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Jolie Holland: All Her Love’s In Vain

The songs of Jolie Holland embody a folksy nature, with a twang of country, a touch of blues, the swing of Dixieland jazz, and a Cajun spice–something you may come across on the corner of Jackson Square in the heart of New Orleans.

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If you’ve ever walked alone at night near woods, then you know what it is like to hear the strange cry or whisper from some otherworldly animal coming from the creek side or somewhere far and unthinkable in the middle of the night–perhaps a night owl or a coyote, maybe just the wind through the tree tops. It frightens you in the best way, makes you look over your shoulder, shudder, or just run. However, these noises are comforting—a reminder that there is something mysterious left in the world, and hidden in a depth of nature that will never be seen but makes you quiver and run and cause the imagination to see images of a black-cloaked spirit cooing from some branch high in the trees. The music of Jolie Holland has the same effect. 

But forget metaphors to describe her music–it is a metaphor for everything in that mysterious night howl. The songs embody a folksy nature, with a twang of country, a touch of blues, the swing of Dixieland jazz, and a Cajun spice–something you may come across on the corner of Jackson Square in the heart of New Orleans. The sound is unique, distinguished by Holland’s voice–she wraps her mouth around each syllable as though she were holding a butterscotch candy under her tongue while fighting back a well of tears. The result is unsettling yet lovely, and fulfills the “three poles” by which Holland judges her work (and others)—1) it must be artistic, “me trying to be Thelonius Monk in my brain”, 2) it must be communicative, “moving forward artistically in some direction”, and 3) it must be beautiful, “if it’s not beautiful then fuck it.”

After Catalpa, a collection of demos released in 2003 followed by her studio release debut Escondida released on Anti in 2004, this rambling gypsy girl’s music has consistently blended ethereal vibes with romantic themes to ironically explore real-life instances of alienation, heartache, death, love, and other outlets for the misery of humanity. The socially alienated outcast makes regular appearances, passing trains call out with promises of adventure, anonymity comes with poverty, and moonshine and morphine settle the nomad’s troubled soul. Her latest release (and best to date), Springtime Can Kill You, wilts gloriously with all the beauty of a defeated rose as we see the dichotomous relationship between the lushness of spring and the fickle emotions of love clash in a parallel of beautiful and ugly–“We’re lost in the shadows of a beautiful spring / Empty-handed lovers, and all we do is sing”, from the song “Mehitabel’s Blues.” Despite admitting indifference for Robert Johnson, (“He’s like the McDonald’s of blues writers,” she says, “I’m just not interested in most of his stuff.”) the album echoes the romantic sentiment that all love is in vain. 

“That’s the real mindfuck of what was going on in my life. It was like all these really good things were happening but I couldn’t stand it,” Holland comments on the emotional state that produced SCKY. Her manner of speech is littered with “likes” and “you knows” as she continues in her hazy Californian slang, “Like, I was going through a breakup and I was trying to keep my life together and at the same time, nobody could identify with me because my career was blowing up. I felt horrible because all this crap was going on in my life and I didn’t have anybody to really keep me steady.” And spring persisted: “At the same time, it was this beautiful, beautiful season, and things were going really well in my life on paper and I just didn’t care. I couldn’t enjoy it because my life was hell.”

That “hell”, when introduced to the tempting beauty of spring, resulted in songs like “Mexican Blue,” “Please Don’t Tell ‘Em,” and “Nothing Left to Do.” The theme is connected by threads of Dylanesque imagery throughout the album—“hydrangeas blooming in the alleyway,” “a Queen at the bus stop,” “old roses blooming in the ghetto.”  “It’s like that beautiful, sexy power of spring and so it’s just lush and wonderful and then, you know, then there’s your heart, and sometimes your heart can’t take all that,” Holland explains. 

While the new album is a work of careful studio production, it serves as the much anticipated follow-up to the above mentioned releases, which are known for there richly organic, live feel, as though Holland had recorded the songs on her back porch for an audience of friends on a summer night. “I wanted to make a record with more instruments than Escondida that would just sort of draw in my community a little bit more,” says Holland, “but I wanted it to have like, the spiritual quality of Catalpa.” With every song on SCKY recorded live and Holland’s increased know-how as a producer, the album preserves the vintage, spontaneous sound of its predecessors, while capturing a complete flow of thought in time. “I appreciate records that are sort of like a movie and have like an integrated theme that they are presenting,” says Holland, “It just happened to feel right to put all these songs out together and they just happened to be about this one really rough time.”

Although Holland has only been on the music scene for a few years, her prolificacy and talent as a songwriter and singer has earned her world-wide attention, and scored her blurbs and name-drops in publications such a Rolling Stone and Paste. Her collection of fans is even more impressive. Tom Waits nominated Catalpa on shortlist.com in 2003, referring to her music as “like creek-dipping at Birdland.” Because most of her own musical heroes are also her personal friends, she can’t digest the acknowledgment of admiration from such a highly revered “fan.” “There is only one musical hero of mine that hasn’t actually become a fan of mine,” she claims, “And Tom Waits … there is actually no place in my mind for that to sit. That is like an indigestible piece of information, so I’m still waiting for that one. It’s like impossible to absorb.” 

And about her … just how much of the romantic, mysterious figure, that her songs describe and her voice represents, is she?

As a child growing up in Houston, Texas, she always harbored a “private obsession” for music, playing the piano, guitar, and viola, among other instruments, from a young age.  “I’m self-taught. My parents never got me lessons,” she says, curtly, “And that’s pretty much all I have to say about my childhood.” The decision to leave home at the age of 18 probably sprung from the same feelings as the above comment, and by 1994, she found herself bumming around between Austin, Texas and New Orleans in the company of artists, musicians, circus performers, puppeteers, and the like. She ended up on the West Coast by 1996, moving between Vancouver and San Francisco.

But homelessness suits her, and not just because she’s more productive musically while on the road. Her need to be itinerant, and her explanation for it, are nearly as developed as the rounded sound of her voice in song. “I have a problem living in houses,” she explains, “You know, my dad was a total freak and houses are actually really … the idea of me living alone in a room is really painful, so I don’t do it.” She continues: “If I’m in a house, I’m like battling my demons. So, it’s like I’m just running. And I don’t even have an address now, like I just stay with friends and lovers when I’m off the road.” 

With accumulating success, her comment that “poor people make the best art” causes the question of “what if?” to loom overhead in the near future. “Some artists have a really bad problem with money in that they think they can’t respect themselves if they don’t die in the gutters. I don’t have that problem,” Holland says with a measured amount of sarcasm, “Even if I do get to the place where I don’t look immediately to the price of something on a menu, even if I get past that point of poverty, which I’m not, I still don’t know how to buy new clothes and I barely know how to get my hair cut … like, I see the money as supporting the music.”

That urge to be on the run, a conscious relationship with financial success, along with a soul betrayed by love and an innate loneliness, helps create that Romantic mindset from which Jolie’s songs come, whether it’s an actual mindset or an artistic one. But, she assures, her songs are “all very true stories.”But any attempt to describe Jolie, her music, and that elusive, unearthly “feel” that each album, each song, each syllable is so carefully wrapped in, truly transcends a written description.  In the midst of a worldwide tour and rave reviews from the press for SCKY, she’s tottering on the cusp of a success that might challenge the inspiration for her “true-story” songs. “Tom Waits and Keith Richards actually wrote a song that is really fucking beautiful. I love this song so much,” she says, and then breaks into “That Feel” from Tom Waits’ Bone Machine. “‘Oh, there’s one thing you can’t lose, it’s that feel / You can pawn your watch and chain, but not that feel,’” she sings in her loping voice, and then shares an encouraging thought: “If you come from the bottom and you remember where you come from, I think you’re all right.”

Photos by Claude Shade

Interviews

San Diego’s Best Dancers: An interview with Allweather

San Diego’s rich punk history continues its next chapter with Allweather

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San Diego’s alternative music history will forever be intertwined with punk’s mainstream rise through the 90s. While Los Angeles and the Bay Area took much of the attention, San Diego quietly produced a few bands that would ultimately rise to the top of mainstream punk. Now more than 20 years later, San Diego continues to produce as many excellent bands as it does excellent burrito joints. We are unsure whether it has anything to do with the sunny locale, or the food, or the proximity to coastal bliss, but San Diego punk is thriving. But don’t just take our word for it, just listen to the current crop of punk bands that call the area home.

Allweather are one of the newest on the scene, but their members have a long history amongst Southern California’s punk underground. They’ve just released their debut full-length Through the Floor; 10 songs of hard-hitting, melodic punk that at times throws it back to Lifetime’s emotionally charged output.

We spoke to Allweather guitarist and vocalist Tim Putnam.

Thanks for taking the time guys- new full-length in the books- how does everyone feel?

We are so stoked that this thing is finally out. It took about a year and a half to put this all together, what with full-time jobs and other adult-y obligations; but now we’re ready to share it with the world and it feels awesome. Definitely a labor of love with this one.

I really enjoyed the record. You’ve gotten some great feedback?

Everyone has been super receptive. Maybe they’re just being nice and telling us what we want to hear. But if so, they’re doing a great job! They’re saying some nice things!

I spent the first few listens trying to figure out that “sound”— because the album got me like a record did so many years ago. It took a few good listens but to me, it reminds me of Lifetime’s Hello Bastards and Jersey’s Best Dancers. At least that’s how it made me feel. I love those two records and I felt the same when I listened to yours. What are your thoughts on the different interpretations of the record or how it can make people feel many different things?

That’s awesome that you say that. I honestly love everything Dr. Dan Yemin has been involved with: Lifetime, Kid Dynamite, Armalite, Paint it Black. Contrasting dark vocal delivery and lyrical themes with more melodic/upbeat instrumentation is something I think we try to emulate from those bands. I’m hoping that makes for a record that everyone can take something away from, whether you want to just bop around to some pop punk songs or delve deeper into the bummer-ass lyrical content and see what exactly this dude is yelling about.

Who produced it and how did the writing and recording go?

So, that gets a little messy. The majority of engineering was done by our lead guitarist, Tony Estrada, who was our guitarist at the beginning of this recording quest. Tony left the band in the process of recording the record so Todd Allen, of Paper Street Cuts fame, stepped in to engineer what was left of the project. Mixing and mastering was done by Paul Miner at Buzzbomb Studios. All music was written collectively by the band.

It’s a personal record- songs about day-to-day life, ups and downs?

For the most part, I’m a fairly upbeat kind of guy. That’s because I have music as an outlet to compartmentalize any sad or angry thought I might have. This record is a collection of all our anger and sadness for the last two years. That’s pretty heavy. We’ve got songs about heartbreak, death of friends, and questioning the purpose of human existence. More ups than downs I guess.

You guys are relatively new as a band. Can you share with us a little Allweather history and how you got started?

I’ve known Aaron and Manny since we were teenagers. We all grew up about an hour and a half east of San Diego in a small town called El Centro, California. It’s basically the default decision when you’re old enough to move from El Centro to San Diego because it’s a larger city close to home. Aaron, Manny and I all ended up in San Diego by this logic and all played in bands together when we were younger in El Centro and just decided to jam to see what might come out. And Allweather was born. Tyson is the newest addition to the family, having joined our ranks on lead guitar almost a year ago, and the dude is a prodigy. He brings a lot of songwriting to the table and is going to be huge in shaping what Allweather is going to sound like moving forward.

What got you all into into punk and the music that became Allweather?

I think coming of age in the late 90s/early 2000s, punk was somewhat accessible. At least gateway-punk. It was very easy to get into Green Day and Blink-182 by seeing them on MTV, then hop on the internet and get sucked into the rabbit hole that is punk rock. Before you know it you’re on Limewire giving your computer AIDS so you can pirate “Maxwell Murder” at 20 kbps. 2 days later you listen to it and you’re like “Welp, I guess I’m a punk now.” Also, growing up in a small town like El Centro, you were just bored and had to entertain yourself. You started garage bands and booked backyard shows because it was something to do. 

Let’s talk about the stop-motion video for “Life Vest”- looked like a fun video, but it looked like a lot of work. How was that to shoot? Why stop-motion?

Almost 1000 individual photos. 18 hours straight of shooting. For a 2-minute music video. SO WORTH IT. We had about a hundred dollars to spend on the video and stop motion seemed like a good way to add some class to our cardboard-prop-level budget. Luckily, Tyson took the reigns, figured out the math behind the whole thing and hopped in the director’s chair. All in all, we’re super proud of the finished product.

The vinyl/CD is out through Paper Street Cuts- how did you guys connect with Paper Street Cuts? 

I’ve been playing local shows with Todd of Paper Street Cuts in San Diego for the last 9 years. In that time, Todd has become a real friend of mine and the band’s. This year Todd started making handmade lathe cut records for limited release through his label, Paper Street Cuts. No… like he cuts his own records. By hand. WHAT? Not to mention he’s an incredible human being. So, when Todd approached us about having our record be the first LP available through Paper Street Cuts, we jumped on it.

You had a record release show June 14. What are you guys up to next- back on the road?

We are going to be heading out for a West Coast USA tour at the end of July. It’s our first time touring and we’re pumped. More info on that shortly.

What are some of the things I should check out next time I’m in San Diego- food, music- cool record stores?

San Diego is the self-proclaimed burrito capital of the world. But it’s true. Best burritos anywhere. And where do you go to get one? Throw a rock in any direction and you’ll probably hit a taco shop. Some of our favorites though are Colima’s, Roberto’s, Rigaberto’s, Alberto’s…basically anything with the -berto’s suffix will be a win. For live music, our headquarters is Tower Bar in the City Heights neighborhood of San Diego. Honorable mention goes to Til Two Club, the Casbah, and Soda Bar. Tons of rad record stores but our recs go to Red Brontosaurus Records and Re-Animated Records.

Allweather’s debut album, Through the Floor, is available now via Paper Street Cuts.

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The Down and Dirty: An interview with The Aggrolites

We chat to “dirty reggae” kings The Aggrolites about their new record Reggae Now!

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It’s been a long time between records for Los Angeles reggae band The Aggrolites. 8 years to be exact. After countless albums and endless days on the road, the band felt like it was the right time to step away from the grind of writing, recording, touring. But the extended break between records meant the band just had time to get some air, recuperate and find the charge that would ignite that next spark. That next spark ended up becoming Reggae Now!, a collection of the band’s signature “dirty reggae” sound, packed with life-affirming songs about hope and positivity. And while the album isn’t afraid to challenge and question the current landscape we find ourselves in, it doesn’t shy away from having a good time.

The record has received some lavish praise, with noted filmmaker, DJ, and Big Audio Dynamite co-founder Don Letts saying; “Their tunes perfectly echo the human chemistry you can hear in those early Jamaican productions. The band’s old-school analog sound totally captures the spirit of the music I grew up on“. While Specials vocalist/guitarist Lynval Golding has said; “This is THE album.

It’s easy to say that one of the most influential bands of modern American reggae is back. But the truth is, they never left. In between stops of their current North American tour, we had a chance to chat with vocalist and guitarist Jesse Wagner about Reggae Now!, how it feels to have written the record on their own time, and the significance of reggae music in America.

Congrats on the new record; how does feel now that it’s out?

It feels awesome. We are beyond stoked to see how positive the vibes are coming from all the fans old and new. 

It was a long time between records- 8 years. It was the right time to take a break after 2011?

We felt so. We were going hard on the road for a good decade. I think 250 days a year can wear anyone out. We never quit though. We just needed some time to do our own thing with our families and friends back at home. 

How did Reggae Now! come together- was there a spark that got you guys back into the writing process?

It just felt like the right time. We had talked about it for a while and when it happened it just worked. 

Was this the first time you had the chance to write and record an album without the pressure of label deadlines? How did it feel that you could just write Reggae Now! on your own time- the way you want to 100%?

Yes it was. And it felt really chill and relaxing knowing that time was on our side. I wouldn’t have had it any other way. 

How did you connect and end up working with Pirates Press Records? It seems like a great fit- plus their roster of artists is incredible.

I’ve known Skippy for a long time now and have been a fan of what he has been doing with Pirates Press for years. Playing the style of music we play isn’t necessarily an easy target to market. We knew Skippy and Pirates Press would know exactly what to do with our album and are all grateful for them. 

For those who may not be too familiar with the Aggrolites- share with us a little bit of your history and how the band came to be?

We’ve been around since 2002. We all pretty much come from the same scene in Los Angeles and all have the same love and passion for old school Jamaican music.  With that passion, the band has managed to keep it going ever since. 

How has the tour been so far? You guys are hitting cities all across the US until August; how is touring and getting to meet and perform for the fans now than, say, back in 2002?

It’s been an amazing run so far. If anything, things are getting better. I think with the internet it’s easier for people to find out about certain genres of music. We’ve been getting a lot of positive feedback. 

I love the video for “Pound for Pound”- where did you shoot it? How was it?

It was filmed in the San Fernando Valley at an equipment rental spot called Zio. Our friend Josh Rousch was the director and mastermind behind the whole thing. We had a blast filming it. So much fun and we were stoked to have some Aggro fans involved in the video also. That was a first. 

Let’s talk about reggae- because it’s such an important genre of music (in my view) and I think some people only see it in one color. But there’s a lot of history and culture- how did you discover reggae and what are some of the most important aspects of the music and culture to you and the band?

I found out about reggae probably like the majority of the American youth from the early 1990s; punk rock and Two-Tone. The thing that got me stuck on it was how tuff of a sound it is, but at the same time so beautiful. It is by far the most interesting music I’ve ever gotten into. I love how they sang about social issues going down on their small Island, but how powerful the lyrics would be in relating to people all over the world. 

Reggae, and ska and rocksteady seem to have a close relationship with punk. You guys have toured with and are close to many punk bands; what is it about the two genres that make sense and connects?

I believed it all goes back to the late 1960s when reggae became popular with the working class in the UK. It’s music for the people. Songs about struggle and overcoming it. Very rebellious music also. I believe Don Letts said it best that reggae was the soundtrack to the punk rock scene throughout the late 1970s. 

How important do you think music of good vibes is in today’s world? I think maybe the world could use a little more Reggae Now.

I thank you for saying that and agree 100%. We’ve always said we are “Feel Good” music. Sometimes it’s nice to just play a record and have a good time. Especially in this day and age. There is a lot of corruption going on and hopefully, we can ease people’s minds from negativity with our album. 

The Aggrolites’ new album, Reggae Now!, is available via Pirates Press Records.

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