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Jolie Holland plays Union Pool this Wednesday, April 30th.
We, and by we I mean New York, should feel lucky. Yeah, we got that Thriller re-enactment thingy last week, and sometimes the pizza is okay, but late last year our fair city stole the Texas-born belter Jolie Holland away from San Francisco permanently.
For years now, Holland has won favor with the likes of critics and Tom Waits, who nominated her for a Shortlist Music Prize. Similar to her own heroes (like, say, Daniel Johnston), she’s been relegated to a small, devoted following. Maybe it’s because she’s not one for being trendy–her music has a certain timelessness to it, melding the best in vocal jazz, blues, and country traditions, her voice masterfully sliding between sultry and sweet, despairing and lonely. In a weird way, Holland’s music might best be enjoyed five or ten years down the road–were you to revisit her work in a decade, I’d guess it’d be extremely difficult to place it in a time period.
We met in Williamsburg, at a place called Gimme Coffee, but that joint was way too packed on a Tuesday mid-day, so we went to a stoop and just sat there, chattin’ and watching the traffic go by us. In person, there’s much more of a southern drawl to her voice than on record. She’s quite charming and unpretentious, as well as gracious enough to not say “You’re an idiot” when I didn’t know what a Turkish Bath was or when I asked her to describe her own voice. She’s here working on a new record due this fall; I suggested two titles at the end of this interview: Feeding People Food To Bears and Really Famous In Canada. Alas, she’s already decided on The Living & The Dead.
VV: Springtime Can Kill You was my number two favorite album of that year. . . 2006.
JH: Oh wow. What was your favorite record?
I can’t remember.
JH: [laughs]. I think my two favorite records around that time, [one] was a record that no one has ever heard of called The Inferno–it was true stories based on Dante’s Inferno, true stories based on his life. And Freakwater’s Thinking Of You.
So you’re living here full time now? What prompted this change?
JH: I don’t know . . . I was just feeling shy or something; it was time to go somewhere. I was really considering going to Portland [Oregon], where I have a great pack of friends, but I ended up coming here.
Do you know a lot of people here?
JH: Yeah, I feel really lucky.
So you’re working here, on new material?
Who are you working with?
JH: You know Rachel Blumberg? She’s the drummer that has played with M. Ward and Conor Oberst some times. She plays on this record; she’s amazing. M. Ward plays on guitar, and he’s just ungodly at guitar.
He is a good guitar player. I’m not sure if people recognize his guitar playing as his best thing, but I’m not really sure what people recognize is his best thing.
JH: Right, he’s got an awesome voice.
Is he singing with you?
JH: No, just guitars.
So who else?
JH: Do you know Shahzad Ismaily? He’s on it, a New York guy–he’s this unreal bass player, a guitar player, and a drummer. He might be my favorite guitar player and drummer that I’ve worked with. He’s co-producing. M. Ward kinda co-produced the first part of the record, but he didn’t think I needed a producer, but I disagreed with him. But it was very nice of him to say.
What was reasoning behind that?
JH: He said it was like feeding bears people-food. [Laughing]
I don’t understand that.
JH: Okay, so have you ever lived around bears?
No. Well, I might have, but I didn’t know it.
JH: Good. The thing is, you’re not supposed to feed bears people-food, because then they’ll turn into garbage bears, and get shot.
Oh, okay. That’s right. The whole Yogi Bear sort of thing. Did you ever watch that cartoon?
That was the whole thing.
JH: He was a garbage bear? [Laughs] Yeah, I cracked up when he said that to me. I started writing it down, and had my journal open. Colin Stinson played on it a bit. Do you know who he is?
The name sounds familiar.
JH: Isn’t it that a fucking awesome name?
It’s not bad.
JH: [laughs]. So yeah, Colin plays horns on a couple of songs.
That’s one of the things that I was going to ask; the last record had such a brass / horn thing going on. It made it more weird, or interesting for me.
JH: I know so many great horn players, I feel really lucky. And Marc Ribot plays on this one too. I’m going to have a Turkish Bath with him on Thursday.
What is a Turkish Bath?
JH: You know, its like going to the steam rooms. So that will be fun.
Does he contribute vocals on this?
JH: No just guitars. But I do want to sing with him at some point.
Do you sing with anyone on this?
JH: I sing with myself, which is kind of a new thing for me. Carla Bozulich sang a bit with me, and she’s a good shot in the arm.
So would you say the record is bigger than the last time, or is it still sparse in a way?
JH: Quiet? Yeah, I think this is really different, because this is years after I fell in love with Daniel Johnston, and I really think Daniel has really brought me back to rock and roll the way that no one else has.
JH: Yeah, him. Because he’s so pure.
Did you see his movie?
JH: Yeah, I did. I thought it was kind of sad. . . if I had seen that movie before I knew about his music, then I would have had a hard time understanding his music–because there wasn’t any good music; just a few little snippets. I thought of it as him as a presentation as a caricature, then one of America’s greatest songwriters period.
I guess I can see that whole caricature part, when they were talking about the whole MTV thing. So anyways, you were saying . . .
JH: Oh yeah. Actually, it’s funny. There are a lot of lyrical nods. There’s a line that quotes “Cold Hard World.” There’s lots of other tiny quotes of my favorite songwriters on this record. If you’re a Freakwater fan, then you know that there is a ridiculous amount of weird motifs. I have a line there where I reference the velvet tongue which they talk about. And there is another line where I say “Let love in,” which is a nod to Nick Cave . . .
Did you have a lot of competition around San Francisco? I mean, like around here, I think it would hard to get noticed.
JH: I don’t know. I don’t listen to anyone that I think sounds like me. But there are a lot of songwriters that I admire; I don’t think of it as competition. If I’m competing with anybody, I’m competing with…[pauses]
I was going to say something weird like “If I’m competing with anybody, it’s the TV.” Because in a way, I do think if you’re trying to get someone’s attention, that is what you are competing with–but someone’s attention that isn’t being moved by music.
Did you ever have any classical or formal training?
JH: No, I never had any formal training.
JH: I was in orchestra when I was in thirteen. But my teacher was deaf, and she didn’t ever notice that I was never learning how to read, and just playing by ear. Which I guess is good training in a way. Which I liked it. But I was first viola. I couldn’t read but I was first viola.
How does that work, having a deaf teacher, teaching music?
JH: I don’t know. I mean I’m glad she had a job. She didn’t start out deaf, she was just getting old.
One of the thing I’ve been wondering, is how you would describe your voice? One of the things that you’re good at is controlling it, in ways that I don’t hear very often. It seems like you’re really good at controlling the pitch subtly. But maybe that’s me overthinking it, and you not even considering it.
JH: I mean one of my earliest influences was Blind Willie MacTell. He has so much passion and humor in his voice. Well, first of all, I don’t describe my voice–you know what I mean? I just don’t.
Do people ask you to describe your voice, like I just did?
JH: No, not that I can remember. But I think about phrasing a lot–that’s what I’m concerned with. Phrasing has to do with timing, force of tone, and what kind of breathe you are using. The way that the notes are presented in sound.
So, that would make me think, is that a challenging thing?
JH: I don’t know, but it’s just what I love about music. For me, my tiny, tiny differences in phrasing changes the meaning of something. I mean, that’s what I love about any musician I love–these tiny little ways they do things. For me, that’s totally where it’s at. If somebody is phrasing is fucked up, I can’t listen to it. If they have a bullshit relation to the beat, I’m not interested in it, I’m not drawn to it. And if they have a fascinating connection in their phrasing, it’s so magnetically attractive. And to me, that’s Thelonious Monk, that’s Marc Ribot, that’s all the great singers. And that’s it for me.
Jolie Holland plays Union Pool on Wednesday, April 30th.