Photo credit: Carly Hoskins
Jolie Holland’s voice is less old-timey than straight up afterlife-y. Whether it is coming from heaven, hell, or the limbo of unbaptized babies and poets, I really couldn’t tell you. Being non-judgmental I’m loath to ascribe it a province. Like Al Green giving praise or Murder City Devils singing about the crops being set aflame, some things get rendered to Caesar and the lord alike. As we sat at the outside bar of god’s own Union Pool in Brooklyn—where Holland was doing a month long residency with tour/bandmates, Shy Hunters—she said, “I love gospel music that discusses God in a sensible way. I mean not kissing God’s ass or projecting their abusive parents on to God. I love useful praise. So much of the Staple Singers is powerful because they knew what they were fucking talking about. They weren’t just using god…they existed within those principles.”
Jolie Holland, whose new album Wine Dark Sea just came out on Anti-, is herself an artist of strong principles. The sexism of the industry, the “blackface” of so much contemporary Americana, the difficult essentialness of telling a truth in your music even when avoiding straight autobiography; all are Holland’s concerns. But before we could get to any of that I found out she’d grown up, as I did, on the lunar expedition high of recreational cough syrup use. Not to discount the serious topics, but the drugs we take to, you know, take the edge off are pretty important too.
“The scene of people I come from; they were sort of anti-hippies. Even the most positive thing would be said in a negative way. They were all ex-Mormons, weirdoes, gays, gutter punks, and southern goths from New Orleans. I remember friends would beg in 18th century robes and gowns. They had a disgusting grandeur. And honestly, not that many of them are dead. We were less heroin, more Robitussin."
She continued. "Texas cops are so terrifying you don’t want to do illegal drugs. I had friends whose lives were destroyed over a joint so that stuff terrified me. I was 19 and living in the back of a school bus in a gang-infested neighborhood in Austin. We’d carved out a little home. It was about 2 AM or maybe closer to dawn and our insane friend woke up me and my traveling partner…shaking the bus…and forced us to try Robitussin. The sense was akin to what I’ve heard alcoholics say, and, you know, it’s a trope but, they say ‘the first time I got drunk? That was me. Like, I discovered myself, something about myself.’ That was my feeling. I didn’t do anything but Robitussin for three days straight. I didn’t sleep. I don’t think I ate. I just did Robitussin…and wrote poetry.”
I asked Holland how the poems turned out. Because obviously she kept them.
“They are funny.”
Holland’s music is a countrified rock that combines blues lurch with touches of no-wave skronk to communicate the dark empathy that so much contemporary blues lost when it decided guitar solos were the destination rather than the mode of travel. Her description of the first song on her album On and On as “Buddy Holly mixed with the Velvet Underground” could be applied to much of the album. It’s the sound of a 21st century troubadour who, while revering the past, isn’t interested in renaissance fair revivalism. But does she think of Wine Dark Sea as a dark album? “I think the best shit you have to say backwards. Other wise it’s a Hallmark card.”
While still essentially a street kid in Austin, Holland moved from the freak flag soundtrack of her peers (Negativeland, The Residents, some jazz) to the ragtime blues of Blind Willie McTell. “I didn’t do that with a circle of friends. It was very deep for me. I feel like he was my teacher. I was 20. My travelling partner had something that I think he had recorded from a library. My first interactions were...I just felt like he [McTell] was alive.”
Holland is pigeonholed—by both the press and her well-intentioned label—as Americana folk revivalist. She rejects this like it was blood libel. “I just don’t listen to a lot of Americana. I think the value in a song is that it is something that stays with you. I value the template of a simple conceptual song that has a life within you because it’s written a certain way so that you can keep it…. That’s why I gravitate to that. Not because I listen to a lot of folk. I know a lot of real folk musicians and they hate me. I know I’m not a folk musician. Because I feel like so much folk music is about appropriation. A paint by numbers thing and that’s their (the purists) redemption for themselves. They’re not trying to do something personally; they’re just being nostalgic. Attempting to play (strict) Cajun music that they have nothing to do culturally with, whereas if I’m going to do something like a Cajun song it’s because I feel it. Because it is personal. To me that’s respectful, that’s tribute.”
Holland has been a mainstay of the contemporary folk/alt-country/whatever-designation-you-need-to-put-her for years. Hell, she was a founding member of Canada’s Be Good Tanya’s. And yet, despite her year in the trenches, she still faces the achingly dull longstanding tradition of discounting the female musician.
“I feel like a lot of people are in a fantasyland about what I do and I feel sexism plays a role in that. There are so many stereotypes I run up against. Any female artist does. One category of sexist thinking is that a woman is just spilling her guts. She’s not making something. It’s not art it’s just diary. It’s not crafted, just musical Rorschach tests. A woman artist doesn’t do anything. I didn’t produce the record, I didn’t write the songs, I didn’t lead the band. They talk about the musicians I hire like they just came up with everything themselves. I do want my musicians to be themselves but I put them in that spot, that allows them to do what they’re doing. I choose them to do that.”
Jolie Holland enjoys talking about the loftier aspects of her art while keeping it grounded. I was prodding the discussions towards god and man and what not and she was game for any and all of my more pretentious meanderings. “Performance is important because ‘the truth of the Torah is in the telling.’ I like being spiritually pedantic.”
She then went on to try to explain the concept of syncretism—the combination of different religions, cultures, or schools of thought—to me and how it was larger philosophical umbrella that encompassed Dante (“He was the first person to use modern language for grand concepts.”), friend and admired peer Stephan Jecusco, her Jewish Voodoo mambo Sally Ann Glassman, and, with a touch of prodding, Holland herself. Continuing our conversations’ theme of one sentence shorthand of ridiculously complicated subjects, I thought Holland quoting her friend’s mom’s view of existence was helpful in tying a number of our talk’s strands together. “My friend Tim’s mother used to describe God as ‘a woman shrugging her shoulders.’”
I started the interview by asking Holland about the actual day to day of her life as a musician, the minutia of where she lived, and whether she spoke to her parents anymore.
At the start of our talk: “I barely make a living. I think you have to be famous to make a living. I live out of a suitcase.”
And at the end: “I don’t have parents. I was the scapegoat. I went out to the desert and ate some aluminum cans. And I shook it off.”
Zachary Lipez is always rambling. He's on Twitter — @ZacharyLipez
Wine Dark Sea is out now. Jolie Holland is