Five Questions for a Woman of a Thousand (Or So) Voices

Hollis Payer in her other job--teaching Irish fiddle.

Hollis Payer in her other job--teaching Irish fiddle.

Whether it’s a straightforward, sunny commercial for Lifetime television or a local radio ad for Philly Phlash, the next voice you hear might be that of Hollis Payer.

Hollis is a well-known voiceover artist from the Philadelphia area, lending her well-toned vocal chords to many commercial enterprises.

But you’re also just as likely to hear another signature Hollis Payer sound—that of her Irish fiddle playing. Drop around the Philadelphia Irish Center on some nights, and you might hear the strains of Hollis’ fiddle music emanating from one of the Center’s side rooms.

We chatted with Hollis about both of her amazing talents.

1. You seem to be able to interpret the spoken characteristics of a lot of character types. I imagine you’ve been doing this kind of work for a while to be as accomplished as you are. Do you hear voices?

Do I hear voices? Not since the medication kicked in! The truth is: Yes! I hear voices, I hear music, I’m tuned into and pick up on all sorts of sounds. I’ve always loved language, poetry, words. As a child, I thought I was going to be a crack journalist, like yourself, but then I went to the University of Chicago and studied linguistics. And left there to work as an actor.

2. How did you get into voiceover work?

It was a different world when I first started on this path. I’d never really heard of voice work, but a friend who worked as a producer told me I should look into it. My initial response: “They pay people to do that?” The only person doing v-o’s in Philadelphia at that time was Scott Sanders… he still is, by the way, and is legend in this business… so I called him up and asked him for advice! Get a good demo and start shopping it around was what he said. So I did. I found an entree in the pharmaceutical world, which is very media intensive and requires attention to pronunciation. With my Catholic high school Latin, I was a natural!

3. The serious authoritative voice or the dotty grandma—which one do you prefer to do?

Serious sounding authority—especially when you suspect no one’s listening to you anyway—can get a bit tedious, don’t you think? I like making up character voices. I got to “voice” (yes, it’s become a verb now) a series of animated shows where I played a smart-alecky “science boy,” and recently was heard as a “prissy dog” for an animated commercial. My most favorite job was creating voices for several characters in a DVD series of fairy tales—that were packaged along with a wrist watch and sold at Walmart.

4. How long have you been playing Irish fiddle and how’d you get into it? (I know … sneaky two questions.)

My grandfather gave me a violin when I was 8 years old and I did the standard school orchestra instruction for several years, switching to the cello in high school just because they needed someone to do that! I didn’t really pick up the fiddle to play traditional Irish music until I heard the Chieftains in 1980. Boil the Breakfast Early had just come out and I’d never heard anything like it. It was an epiphany—I had to “get” that noise. I went to Ireland for the first time a few months later, hitching around with my fiddle and hanging out at sessions, pestering people to teach me tunes. I settled back in the states in Portland, Oregon and pestered Kevin Burke to teach me more, and thus began my pestering fiddle career.

5. How do your voiceover talents and your fiddle playing go together? What is there about you that wants to do both?

Both voice work and fiddle playing have been like gifts dropped into my lap. I thought I had talent, but I never imagined it would take either of these surprising forms. Deep listening is at the heart of both. As I said in response to your first question, I’ve always been acutely aware of the sounds of this world, am profoundly moved by words and music and have the crazy need to express all of this in some way.

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