by Tanya Lutman
photos by Shyn Midili
Hollis Wong-Wear is becoming known throughout Seattle as a woman with the Midas touch. All of the projects she touches are incredibly successful, and the list is endless. At last count she was actively working as a singer, songwriter, musician, poet, artist manager, video producer, mentor, tour manager, and actress. Even just listing that is making me exhausted. It reminds me of those “Hey Mon” skits that were on In Living Color, and makes me feel like I should be getting more work done. Which is to say, Hollis is amazingly inspiring to those around her.
Weaved throughout her work is a consistent theme of helping artists realize their dreams. Her management work with the Blue Scholars has seen them get record-breaking Kickstarter campaign numbers and find unique and creative ways to engage their community. Hollis has co-written songs with Macklemore & Ryan Lewis, introduced them to Mary Lambert (who sings on “Same Love”), sings the hook herself on “White Walls,” and co-produced the videos for “Wings” and “Thrift Shop” – the latter of which has over 180 million YouTube views. Speaking of video hits, her own band, The Flavr Blue, has almost 100,000 views for their first single, “F x F.” She also finds the time to mentor teens through Youth Speaks Seattle, giving them a chance to find their artistic voices. This is a girl who went from being a spoken word poet in high school to working with some of your favorite rappers in Seattle, turning herself into a secret weapon that you feel lucky to have on your team.
We started our day off by meeting Shyn Midili, our photographer for this shoot, at the Panama Hotel down in the International District. Shyn immediately had a clear vision of how she wanted to capture Hollis – a gorgeous calm force amidst a chaotic blurred backdrop of Seattle. She wanted to include somewhat iconic areas – the ID, Pioneer Square, and Pike Place Market – while not being obvious about it – which almost perfectly fits how I saw Hollis for this interview, a powerful force that rarely brags about her own work. It was great to have a photographer who immediately got what we were going for, and came ready with a vision on how to make it happen. Her ideas for how to capture motion were brilliant and showed how well she knew our city, and her fun, playful attitude really helped with the cold weather during an outside shoot and running around to many locations. The morning went on to include many giggles, silly jokes, and we all had a great lunch at the end. It reminded me of why I wanted to do an Artists for Artists spotlight in the first place, giving artists across multiple mediums a chance to connect with each other in a very real way.
If you ask anyone that knows Hollis to describe her, the first thing they would say is probably something like “friend,” or “awesome,” or even a squeal of “love her!” with a huge smile. While all of her accomplishments are incredibly impressive, it stands out to me most that people would remember her as a someone they can trust, with sincerely touching stories on how she has helped them out. While changing in yet another tiny public bathroom between shots, she asked me to get her “classy” dress, laughed, and told me that every dress in her closet gets an adjective. Although I’ve known her for years, this warm open feeling of instant kinship just comes out of her, even if you’ve just met. She has a sparkle and quality about her that extends to everything she touches, and even how she interacts with the world around her. You have to wonder, how does she get it all done and stay so damn nice and personable? Which is what I set to find out.
To be honest, I am a Gemini Sun, Gemini Moon, and Gemini Rising sign. That is how. There are at least six of me going on at any given time.
Besides helping other artists, this woman is also a super talented songwriter with a beautiful voice, and a musician in her own right. Hollis sings and plays synths in The Flavr Blue, raps in Canary Sing, and has guest appearances on records from dozens of local artists, including Don’t Talk To The Cops!, Fly Moon Royalty, Gabriel Teodros, Bocafloja and Nam. She also co-wrote two songs with Macklemore & Ryan Lewis – Wing$ and White Walls – which are on “The Heist,” one of the top-selling albums in the world right now. Oh, and she’s 25.
Tell us about your songwriting process.
On demand! I feel fortunate that I come from a background in poetry, where entertaining the abstract and impossible and in colloquial terms “getting weird” is an important exercise in being a good writer. I consider songwriting to be a musical form of poetry itself, so I’ll focus on different elements as each song allows.
The Hollis & The Heartfelts EP dropped a few weeks ago, and I can’t stop listening to “Cold Case.” Can we expect to hear more from you as a solo artist in the future?
Thanks! You can. If there’s one thing I’ve resolved myself to do after six months of touring and working on an original musical, it’s that I’m going to hunker down and focus on what I – smack dab in the middle of my twenties – have to say right now as an artist. Collaborations and productions are thrilling, challenging, and so rewarding, and I’m at the point where I’m ready to channel what I’ve learned into building something within myself. Obviously I can’t go it alone, but I am excited to figure out and curate what I’m able to do as a solo artist, and partner with other musicians in order to best express myself. It’ll be the hardest thing I’ve done yet!
The bands you are in travel nationally, you are the Blue Scholars’ tour manager, and you just came off performing on The Heist tour. What’s your favorite thing about being on the road?
Obviously the opportunity to perform to crowds in different cities every night is a huge blessing and one I cherish on the road. But I’m a wanderlust, and I love love love being in new places. I’ve found that places are two things: people and food. Who you meet and what you eat. When you are on tour, they are the two things you are guaranteed to rely on. Thinking back on touring from October to December last month, I am so grateful for the time that I spent with my fellow musicians and artists building relationships, delving into reflective conversation, egging each other on into antics and allowing ourselves to be vulernrable and real with each other. It’s a joy to link up with friends close and distant that live in towns on your tour route, and letting them come see a glimpse of what you’ve been taking on the road. Connecting with new friends you meet along the way. And maybe it’s because I come from a restaurant family, but all of my memories are attached to meals. Our glorious pancake breakfast in Bend, OR. Eating a fat slice of pizza at a noisy dive in Burlington, VT, where we Gangnam Styled ourselves out of the bar. Snagging a classic NY egg and cheese sandwich in Midtown Manhattan while carrying Wanz’ “Thrift Shop” suit from the dry cleaners back to the hotel. The incredible chicken wings across from Saint Andrew’s Hall in Detroit. An intoxicated late night at Tasty Burger by the House of Blues in Boston across the street from Fenway Park. Oh god, you’ve got me down a road here.
My family has everything to do with the way I am and move through the world. My mom is a first generation American from Hong Kong, and is impossibly gangster. I am absolutely not one to ascribe to the “bootstrap” immigrant expectation, but my mom hustled the shit out of this country – by herself, since the age of 19 – to provide herself with the comfortable life she was not granted at birth. I am extremely grateful that she raised me, sternly but lovingly, and that my work ethic and belief in self descends from her. My father is the one that I’m sure steered me into my path as a writer & musician – it was his musical selection and evening poetry readings that got me hooked on my current vocations. And my two younger siblings and I form a voltron of strengths: I’m the nerdy artist, my brother is the hyper-ambitious business school grad, and my sister is the VIP fashionista with impeccable taste and gourmet kitchen skills. We drive each other nuts sometimes but we are all very close, and their support makes me who I am.
Hollis has been a spoken word poet since she was a teenager, and now mentors young poets through Youth Speaks Seattle. She was actively involved with youth programs at Youngstown Cultural Center, is a poetry teaching artist with Arts Corps, and is a city commissioner on the Seattle Center Advisory Commission. Sometimes she even picks up the occasional tutoring shift – she quite literally teaches the artists of the next generation.
What do you feel is most rewarding about working with youth arts programs?
Working with and writing with youth keeps me sharp and honest with myself. Young people can step into their potential unafraid of consequence far easier than us adult people. Many of the young people I know are extraordinary artists and thoughtful, hilariously insightful people who I’m grateful to have a relationship with. It’s an honor to get to work with them.
In college, you majored in History, with a minor in Global African Studies. Does your educational background help with your current artistically driven career?
Absolutely. My education has shaped my critical analysis which is the framework from which I create. It also indulged my geeky vocabulary and verbosity. And it let me write thirty page papers and research some really dope musicians: Fela Kuti, Celia Cruz, etc. Also, going to Seattle University got me on Capitol Hill at the age of 18, within walking distance of Langston Hughes and Hidmo, which gave me the foundation for my Seattle creative community. Thanks, college!
You just got back from a whirlwind SXSW trip. Give us a highlight reel of what the experience was like, from performing on the huge stages with Macklemore to the small parties with The Flavr Blue. Would you recommend the festival to other independent artists?
This was my fourth SXSW – the first one was in 09 where I road-tripped with my homie from Seattle down to Austin… A trip I’m so glad I did and would never do again! I am crazy but SXSW is an environment I thrive in, since it’s such a scavenger hunt of a festival, and your experience is what you make it. I would absolutely recommend it to any independent musician if anything to put one in perspective: at SXSW everyone and nobody is famous; everyone and nobody works “in the industry”; everyone is hustling to make it happen. It’s a blast and it’s a chaotic and it’s a headache and it’s a miracle. Whatever you want it to be. This year I was really grateful I could have the dual experience of performing with Macklemore and Ryan Lewis on the most illustrious stages – including the MTV Woodies stage where we finally got to perform “White Walls” with Schoolboy Q for the first time in front of like 5,000 people – and the funkiest spots with bad sound and small crowds with The Flavr Blue. I was walking miles every day wearing a sundress and a fat ass backpack from gig to gig and I was happy as a clam. Not to mention sun. Sweet sun! Love you Seattle, but…
Things are moving pretty fast for you right now. If you can take one snapshot memory of your life at this moment, what would you want your 50-year-old self to look back at?
I’d like 50-year-old me to remember how content and supported I feel amidst the chaotic roller coaster that I consistently, inevitably board. I have an amazingly supportive boyfriend, super-fun bandmates, and an incredible group of friends than enrich my life tremendously, relentlessly inspire me, and encourage me to do me. I may be side-hustling and making basically no money doing so, but I’m following my heart and couldn’t be happier about it. It wasn’t easy for my family, particularly my mom, to accept that I had chosen and committed to a haphazard, careening artist path, but they are phenomenally supportive and trusting of what I do now. So many of my mom’s friends lament to me that they chose the straight and narrow over the unknown. So I’m doing my best and taking advantage of all the energy I’ve got. I hope my 50-year-old self sees this as awesome and not like I sabotaged her.
and catch her next Thursday with her band The Flavr Blue at Barboza and see for yourself why people call her the Asian Emma Stone, I mean how she earned the Midas touch nickname!
Shyn Midili has been a well-respected make-up artist in the Northwest for years. A couple of years ago she forged a new path with photography and we couldn’t be happier about this because her talent is undeniable. Most days, you will likely find Shyn on-set, contributing to The Better Bombshell, standing up for gender inequality in the media, snapping headshots and coaching her son’s hockey team. Her passion for expressing her art is sincere and carries with it all the sass and red lipstick of her vibrant character. Sleep on her at your peril.