Mark Hollis will forever be known for the song “It’s My Life,” but among the former Talk Talk leader’s wildly devoted fan base, the British singer and songwriter will be remembered for choosing to stop making records during what seemed to be his artistic prime.
“Funny how I find myself in love with you,” Hollis sang in a high tenor to open “It’s My Life,” adding that “if I could buy my reasoning I’d pay to lose.”
His death at 64 was confirmed Tuesday by his former manager, Keith Aspden, who said in a statement that Hollis died after a short illness. “I can’t tell you how much Mark influenced and changed my perceptions on art and music,” Aspden wrote. “I’m grateful for the time I spent with him and for the gentle beauty he shared with us.”
Anthony Costello, a member of Hollis’ extended family, first shared the news Monday on Twitter: “RIP Mark Hollis. Cousin-in-law. Wonderful husband and father. Fascinating and principled man. Retired from the music business 20 years ago but an indefinable musical icon.”
A detail-oriented multi-instrumentalist whose daring albums arrived as if from another dimension, Hollis over the band’s decade-long life sought sublime sounds that became increasingly sophisticated, improvisational and delicate as his aesthetics matured.
“I can’t imagine not playing music, but I don’t feel any need to perform music. And I don’t feel any need to record music.”
He was also a stubborn creator who fiercely protected his muse from intruders and politely railed against the ego-driven commercial marketplace.
“I can’t imagine not playing music, but I don’t feel any need to perform music,” Hollis told Danish TV in a 1998 interview in support of his only solo album. “And I don’t feel any need to record music.”
Although Talk Talk was hardly a household name in the U.S., their 1984 original version of “It’s My Life” helped Gwen Stefani and No Doubt after their 2003 cover of the song made it to the top 10.
Even earlier, Hollis and his band earned attention when the video for their song “Talk Talk” ran in heavy rotation on a fledgling MTV alongside fellow Brit new wavers Duran Duran, Ultravox and Adam & the Ants.
Dealing with that mid-1980s success put the perfectionist Hollis in a tough position. Loathe to acquiesce to record label demands or embark on a tour — and commercially successful enough to command complete artistic control — he wandered so far afield from the rest of the pop music scene as the 1980s passed that he confounded his more pop-leaning admirers.
He once described a love of what he called “fragile music” and his sense of what makes for a timeless work: “The ideal is that the album won’t be recognizable as having come from any time [or] having been recorded in any particular year,” he told Danish TV.
Among his requests was that listeners absorb Talk Talk’s masterwork, “Spirit of Eden,” under a specific set of circumstances: “In a very calm mood with no distractions,” he told Melody Maker upon its release, adding that “you have to give it all your attention. You should never listen to music as background music. Ever.”
Those present at the creation of “Spirit of Eden” across 1988’s sessions could understand the artist’s position. After all, during the year it took to make, Hollis focused on every aspect of the process, including the room’s atmosphere. Engineer Phill Brown recalled to the Guardian an “endlessly blacked-out studio, an oil projector in the control room, strobe lighting and five 24-track tape-machines synced together.”
They worked on the record’s six songs for 12 hours a day over over eight months. Remembering that time as “pretty intense,” Brown recalled spending endless hours in the dark enduring “very little communication with musicians who came in to play. They were led to a studio in darkness and a track would be played down the headphones.”
Hollis saw the methods as essential to the process. “’Spirit of Eden’ was definitely the album where I thought, ‘This is it. This is what we’ve been reaching for,’ ” he told the Sunday Times of London.
However sophisticated, by the early 1990s Hollis was creatively depleted, describing a tired process of “again and again trying to find the same solution to a melody problem that you have already solved in the past.” He grew weary of “always falling down on the same sound, the same note, the same approach.”
By 1995, the band’s output was so under-appreciated in America that its landmark records didn’t even warrant mention in that year’s comprehensive “Spin Alternative Record Guide.” A few years later, Radiohead, Coldplay, Blur, Muse and a host of other avant-rockers would take Talk Talk’s ideas in striking new directions.
Not that Hollis cared one way or the other: “You start to compose because you love music, and that’s all. And this love must remain the only valid reason. There should not be others.”
By the time he issued his only solo album in 1998, Hollis had invited so much space into his work that it felt as fragile as a spiderweb. Sounding more like a Nina Simone-inspired balladeer than a post-rock pioneer, Hollis’ presence floats as if a mist amid the spartan melodies.
At some point the silence seems to overtake the sound, and that in-between place was where the artist seemed most at ease.
His death, and the ways in which his legacy is already being celebrated, gives new meaning to a sentiment he expressed during one of his last interviews.
“I’m really quite happy just to play one note and just to hit it at different volume levels,” he said, “and just see how long it will resonate for before it stops.”