The Cover Story

Holding Absence: “Music is and always has been my life – it’s the only thing that’s ever understood me”

Ahead of Holding Absence’s new album, Lucas Woodland is in the midst of a revelation. Using music to confront his perceived weaknesses, we meet the “very emotional person” on a journey of self-discovery, digging deeper than ever before, finding a new beauty in life and the confidence to be the person he believes he can be…

Holding Absence: “Music is and always has been my life – it’s the only thing that’s ever understood me”
David McLaughlin
Bethan Miller

On Valentine’s Day in 1990, NASA’s Voyager 1 spacecraft captured an iconic and humbling image of Earth at a distance of six billion kilometres from the Sun. The ‘Pale Blue Dot’ photo, as it has since become widely known, moved venerable scientist Carl Sagan to remark upon how our home planet is but a “small stage in a great cosmic arena”.

Standing in a cemetery honouring fallen World War I soldiers as a child, and gazing upon the scores of white crosses as far as the eye could see, Lucas Woodland was reminded of that image when he suddenly felt the weight of the world’s insignificance on his young shoulders.

“It was breathtaking seeing thousands of these – and I don’t mean to sound rude or disrespectful here – almost pathetically small white crosses,” the Holding Absence singer recalls. “I found the parallel between those two things fascinating. Those small white crosses symbolise someone’s life, but in a field full of them they almost look like nothing. If we zoom out further and further again, that small cross is on this pathetic little molecule [Earth]. And that’s all that I’ll ever become.

“When I felt that and realised how insignificant our lives are, and everything we’ve ever known and loved is, it’s hard not to be nihilistic.”

It might not sound like it, but this is Lucas Woodland on a good day. He’s chipper because he’s busy talking shop about his band’s forthcoming new album, the Dan Weller-produced The Noble Art Of Self Destruction. More specifically, he’s discussing the record’s bleakest track, Death Nonetheless, which spawned from the Voyager 1-inspired lyric, ‘a small white cross upon a pale blue dot’. It’s a song that also details feeling ‘trapped inside the trench of self’ and ‘crying out for help’, fantasising about a death that ‘nobody cares’ about. Although not immediately obvious, he promises there’s a sliver of optimism in there too.

“When the chorus progresses, it becomes sentient to what death truly is. Rather than feeling despondent about life, it gains this consciousness that, ‘Actually, it does matter if I exist and that there are people out there who love me,’” he argues. “There’s always a little bead of light trying to crack through.”

As you can probably already tell, Lucas is not your average frontman. More erudite than most, he evidently thinks and cares deeply about things. He chooses his words carefully, often qualifies what he says, and appears at pains to avoid being perceived as pretentious. Across the course of our conversation, he dismisses his characteristic self-doubt as a “stupid” habit more than once. Spend some time in his company and it starts to make sense why his lyrics are as much an exercise in self-flagellation as they are catharsis.

In the past, press coverage suggested a shy figure, seemingly ill-at-ease with his role, but as bandmates Scott (Carey, guitar), Ben (Elliott, bass), and Ash (Green, drums) pile out of Cardiff city’s Citrus Studios having wrapped up the shoot for their latest Kerrang! Cover Story, we find someone growing in stature and confidence. Even if he’s still a wallflower at heart, there’s a sense of someone getting used to the glare of the spotlight and being poked and prodded by strangers asking personal questions.

“No slight on anyone, but some people in bands I feel are more model than musician. We’re definitely the other way around,” he confesses with a typically self-effacing laugh.

“The more you think about doing press, the scarier it gets. Because it’s not just that one stranger asking questions. It’s all the however-many other people who’ll read the piece, too. Or all the strangers who just look at the photos and judge me. But I try to zoom out from everything. Someday I know I’ll curse my younger, cooler self. So, I try to embrace it all as much as I can.”

In the here and now, Lucas and his bandmates are enjoying their salad days. We’ve seen the Welsh quartet’s stock rise over the past six years, gaining momentum with the release of 2019’s self-titled debut and its 2021 follow-up The Greatest Mistake Of My Life. With the conclusion to that trilogy imminent (the album’s artwork is pointedly marked as 3/3) and the future absolutely theirs to define, the challenge of presenting Holding Absence to the world will only grow more daunting as eyes and ears turn their way in even greater numbers. The frontman insists he’s got his coping mechanisms down pat.

“In a healthy way, the more the band has progressed, the more I’ve sunk within myself,” he begins. “I’ve learned to respect what I want intrinsically, but also what people want of me. I’m trying to find the marriage between those two people I have to be. I always use the analogy of Iron Man and Tony Stark because they’re two different people. The man you’re speaking to now is very different from the one people see onstage.

“Not to sound pretentious, but both versions admire the other, in a way. I respect who I become up there, and I’m proud of who I remain when I get offstage. That being said, it is funny to look at a photo of myself on the cover of Kerrang! while I’m sat in the house watching Pokémon and boxing videos. Like, who is that guy?”

A therapist would have fun untangling all of this. Maybe someday.

“Truth be told, I would love to go to therapy if I could afford to,” he sighs.

"The man you’re speaking to now is very different from the one people see onstage"

Lucas Woodland

If all you knew of the Holding Absence singer was the portrait formed through his lyrics, there’d be reasonable cause for concern for his mental wellbeing. There’s no hint of the troubled soul who wrestles with existential angst in evidence today, however. It begs the question of where all that pain and trauma comes from. A question nobody has ever really asked him before now, apparently.

“It’s a good question, and it’s almost hard to be asked it so matter-of-factly, because where do I begin, really?” he bats back. “The true answer is that I just feel things a lot; my first heartbreak really hurt me; losing friends sticks with me; I miss people sorely; I regret the things I haven’t done right. I’m fortunate that I come from a good family and a humble background. By no means have I lived the hardest life – quite privileged generally – but I’m somebody who feels everything. I’m a very emotional person.”

Stranger still, he wasn’t always like this. Empathy on this scale is a relatively fresh development, exclusive to his tenure in Holding Absence.

“I don’t think I realised any of this until I started expressing it,” he admits. “By creating, you find out what your heart is yearning for. I didn’t know I was such an emotional person until somebody asked me to write a song.

“Maybe I’d be happier if I never discovered that?!” he jokes.

For those of a sensitive disposition, highs are often heightened just as lows can feel absolutely devastating. Have you tried to find a middle ground day-to-day?

“Impossible!” he jokes again.

As ever, the truth is often said in jest.

Way before there was laughter, though, there were tears. Last October, while recording out in Jukasa Studios, Canada, Lucas welled-up as he put down his vocals for the album’s closing track, The Angel In The Marble. A song inspired by the sculptures of Michelangelo, it’s one that he says he feels most proud of, reckoning it’s the best thing that Holding Absence have put their name to yet. For someone so used to being savagely self-critical, that counts as high praise indeed. As is customary, it emerged from a period of panic when the devil on his shoulder whispered loudest in his ear.

“This is so, so stupid, but when we were recording it, I was going through my usual self-doubts, telling myself that I suck, and the album was going to bomb,” he confesses. “One of the lyrics goes, ‘Trust in your hand and trust in the process’ and I remember thinking, ‘I need to listen to myself. I am doing this and on the other side it’ll be okay.’”

There are similar notes of creative apprehension in the DNA of lead single False Dawn and the staccato cinematics of A Crooked Melody, two songs that see him go to battle with imposter syndrome. Even when Holding Absence are on top of the world, it seems, a lack of self-belief refuses to allow their leader to experience the joy fully.

“There’s a weird headspace you find yourself in when you don’t feel worthy of something,” he concedes. “This album was written during two straight years of touring with my favourite bands, yet the two songs I wrote almost on autopilot are about me being an imposter and concluding that ultimately, someday, I will let people down. In the midst of me living my dream, I’m basically saying, ‘I suck.’

“There’s this strange symbiosis in that I’m creating something that I hope succeeds, but I view myself as a failure,” he adds, somewhat alarmingly. “False Dawn is almost the disclaimer of the album. ‘Oh yeah, this album sucks? Well, I told you I would fail!’ It’s almost like I want to own the narrative before anything goes wrong.”

"I’m creating something that I hope succeeds, but I view myself as a failure"

Lucas Woodland

That self-sabotaging instinct is a malevolent force that runs right through the record. From the explosive opening of Johnny Cash-referencing Head Prison Blues to the allure of death on the Neil Gaiman-inspired Her Wings, and even in the lonely undercurrent felt on loved-up ballad Honeymoon, there’s rarely a moment’s respite from the “emotional whiplash”.

Scissors, too, nails the dichotomy of feeling ‘desperate to be seen’ yet ‘petrified of being perceived’ while ultimately succumbing to negative voices, as the frontman repeatedly screams the mantra, ‘I’m sick of myself’.

“It’s almost like a counterpart to The Angel In The Marble, but sinister,” Lucas explains. “Like, I know I need to change, but negatively. It’s brutal, it’s cruel, and whatever part of me that isn’t good needs [to go], so give me the tourniquet and I’ll saw it off. It’s a very stark song. But when you create stuff, you’ve got to show the beauty and the ugliness. That said, I wouldn’t show this one to my nan!”

Do the people who know you best recognise the person writing the words to these songs?

“A lot of people ask if it’s scary knowing that people you love will read and hear these dark things you’ve written. My mother and sister have said The Angel In The Marble is their favourite song, for example, but it makes them sad. When the band first started, I would be far more sensitive to that [kind of reaction]. I would be able to sing these words to hundreds of strangers, but I almost didn’t want my family members to hear them.”

He's come a long way since then. Like marble that can only reveal the full extent of the beauty underneath when it’s chipped, sculpted and moulded, Lucas had to tear strips of himself away to find out what was hidden all this time. The boy too scared to allow praise, love, or attention to penetrate his defences, is getting better at accepting those things. Inspired by the Japanese tradition of Kintsugi – celebrating and displaying an item’s imperfections with pride – this is an album that puts its ragged heart on full display. It’s naked, raw, and uncompromising in its courage.

“I have our fans to thank for that,” Lucas gushes. “This is the most candid album I’ve written. Before, I hid behind a concept. They were all emotions that I felt but I didn’t explicitly say them, ‘the narrator’ did. Due to the nature of the band and the support I’ve felt throughout the years, I’ve started to feel far more comfortable talking about the ugliest parts of myself. Now I know how ugly everything is, I really value how beautiful everything else is.”

You’d never know it to look at the happy-go-lucky person he presents as, but Lucas Woodland is someone forever navigating a maze of contradictions within himself. One moment he’s a talented vocalist who can send notes up into the highest reaches, backed by the ability to pen incisive perspectives befitting that skill. The next, he’s his own worst enemy, pre-empting the cruellest swipes someone might take to shoot him down from those heights, feeling unworthy of anything good that comes his way. The Noble Art Of Self Destruction finds him right there in the middle of it all, still learning and finding his way through. The process of opening up and going further than before on these songs has left him feeling, well, in his own words, everything.

“I’m proud to have written an album that has helped me,” he beams. “More than anything, I really hope it helps people the way that I believe it might. My favourite thing about music is that I can gain from creating it the same way that people can gain from consuming it. For anyone who’s willing to get involved, this is going to be a very therapeutic, emotional album that offers insight but also asks questions.”

Resolution isn’t necessarily the point right now either. But there is one takeaway that might help guide the way towards a clearer path home down the line.

“I’ve learned I’m better than I think I am,” he says with reassuring conviction. “I believe that everyone just wants to be told that they are great the way they are. Your whole life, you bully yourself about the things that you do, doubting yourself and the things you create.”

And although true peace might be hard to come by, for now, a truce or two will suffice.

“I’m fortunate, because when I sink back into my normal self, there are peaceful days where I allow myself to take the pressure off. It sounds really silly, but my advice is to just enjoy the things that you enjoy. If your heart is bending in a direction for a specific hobby or person, go for it. We spend too much of our lives scared to do what we love. Music is and always has been my life. It’s the only thing that’s ever understood me.”

Should you want a portrait of the artist as a young man, you can do much worse than that summation. Chip away at the marble of Lucas Woodland’s life so far and what you’re left with is the music. On his portion of this small stage in the great cosmic arena, there is no greater pleasure.

The Noble Art Of Self Destruction is out August 25 via Sharptone. Get your limited-edition cassette now.

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