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Sep 29, 2022

Lyrical Love Blooms Anew for Hollifield

Tim Wood

Photography By

Everyone loves a white wedding. We all want to believe in everlasting love. Marriage was a lifetime promise in the not-so-distant past. Newer generations treat the concept like an impulse Amazon buy, a bond as disposable as a trending TikTok video. Yet there is something to be said for a second marriage. Just ask Connor […]

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Everyone loves a white wedding. We all want to believe in everlasting love.

Marriage was a lifetime promise in the not-so-distant past. Newer generations treat the concept like an impulse Amazon buy, a bond as disposable as a trending TikTok video. Yet there is something to be said for a second marriage. Just ask Connor Hollifield, who has emerged rejuvenated three years after a harmonic breakup—the love story his teenage heart thought was The One—to front the trio Hollifeld alongside drummer Drew Lewis and bassist Tommy Merritt.

The Hilton Head Island native made a 2011 love connection with SondorBlue, a foursome of musically gifted childhood friends who toured nationally and have amassed 1.6 million Spotify plays of their song “The Moon and You.”

“I’m fortunate in that I have nothing but love for my first ‘wife,’” Hollifield said, humoring my analogy. “There were lessons learned, both good and bad, but great memories. You see what can be, but you also see that you’re not meant to achieve it in that particular mix and relationship.”

SondorBlue was born out of a pickup hoops game and an exchange of YouTube video demos between Hollifield and eventual front man Andrew Halley. John Sheehan joined on keyboard, guitar and vocals in 2012. Lewis, a longtime Hollifield friend since their fifth grade days riffing together at Central Church, joined in 2015 and helped solidify the band’s Charleston live-show cred. Next came a 2016 EP debut, “The Realometer,” a four-pack of indie earworms that galvanized their up-and-comer buzz on the Chucktown scene.

The group would play three-hour shows, mixing their New Bohemian originals in with a steady diet of covers from faves like Dylan, Oasis, The Beatles, Alabama Shakes, Coldplay, and U2. Their sound also connected outside the Charleston fan bubble, but an 18-month stretch of endless touring dates and a bit too much of each other’s company led to creative burnout. By 2019, a break led to a permanent decoupling.

“On the road, it’s a lot of each other. Plenty of fun but if you’re not communicating right, it can go sideways. We’re in Pennsylvania in a van with three other guys, hungry, homesick, all with 10 percent of a fever,” Hollifield said. “The thrill was gone. I’m just glad we could recognize that and find an amicable endpoint.”

Halley launched a solo career under the moniker JD Moon, complete with an album drop in late 2019. For his part, Hollifield got custody of the van/mobile studio, The Silver Surfer, and a creative lyrical itch that needed scratching. He and Lewis played sampling gigs with other bands, and Hollifield played plenty of solo shows, both around the island pre-pandemic and in Zoom acoustic sets from his family’s island living room during the early days of COVID.

“I got to hand it to my friend Jevon Daly; he really showed me how to make those performances fun and how to create a whole new connection with fans,” Hollifield said. “Still, when we could finally play live gigs again, it was just an incredible gift. It’s just a whole other level of bonding through the performance.”

Hollifield honed his front man skills in the solo gigs, but he missed the collaborative energy of meshing with a band.

Enter Lewis, the connective tissue—spiritually and literally, according to his mates. He played the role of the friend that, after an adequate breakup mourning period, pushes you back into the dating scene through an awkward arranged meetup.

Lewis and Merritt went to USC together—lived three doors down from each other in the Maxcy dormitory.

“I left my door open a lot to get to know people. I had my drums, and I’d see Tommy walking by with his guitar,” Lewis said. “We just got talking and realized we were on the same wavelength. And the music was vibing.”

This wouldn’t be a complete musical blind date. Merritt had played with SondorBlue at Delaware’s Firefly Music Festival in 2017.

“When Drew brought up Tommy, it was like an ‘Oh, yeah!’ moment. I remembered he came along on the trip and played bass, and it all just felt easy—a real brotherly connection there,” Hollifield said.

At first, it was just a new clique of friends hanging out, jamming and talking music with longtime friend and sound guru John Brewster.

“I played them ‘Call Your Friends’ and ‘Mr. Morning Man,’ two songs I wrote during COVID, and it was crazy how much Drew and Tommy elevated the songwriting process with their creativity and their ability,” Hollifield said. “I’d played them acoustically on Zoom, but their spice, it just took what it could be to a whole next level.”

Before long, the comfort level of the get togethers made the three think there was something more official coming.

“I mean, when it works, it works,” Merritt said. “We started adding to these songs, it sparked new ideas, and now we’ve got this love child of the three of us. It’s like when you’re with a new lover, and one day, you look at each other and say, ‘Hey, we should do more of this.’”

The kick in the pants to put a label on the relationship came in mid-October 2021, when longtime band friends The Brook and the Bluff called and asked them to be their opening act at The Pour House, a famed Charleston venue.

After a couple of quiet shows around town, the group hit the stage on Oct. 28, 2001.

“We needed a name. We’re always playing around with names. Just today, we were thinking Laundry Boyz, gotta go all in with the ‘z’ there,” said Merritt, who mixed jokes with deep thought zingers throughout the interview. “It was going to inflate Connor’s head, but really, Hollifield just has a flavor, a spice to it.”

Lewis said the moment the crew hit their first notes, it felt like a moment right out of a movie script.

“It’s a lot of different emotions—fear, thrill, the adrenaline kicking in—but you want that acceptance; you dread that rejection. Brook and the Bluff sold the place out. We’re staring at 500 people. It’s surreal that first moment when you throw an original out there,” Lewis said. “You’re playing, but it’s a zone. It’s almost silence because you’re waiting to see if the audience is vibing on it. Then we see people smiling, moving, enjoying. Then it’s just on. We could have played all night if they let us.”

Since that first show, each of the trio said finding the groove at gigs and sessions has often felt effortless.

“Brewster had this insight into a routine being so important. It’s so amazing how we each get recharged in different ways,” Hollifield said. “We orient our schedule around the things that recharge us, and it makes our sessions so much stronger.”

Hollifield is a surfer—calls his early morning time on Folly Beach his meditation on the water. Golf is also a passion (he says if he was officially rated, he’d be a 12-ish handicap). Drew is a reader and an experienced collector of all things art. His chill time is hanging with his girlfriend and their pets: Yorkie, Chance, his really old cat, Lady, and their new kitten, Ringo. Merritt is a boogie boarder and loves to bike ride and soak in people connections at coffee shops along his rides.

The result for Hollifield has, thus far, been a more mature partnership. “I think our superpower is our communication. That’s something that, just being young and macho, we didn’t do enough in my past music life,” he said. “We’re not afraid to talk about our feelings; that’s important. It leads us to a comfort level where we can bring a half-finished song to the table and just vibe it into a full-grown sound we love playing.”

The evolution comes across in the music. A since-deleted yet telling Reddit comment described SonderBlue’s harmonies as “Hanson trying desperately to sound grown up.” Hollifield fans say there are dashes of Van Morrison, some classic rock, some scratchy anti-singing, experimental rocker touches on an Alex G tip. Sure, there are the expected chords that signal indie but with a more layered and thoughtful composition and yes, an authentic maturity.

The band, each now on the other side of 25 and inching toward 30, is happy their fans can’t fully peg them to a genre. There are plenty of influences, The Beatles and Dylan being the gold standard, but they see themselves as constantly in the laboratory.

“Just come to a show; it will answer all your questions,” Merritt said.

The gigs have been steady across the Lowcountry, including opening for island fave Pretty Darn in their July Savannah breakthrough show at District Live, an outgrowth of Connor’s friendship and unofficial island gig fill-in status with Nic Poulin. The band played Black Marlin on Sept. 9 and recorded a live session with Ohm Radio in Charleston that dropped in late September. Up next is recording their premiere album in October. One of the upcoming originals is “Fishcamp” named for a particularly momentous night at the Broad Creek eatery.

“There are trajectory points for sure, but that gelatinous cube we need to break through is definitely the record,” Hollifield said. “I just know we’re riding our best material now, and that’s a blessing.”

There are some definitive milestones Lewis sees ahead as well, like touring in Atlanta, Charlotte, and New York City. “That video-game boss level moment is probably playing The Music Farm in Charleston. That’s like planting a flag in the ground, like, “Yeah, we’re here,’” he said.

Merritt is less about the goals and more about the feeling. “I mean, I just like hanging with these guys, and some rewarding sounds are coming out of it,” he said. “You know, Drew’s the chocolate; Connor and me, I guess we’re the peanut butter. I just stay out of the way mostly. I’m yet to be bored by them or by playing with them, and I like that.”

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