The Curious Case of Holly Hafermann

Holly Hafermann is a Grammy-nominated songwriter responsible for some of the biggest hits of the last year, including the Eminem and Rihanna smash “Love the Way You Lie” and T.I.‘s duet with Christina Aguilera, “Castle Walls.”

Holly Brook is a recording artist best known for her contribution to Fort Minor‘s 2006 single “Where’d You Go,” which charted at #2 on the Billboard Hot 100; that same year, she released her debut album, Like Blood Like Honey, a perfectly passable collection of MOR alt-rock.

Skylar Grey is an R&B vocalist who performed the hook on Diddy-Dirty Money‘s single “Coming Home,” as well as forthcoming collaborations with Dr. Dre and Lupe Fiasco.

Except all three of these women are the same person.

Can you blame me for being a little confused?

Here’s what I can figure out: Born Holly Brook Hafermann, Holly hooked up with Fort Minor, the side project of Linkin Park band member Mike Shinoda. (It’s hard to conceive of a less inspiring phrase than “the side project of Linkin Park band member Mike Shinoda,” but I can’t take it back now.)

At the time, this was Holly Brook’s highest-profile effort to date, although she was signed to Machine Shop Recordings, a vanity imprint run by Linkin Park guitarist Brad Delson, in 2004. (Actually, “a vanity imprint run by Linkin Park guitarist Brad Delson” is less inspiring than the “the side project of Linkin Park band member Mike Shinoda” — go figure.)

Holly’s 2006 debut album failed to generate much buzz, and was largely forgotten, and that, it seemed, was the end of Holly Brook’s career as a recording artist. Machine Shop Recordings released her from her contract in 2008. In the interim, she collaborated with the criminally underrated Duncan Sheik, whose variously effervescent and devastating pop-rock has been consistently brilliant over the last two decades; he helmed all of the tracks on her 2010 EP, O’Dark: Thirty. The EP is eminently listenable but it remains decidedly left-of-center; I wouldn’t expect to hear any of its songs on mainstream radio anytime soon.

Somewhere along the way, though, Holly hooked up with Alex da Kid, nee Alexander Grant, the of-the-moment British producer whose mellowed-out hip-hop sound dominated the airwaves in 2010, both with “Love the Way You Lie” as well as the ubiquitous B.o.B & Hayley Williams hit “Airplanes.”

Holly co-wrote “Love the Way You Lie,” “Castle Walls,” and “Coming Home” with Alex da Kid, for which she also performed the vocal track. With this, she introduced a new persona, Skylar Grey, who is the credited artist on “Coming Home”; Skylar Grey is also credited as the artist on her forthcoming collaborations, “I Need a Doctor” with Dr. Dre and Eminem, and “Words I Never Said” with Lupe Fiasco. (Both have leaked; both are quite good.)

Like the best singers, Holly’s haunting, papery vocals betray complex emotions that even more technically accomplished vocalists might not be able to communicate. “Coming Home” evokes a warm, affectionate optimism, while the raw anguish in the chorus for “I Need a Doctor” is difficult to shake.

Most compelling, though, is the demo for “Love the Way You Lie,” which leaked yesterday. Even though Rihanna’s finished piano version approximates the production of Holly’s demo, the two artists’ takes on the song are radically different: Rihanna’s tangy vocals are powerful and potent; she has the bearing of a survivor, someone who’s walked through adversity and emerged triumphant; in Holly’s hands, “Love the Way You Lie” is a hopeless song that belongs to a victim, not a survivor. It’s a deeply affecting vocal performance, and it makes it easy to see why the song ended up in the hands of two of the biggest artists in the industry.

At this point, I’d like for Holly to please resolve her splintered identity and get famous already — she’s simply too good to fade away.

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