The Journal: Carmen and the Pearls

"I guess my personality is like, fun and silly"

This energy is palpable from the moment Hollie Carmen walks into a bustling Marylebone café on a rainy summer's day. The North-London singer-songwriter, who is known for her bittersweet lyrical musings layered over upbeat soul-pop melodies, has sat down with us to talk vintage vibes, inspiring women and her new single, "Anything Bad for Me."

The first thing to know about Hollie Carmen is that she has recently changed her stage name. Now known as Carmen and the Pearls, the name delicately blends a fitting family tribute with the old-school glamour of Hollywood and the sophistication of French cinema. "It's so nice to hear someone say the name out loud," she enthuses. The change has been a long time coming, with Carmen toying with the idea for a while. The trick was balancing people knowing her name with moving in a new, more intentional direction, nodding to inspiration from the past without it feeling too on the nose.  

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The Inspiration in Question?

The fifties and sixties. "Rita Hayworth was the main one," Carmen explains, referencing Marilyn Monroe and Audrey Hepburn's lesser-known contemporary - "She was just quite silly, she didn't take herself too seriously." Moving in that creative direction was a good instinct, but to Carmen, didn't feel groundbreaking. "I wanted a strong message, I wanted to feel like I was really saying something," she tells us, demonstrating a tenacity and attention to detail that characterised our conversation: "So we tried again, we tried some new stuff." Searching online for archival footage of tap dancing, Carmen's close friend and creative director, Ali Kurr, asked her a simple question that would change everything. "What if it was Fred Astaire, what if it was Frank Sinatra? What if wasn't Rita, or one of the girls at all?"

"Aha!" Carmen exclaims, recalling this lightbulb moment: "it just clicked, it felt so authentic, it just felt right". This change in direction felt like embracing her own story. "The first time I sang in school I got put in the boys choir, and everyone laughed at me," she confides, "I was mortified!" Now, however she looks back on it fondly, "I suppose I was never really one for conforming anyway," Carmen smiles: "I really lean into my voice now, I feel like it's what makes me individual."

Another deep dive into the archives was needed, this time to find the name to match the vibe. "Would it be a French actor, would it be a fictional character from a book?" The questions surface again in Carmen's memory and she laughs, "It just got more and more ridiculous."

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Inspiration, it would transpire, was far closer to home and even more meaningful to Carmen: "My grandma was my rock, my biggest inspiration." Like Carmen, she wanted to be a singer, "She had the most amazing voice, like Ella Fitzgerald," Carmen reminisces, telling stories of her grandma singing Frank Sinatra's "Chicago" to her when she was a child scared of the dark. Carmen's grandma was adopted by a woman named Pearl, a woman who Carmen never met, but felt an affinity with: "She was this motherly figure and the way that my grandma spoke about her was incredible". Keeping her own middle name of Carmen, "the Pearls" are a nod to these beautiful relationships that have inspired and strengthened Carmen. She describes the feelings of safety and validation and acceptance Pearl offered her grandma, who in turn offered the same to Carmen, "I wanted to do that for the people who connect with my music, I want listeners to know it's safe to be yourself."

It's All Kind of Old School

The importance of being yourself is a topic clearly important to Carmen, figuring heavily in much of our conversation. She tells me a story of meeting a producer early into her career, "I just sent him this picture of a sold-out stadium with the message 'I hope these people really like jazz.'" She winces, then laughs: "He told me I could never do that with a jazz album." Carmen was advised to make pop and wait to make the music she loved later down the line. "But what if I just did what I loved from the beginning?" This is exactly what Carmen did, returning home from America in 2020 and collaborating with Billy Adamson. Other friends rallied with playlists of inspiration, "of the sixties, Dusty, Martha, the girls." "It's all kind of old school" she remembers fondly: "All of it, the aesthetic, the music, the community." 

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Carmen's old-school aesthetic has quickly become as iconic as her soulful voice. "I've worn shirts since I could pick my own outfits," she tells us, effusively describing what she wore when shooting with SIRPLUS. "What attracted me to the brand is the vintage feeling, I feel like Frank Sinatra would have worn this, Elvis would have worn that." At home in pleated trousers, crisp shirts and stripey tees, Carmen gestures to the ideas of juxtaposition that guide her creative process: "These clothes can be masculine, but also feminine" she tells us, a theme that rings true in her music too, "the music is happy, but then the lyrics are often kind of sad." In Carmen's music, everything is a perfect balancing act, but this doesn't stop her from having fun: "it's playful, I can really be a kid with this" she explains, describing how menswear unlocked something "that can get diluted as you get older."

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Carmen's passion for authenticity - for her message to remain undiluted - is clear. "I want my music to be timeless" she tells us, "even if I only ever made one album, if it lasted a lifetime that is what's important." Speaking of albums, new music is on the horizon; Carmen is currently working with the incredible producer and artist, Harry Stone.

Drawing the comparison between the enduring appeal of music and fashion, Carmen speaks of the wardrobe pieces that mean the most to her. "I have a white blouse from my grandmother that is so special to me, I'd definitely pass that on" she describes, mentioning this among an array of other meaningful objects - love letters, a birthday mug, some rings. "It's funny, people don't speak about this much, but it's so important when everyone has something so special" she muses. To say that Carmen has something special is an understatement; we cannot wait to hear where her talent takes her next.

"I've worn shirts since I could pick my own outfits."

Browse a selection of Carmen's favourites from our latest summer collection. 

Follow her on Instagram (@holliecarmen) or click below to hear her latest song, 'Anything Bad for Me' and stay updated with new music and upcoming gigs.