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