal arrangements are incredible.  I respect Tina Turner a lot. I love Eva Cassidy’s stuff.  I would love to do something with Corinne Bailey Rae…”

His debut EP ranges from carefree, infectious numbers such as ‘You Should Be My Wife’ and ‘Turn It Up (described on Gavin’s website as “the bastard child of Madness and Andre 3000“) to epics like ‘Beautiful Tale’, a piece that chronicles the harrowing circumstances in which its heroine came to be.

‘Smiling Down’ in particular is very close to Gavin’s heart.  It is a song of hope born out of great tragedy, written three years ago. “At the time I was imagining a scenario unfolding of someone close to me passing away.  They hadn’t actually passed away but the song wrote itself.  I stood in the shoes of a mourning person who would have wanted to know that they [the deceased] were happy, they were not in pain anymore and they were not burdened by the world as often we find in life.  I also realised that at some point that there will be people in my life that will eventually be able to relate to the song.”

Sadly, in a cruel twist of fate, life indeed imitated art.  On New Year’s Day a close friend of Gavin’s was gunned down in a Croydon pub; an apparently unprovoked attack. “At that time I was in Russia, in the airport. I get this call; something terrible has happened.  At that moment I thought ‘Well, I’m going to make the song dedicated to that.”

In all this Gavin holds fast to his Christian faith, as reflected in the gorgeous mellow flow of live jam ‘Everyone Needs To Know My Name’ – an instant favourite with audiences.  He explains how his belief system has helped him overcome certain anxieties: “I think the biggest challenge for anyone in any walk of life is to overcome fear.   The fear of being rejected is what causes people to lose themselves and their identity.  I quickly learned to overcome that fear – fear of being rejected because of my religious stance, unwillingness to compromise and lose my identity.  That’s something I decided I was going to make sure wouldn’t happen.   It’s a thing I’m always trying to perfect.  It’s hard, very hard.  But it’s the first starting point.”

Besides working and touring with artists such as Duffy, Gloria Gaynor, the Sugababes and Aswad and penning his own material, Gavin also finds time to run his studio – the enticingly named Groove Lab, which he started months after leaving football. Gavin doesn’t just use the Lab exclusively to work on his own music and has a number of other pet projects – the details of which he’s keeping close to his chest.  Nevertheless he can reveal that he recently completed a track with stand-up comic Simply Andy about his iPhone which Gavin describes as ‘unbelievably funny’.  He also produced the majority of acclaimed spoken-word artist Verb[swish]’s forthcoming album in the Lab.

Holligan chose to make his first record more pop in order to establish himself before later unleashing his soulful alter ego. “But obviously I can’t disown my innate soul side,” he adds. “I’ve got other really, really lush tracks, very smooth.  I’m probably going to release some of them that didn’t make the EP.” A bit like a Speakerboxx/The Love Below sort of thing?  Gavin beams at this suggestion. ‘Two worlds? That’s a great idea!  That’s cool.  So that’s what we’ll do, yeah.”

Holligan is drawn to the spontaneity of artists such as Eric Roberson, whom he met at the Sol Village showcase in New York earlier this year, resulting in a chance invitation to perform at the end of the night.  Erro’s ability to deliver from the heart and engage deeply with the crowd at every show has also had an impact on Gavin’s craft.  “That’s actually something I’ve tried to model in my shows,” he admits.  “I love watching Eric.  He has a great voice, great writer as well.  Top props to him.”

One like-minded soul with whom he’s had the pleasure of working behind the scenes is yet another Eric; Appapoulay this time – Daniel Bedingfield’s erstwhile musical director.  Appapoulay currently shares production credits on Plan B’s much-feted The Defamation of Strickland Banks album. “Eric is incredible. He plays in my band. I would say working with him is a joy. Multi-instrumentalist, he sings, he writes…” he enthuses.

“What blows me away is doing stuff that people don’t expect: on record, in the studio and on stage. Just musicianship, being able to go to different places, take people on a journey.”

And with Gavin providing the soundtrack, it is set to be a pleasant trip indeed.

Gavin Holligan’s debut EP, We’re Coming, is available to buy now.

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