From ‘L-Isfida’ to BBC Radio 2: Hollie Cassar’s story

“I genuinely couldn’t believe it. It was a proper ‘pinch me’ moment and I couldn’t wait to tell my family and friends as soon as I found out.”

A few months back, DJ Phil Williams, who was sitting in for DJ OJ Borg on BBC Radio 2, introduced a fresh music act. At that moment, the Maltese name Hollie Cassar, and her song ‘Violet’, filled the airwaves.

Hollie, hailing from Malta, is on her way to significant success in the UK. The Journal tracked her progress and discovered her career took a notable turn after her victory in the local TV competition, L-Isfida. We also learnt that she is on the verge of a collaboration with an artist who has recently topped the TikTok charts.

Here’s what Hollie told us in a round of Q & A.

Who is Hollie Cassar?

Ha. That’s a big question… still trying to figure that out for myself. I guess it depends on how one defines oneself. On a very basic level, I’m the daughter of a Maltese policeman, tour guide, and insurance clerk, and a half Maltese, half Italian mother, who had a plethora of different jobs throughout her life, from seamstress to kindergarten teacher, to drama coach and stage manager, to name a few. I’ve been living and working in London for the past 14 years, and have been very fortunate to have a varied career from performing in various musicals in the West End and on tour, to teaching singing at some of London’s top musical theatre colleges, to working as a musical director in the West End and around the globe, to writing a musical which is currently in development, to gigging and releasing music as a singer-songwriter.

Photo: Claire Bonello

Could you share more about your background and the journey that led you from Malta to the UK to pursue your musical dreams?

Since the age of two, I’ve always been involved in the arts somehow – ballet classes, piano lessons, school plays, attending theatre school every Friday… you name it! I had a busy childhood, juggling multiple activities and hobbies. Despite enjoying the academic side of school, I knew that I would regret not trying to pursue a career in the arts. Therefore, while studying for my A Levels, I decided to apply for vocational colleges abroad like Guildford School of Acting, RADA, and Berklee College of Music, while simultaneously applying for the musical theatre TV competition, L-Isfida. The prize was a three-year scholarship to study at a musical theatre college in Cambridge, which as fate would have it, I ended up winning. Following that, I was lucky enough to be awarded the Malta Arts Scholarship to study at The Royal Academy of Music, on the post-graduate musical theatre course. I graduated in 2011 and have been working professionally in the creative industry ever since.

Have there been any specific influences or experiences that shaped the direction of your music?

My mother and sister started learning the piano soon after I was born so I was constantly surrounded by music. As I got older, I used to listen to my mother and sister practising, and when they were done, I would try and play what they had been playing. Für Elise by Beethoven was the first piece of music I ever learnt how to play by ear. I then started piano lessons when I was 7 years old, to learn how to read music. I expect that my style of writing, with its heavily piano-led melodies, is definitely a result of my classical training. Additionally, I presume that my involvement in musical theatre has unknowingly led to my lyrics being quite story-driven. I grew up listening to a lot of iconic artists, which I have no doubt will have had an effect on my writing, but it’s difficult to say who and how and why – it’s definitely not something I have been actively aware of, but has undoubtedly happened by osmosis.

Has your move to the UK affected the themes or style of your music?

Not knowingly, no. I’ve never really stopped to think about what affects my music. I simply write what I want to write when an idea pops into my head. I have no doubt that, along with the ever-changing factors in one’s life – like one’s environment, relationships, and personal growth – one’s style of writing also grows and changes. But it’s never a conscious thing – for me at least.

Could you share some challenges you’ve faced in your musical journey, and how you overcame them?

I’m relatively new to the music scene, but I have definitely faced several challenges in the musical theatre world, mainly the never-ending stream of rejection one is subjected to. It’s an inevitable part of the job. The important thing is to learn how to avoid taking rejection personally. There are so many factors that affect the outcome of an audition – a lot of them, out of your control. So the best way I find to regain some autonomy is to focus on what you CAN control, like taking classes, working on your skill-set, realising the importance of rest, and actively looking after your mental health. It’s hard, because when you audition for a show, you’re not just auditioning to do something you love – you’re also auditioning for something that’s going to pay your bills. A lot of the time, stress comes from worrying about earning money. Therefore, finding something else you can do that’s flexible enough to allow you to audition but also stable enough for you to afford living in London, can take the pressure off. Working as a singing teacher alongside auditioning and performing works really well for me, as it gives me the perfect balance of stability and flexibility, and thankfully, is also something I am extremely passionate about.

On the flip side, what are some particularly triumphant moments that stand out in your career?

Getting the call from my agent to tell me that I’d landed my first West End contract was a very special moment, as was the opening night of that contract, when my entire family flew over from Malta to watch. More recently, I was very honoured to find out that I have been made an Associate of the Royal Academy of Music. Associateship is awarded to alumni of the Academy who have distinguished themselves in the music profession and made a significant contribution in their particular field. I feel very humbled and grateful to receive such an award, and am determined to continue to push boundaries and develop my craft further.

How did you feel when you found out that your song was going to be played on the BBC?

I genuinely couldn’t believe it. It was a proper “pinch me” moment and I couldn’t wait to tell my family and friends as soon as I found out.

What opportunities does this development bring your way?

‘Violet’ was played on two separate BBC stations. It first aired on BBC Radio Kent during a programme called ‘BBC Music Introducing’, which features new music from undiscovered talent in the UK. A few weeks later, the track was played on BBC Radio 2, the UK’s most listened to radio station, with approximately 14 million weekly listeners. Having one’s music played on such an iconic station helps increase one’s credibility as an artist in an oversaturated market, which is always a plus. It also meant I got the chance to connect with some incredible radio presenters and continue to build my network in the music industry.

Can you share some insights into the inspiration behind the specific song that was played on the BBC?

I wrote ‘Violet’ after watching 23 Avengers movies in 23 days. It’s the song I imagine Pepper Potts would sing to Iron Man if she could sing.

Do you incorporate your Maltese roots into your music at all?

Not consciously, but I do have plans to write some songs in Maltese in the near future.

Could you walk us through your song writing process? How do you typically find inspiration and translate it into a song?

I never look for inspiration – it sort of just happens. The most random thing makes me want to write. When I lived in Wimbledon, I was walking home one day when I suddenly spotted some bright green parakeets in the trees. I couldn’t believe that these tropical birds had made their way to London. I stood there, feeling like I’d just discovered the world’s biggest secret, staring up at the trees. The moment I got home, I sat at my piano and started writing. To make sure I don’t lose any ideas that may come to me in the moment, I always press record when I start writing a song, so I can scroll back if I like something specific. Once I get some sort of chord structure going, I tend to hum along with random words and sounds, over the top of the piano. When the gist of the song is mapped out, I write the lyrics. Once I have an idea, it doesn’t usually take me long to finish a song. On average I’d say it takes an hour or two, but I have written songs in as little as 15 minutes. Once, a friend was talking to me about his intense hatred of moths and said “I feel like they can see into your soul.” That line ended up inspiring me to write an entire song.

Photo: Claire Bonello

Are there specific themes or messages you aim to convey through your music?

I never sit down to write a song with the aim of conveying a message, but I do inevitably end up writing about things I feel strongly about. I remember writing a song about the injustice surrounding the George Floyd murder when that happened. I’ve written a song about systemic sexism in a world where confident men get labelled as assertive, while women get called bossy for knowing what they want. I’ve written my fair share of love songs too. There’s nothing quite like listening to a song that feels like it was written for you or about you – it can help one feel heard and/or less alone. In some way, I hope that my songs might have that effect on people and maybe help ease the pain of a tough breakup or perhaps, give someone the courage to tell the person they love how they really feel. That would be quite wholesome.

What is your favourite aspect of performing live, and do you have any memorable moments from your performances, good or bad?

I love the spontaneous aspect of performing live – you never know what’s going to happen or how an audience is going to react, making each experience unique. I recently played a gig at Pizza Express Live! in Holborn, and the fire alarm went off during my final song. I ended up chatting to the crowd and talking nonsense while the venue tried to get the noise to stop – thankfully, it was a false alarm! On another occasion, I turned up to a gig that promised to provide me with a digital piano with 88 weighted keys, but what they ended up having was a much smaller keyboard with keys that felt like buttons. I’d travelled a really long way to be there, so ended up playing anyway, but did not enjoy it one bit. I felt like I was playing a toy keyboard, but I survived to tell the tale.

How do you envision your musical career progressing in the future?

The music industry has changed a lot in recent years – the importance of having an online presence and large social media following seems to have a lot more weight than one’s actual musical abilities. As a result, I have become less concerned with milestones and try to simply focus on writing and sharing my music because it makes me happy, rather than with a specific goal in mind. Would I like to win a Grammy? I mean, sure. But that’s not what it’s about!

Are there any upcoming projects or collaborations that your fans can look forward to?

I am due to be collaborating with an artist who has recently been No. 1 in the TikTok charts. I’m not allowed to divulge the details just yet, but it’s going to be pretty epic, I think – definitely something different to look out for. As for upcoming projects… I’ve written the book, music, and lyrics of a new musical and have recently had a producer come on board. We are planning a West End concert of the show towards the end of 2024.

What advice do you have for aspiring musicians, especially those who may be considering a similar journey to pursue their dreams in a new country?

Work hard, surround yourself with people who inspire you, and be sure to look after your body and mental health. Celebrate other people’s successes and don’t compare yourself to anyone else – there is only one you! Do what you do because it makes you happy, and not to prove yourself to anyone else. On hard days, remind yourself of the reason you’re doing what you’re doing. Challenge yourself to grow, don’t be scared of failure and, most importantly, enjoy yourself! Life is too short. Work with people who are genuine, kind, and bring joy into your life. If you choose to work with people you like and respect, happiness and success are bound to follow.

Is there anything you wish you had known when you were starting your musical career?

Not really. Knowing things is all well and good, but you don’t truly understand those things until you experience them first-hand. Perhaps that’s the lesson then. Knowledge is letting go of trying to know everything, and simply trusting your instincts and following your gut, one day at a time.

Main photo: Photo: Claire Bonello

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