Hollis Does Brunch Series Combines Music and Food to Help Those Affected by COVID Shutdowns

Photo Credit: Janae Jones

When talking to musician Hollis Wong-Wear, it feels as though she has all the time in the world for you. This is indicative of the enjoyment she gains from meeting people and creating connections. “I am a very passionate host and I love bringing people together and cultivating a cool vibe,” she says as we chat over the phone. “My sense of self as an artist is inseparable from the community.”

Beginning her music career as one third of the band The Flavr Blue, writing music for other musicians and her band, it wasn’t until recently that she felt ready to create her own collection of work. “I had become this master facilitator. When I work with other people I can take on the responsibility of doing something as a joint venture to motivate me,” the singer-songwriter explains, adding that when it came to creating with her own voice and story it felt akin to an uphill battle. ”It goes back to that insecurity of ‘Why does my voice matter?’”

Her anxiety is more than relatable; in a social media-saturated world, anyone and everyone is clambering to have that big break in their career, whether they’re an artist, musician or writer. Knowing she was more comfortable collaborating and building community, Hollis used those skills to her advantage. She created her unique Hollis Does Brunch series, which takes place in a number of cities across the U.S., and acted as a Trojan Horse to get her used to performing her own music and telling her story. She released her debut solo EP half-life last February. A deluxe version of the EP arrives May 22nd, with two music videos to celebrate – live recordings of her singles “Sedative” and “Back To Me.”

Organizing food-related events was an organic step – growing up in her mom’s Chinese restaurant in the suburbs of San Francisco made Hollis a moth to a flame when it comes to good meals and community spirit. “I think food is kind of like the first art form that I really, truly understood… the idea of gathering people around music and food was a concept that, for me, was a natural connection,” she says. “My end of goal of why I create anything is to bring people together in a meaningful way and forge connections. When we did the [last in-person] Hollis Does Brunch session in Seattle, people brought their kids, their parents and their friends. It was fun and inclusive – people were drinking cocktails and feeding their kids! I want these sessions to feel good and welcome for all.”

When the current pandemic hit the States, it became clear that our lives would change drastically, and that necessary social distancing measures would protect lives. With this in mind, Hollis decided to move her brunch sessions online, creating weekly live-streams and raising money (and perhaps most importantly, awareness) for those most severely affected by the situation. She admits she had some personal motivations, too. “I love hosting and the worst thing for somebody who loves to host is not being able to have any people over to their house! So I thought: how I could scratch my ‘self-care’ itch? How can I extend that in a digital space?” she says. “If I can be a resource to others, that’s a privilege. I’m happy to get into the weeds with live-streaming because it provides that. I wanted the sessions to be about community – less ‘oh they watch me perform!’ and more about bringing in the insights of other folks. My heart hurts so deeply for all of the restaurants that have closed and laid off employees.” By organizing these sessions, Hollis hopes to provide a degree of nourishment both mentally and physically. It’s a symbiotic relationship as it brings Hollis herself a degree of commitment and structure.

Bars, restaurants, diners and cafes all played vital roles in how we lived before the pandemic. They were places of refuge and relaxation; after a busy day we flocked to them with friends, eager to shed our everyday stresses. For students and freelancers, cafes were the perfect hideaway when unable to focus at home. They housed our small ensembles to large gatherings; we shared birthdays, holidays and celebrations there, and in some cultures, wakes to remember lost loved ones. Yet they’ve endured some of the worst effects of the pandemic, the results of which has left many owners wondering if their small businesses will survive, and how they’ll pay workers who relied on tips.

These online brunch sessions raise funds for those groups especially in need during this time, such as Feeding America and the NYC UndocuWorkers Fund. Each organization is close to the heart of one of her guests joining that week; Hollis allows them to explain how they’re affected and why it’s important to extend a hand, as it were, and help lift up their chosen cause.

“One of the live-streams I did was fundraising for undocumented workers in New York City who were laid off, and then it was also fundraising for the restaurant of the chefs that I had on that day,” Hollis says. “After that I used the next session to raise money for two artist organizations in Seattle that are doing a Seattle artist relief fund, and they’ve actually already raised $200,000 and are trying to raise another $700,000 more because of the demonstrated need.”

In fact, many of the people Hollis invites have already begun their own fundraising, and the series helps garner even greater attention. “One of the chefs [Erik Bruner-Yang] that came on is doing The Power of 10 initiative, trying to raise $10,000 to hire 10 employees who will make 1,000 meals for people in the DC area. They’re trying to make that a pilot program,” Hollis says.

Like many who are working to support their local community, Hollis volunteers her time and it’s a testament to her hard work that many groups have received much-needed support in a time where it feels as though there is none. Her live-stream series “is really about giving – I’m not taking in money. The only thing I’m doing is starting a Patreon page, which I did feel conflicted about. But after looking at my expenses I realized I might need to!”

When asked how people can get involved, she stressed that there is no prescribed way to do so, and that simply being present for the brunch is enough. “I just hope that what I’m creating provides solace and support to this moment,” she says.

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