The Story of Pina
Songwriters have often travelled far and wide in search of inspiration. But the crazy journey undertaken by Austrian singer, songsmith and musician Pina Kollars is unusual by anyone's standards. Raised in Vienna, she studied classical guitar at the city's Conservatorium and could easily have chosen a career as a full-time classical instrumentalist or music teacher.
But, seven years ago, Pina opted for a dramatic change of scenery. Armed with just her guitar and a few songs - and accompanied by her then husband Helmut and their baby daughter Luise Magdalena - Pina moved from the Austrian capital to West Cork.
The culture shock, even for a woman who was 'looking for something different', was enormous. Having given up the monumental Viennese skyline for rolling Irish hills and a windswept coast, Pina at first struggled to come to terms with her new-found isolation: unwilling to sing her intimate songs in the noisy local pubs, she was also unable to tour on account of the area's poor transport links.
'It took a long time to get used to the rural mentality,' she says. 'When I first arrived in Ireland, there were so many sheep that I thought the locals must spend their lives knitting. But it's not quite like that. People come to County Cork with their dreams. There are painters and sculptors living there - and eventually I found a way to fit in.'
Pina now finds solace in her splendid isolation. Sheltered from the vagaries of fashion, she has looked inwards rather than outwards for inspiration. With her stormy personal life acting as 'the motor that drives my songwriting', she has developed a distinctive style - and the striking results can be heard on Guess You Got It, her second album.
Guess You Got It - which is being issued on PRE, a new Real World imprint - is crammed with songs that already sound like classics. With Pina augmenting her hypnotic, weather-beaten vocals by playing piano and strumming a second-hand 1970 Strat-Plus, the album often swerves off on surprising tangents. Despite this, it never loses its underlying shape or direction. Pina often experiments with rhythm and texture, but there is nothing vague about her songwriting.
Listening to Guess You Got It, I hear hints of Patti Smith's improvised poetry, the anguish of Portishead's Beth Gibbons, the wild blues of Janis Joplin and the ferocity of Throwing Muses. Others will no doubt make their own comparisons. What should be clear to everyone, however, is that the album is built on human feelings rather than modern studio trickery. And that's down primarily to Pina's phenomenal singing.
'I couldn't write songs that weren't personal,' she explains in an accent that has traces of both her Austrian upbringing and her rural Irish base. 'But I don't want to be seen as a singer-songwriter. I'm not just a woman with an acoustic guitar, and I don't want to be seen as a folk artist. I've done gigs with folk singers and felt out of place. My songs are more rock than folk.'
Raised by her extended family in Austria - her mother was just 16 when she was born - Pina began writing songs in her teens. Her influences then, as now, included David Bowie's Ziggy Stardust, Jimi Hendrix, The Doors, The Rolling Stones and Cat Stevens. The names are legendary, of course, but the young singer wasted no time in putting her own, highly individual stamp on their legacy.
Making a living from music in Austria was difficult. Financially stifled by a law which demanded compulsory health insurance for artists, Pina and Helmut, an illustrator of children's books, moved to Ireland in 1997.
Inspired by her new environment, Pina's songwriting blossomed and she was soon showcasing her talent for representatives of the London music business. With little Luise often by her side on these flying visits to the capital, she quickly built herself a formidable reputation among London's talent spotters. 'A ball that had been standing still for an eternity suddenly began moving, and a lot of interest was coming in,' she says. Her burgeoning creativity was further rewarded with a British tour supporting Ani di Franco and a beautiful duet with Afro Celt Sound System's Iarla O Lionaird on the latter's Real World album, Further In Time.
So impressed were Real World with Pina's contribution to the song, Go On Through, that they offered her the opportunity to cut her own album, Quick Look, for the label. By the time she was making the record, however, Pina was facing up to the aftermath of a painful divorce from Helmut, a separation that she went on to examine in heartbreaking detail on the album.
Now, with Guess You Got It, she's moving on. Happy in a new relationship with guitarist and drummer Andy Hogg, she adopts a more optimistic outlook:
'Sometimes you have to go through a lot of crap to appreciate the goodness around you and the people who love you. Then, when the moment comes, you have to grab it.'
For Pina, a unique singer finally fulfilling her potential, that moment has finally arrived.