Hollis Talks 'White Walls,' Macklemore & Ryan Lewis' Early Days: Q&A

Behzod Sirjani

Hollis Wong-Wear

"Even now, with them firmly in the mainstream, they still have that 'get your hands dirty' attitude," says the singer.

"Singer-songwriter," "video producer" and "spoken-word artist" are just a few hats that Hollis has worn in the past five years, before the Seattle artist burst onto the scene with her collaborations on Macklemore & Ryan Lewis' debut album, "The Heist." Now, her voice is reaching the mainstream as the hook to the hip-hop duo's most recent single, "White Walls," which hits a new peak at No. 22 on the current Hot 100 chart.

Hollis (real name: Hollis Wong-Wear) spoke to Billboard recently to explain Seattle's role in Macklemore & Ryan Lewis' success, as well as her own career aspirations for her synth-pop group The Flavr Blue.

Billboard: You co-wrote and sing on “White Walls” by Macklemore & Ryan Lewis. How did you first connect with them?

I live in Seattle - they’re from Seattle. Especially in the hip-hop scene, Seattle is a very tight-knit community. I moved here in 2005, and I rapped in a two-lady rap group called Canary Sing. Through being in that world at 19, I met everybody really quickly, and when I moved here, there were a couple albums that I got that were my touchstones here to hip-hop, and Macklemore’s “The Language of my World” was definitely one of them. I said, “Wow this city has such an interesting sound!” My group Canary Sing opened for Macklemore in ’07 at a small club here called Chop Suey, but the way we started collaborating on the scene was I got asked to produce his music video for “Wing$.”

How did that come about?

“Wing$” wasn’t even a song -- it was a two-person a cappella that Ben had written and performed. Zia (Mohajerjasbi), the director of the video, was like, “I want you to make that into a song and I want to shoot the video for it.” He pulled me in and asked me to produce it and I said, I don’t know what that means, but I’ll do it. There was no beat for the song, there was no song, but we all endeavored to make it, so over 8 months we did a Kickstarter and Ryan spent hundreds of hours on the song. It needed a chorus, and so I wrote the chorus for it and found some kids to sing it, and we recorded them singing it after school. It was such a holistic process, and it was an amazing way for us to bond as friends and as collaborators -- it was very much all hands on deck.

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When did “White Walls” come about?

I basically have been good friends with them ever since, and when Ben was working on "The Heist," I was a sounding board for him on a lot of it. Out of one of our writing sessions came what would become “White Walls,” and I didn’t even know I would be the person performing it, but then I was!

I heard that you also introduced them to Mary Lambert as well, who ended up on “Same Love."

Yeah I did! I met her when she was like 18, as a spoken word poet. I was heavily involved in the poetry slam community and she was part of the younger generation, so I was kind of her mentor. When I saw her, I just knew she was going to be this big deal, so it’s been my secret mission that she will eventually rule the world (laughs).

You co-produced the video for “Wing$” but also “Thrift Shop,” right? How was that experience?

Working on the "Thrift Shop" video, it was obvious that Ben forever has identified with the discovery of thrifting and his own personal style, so bringing that to life made sense. But in retrospect, none of us knew that it would actually do what it did. It was a five-day shoot [and] it was totally nuts -- we were sweet-talking Goodwill and Value Village into letting us dance in their establishments. Working with [Macklemore & Ryan Lewis] has always been really scrappy, and even now, with them firmly in the mainstream, they still have that "get your hands dirty" attitude.

You’re also in a synth-pop band called The Flavr Blue, and you’ve just put out an EP, "Bright Vices." How has your success working with Macklemore & Ryan Lewis affected that project?

It’s cool because working with Ben & Ryan is so motivational, because they’re always just about pushing themselves as artists and their business to the next level. So it’s a really infectious energy. What I love about Flavr Blue is we’re all really good friends and we all bring our different personalities and approaches and sensibilities to the table, so collaborating is always really fun. Watching and working with Ben & Ryan is inspirational because they just have such a great approach as an indie artist to be like “If we’re doing this now, how can it be bigger? How can it be more spectacular? How can it be more connected?” It gives me a fire to approach this band.