Jolie Holland is not a simple interview. The 36-year-old Texan turned musical vagrant is articulate, opinionated and not afraid to tell you what’s on her mind — or call bullshit if she doesn’t like what’s on yours.
But what makes her a dangerous subject is exactly makes her an interesting and exciting singer/songwriter. During the course of five ANTI- albums, including this summer’s Pint of Blood, Holland has blurred the lines between Americana, country, folk and blues in endlessly engaging ways.
What really separates the multi-instrumentalist from many of her talented peers, however, is that voice. Her husky timbre reeks with authenticity and has an undeniably timeless quality. Whether it’s one of her meticulously crafted ballads or a stripped-down cover of a tune from one of her influences, the vocals seem as natural in a New York City concert hall as they do in a backwoods juke joint. Along with her band, the Grand Chandeliers — Indigo Street, Carey Lamprecht and Scott Magee — Holland is embarking on the second leg of the Blood tour and will make a stop at UCSD’s Loft on Monday night. I caught up with her — while she was at sound check at a recent gig in Portland — and talked about her new album and beyond.
Scott McDonald: I was surprised to find that the new record was recorded at home.
Jolie Holland: Oh, that’s a lie. And you should know — as a journalist — that so much bullshit gets quoted out there. It wasn’t recorded at home. That is complete bullshit. We used really nice equipment. But, my piano was in a great mood. The weather is so crazy in New York. The heat gets turned on in the winter, and it’s really hard on pianos, but right in the middle of the summer, they’re really happy, and mine was in a super-good mood when we recorded. So we did do that at my house. But we were working with Shahzad Ismaily, who is a very creative and talented engineer, and I also know how to get sounds that I like. So technically, we worked in homes for a couple of things, but not for most of it.
At this point Holland excuses herself for a moment:
“Hey! Can you pick me out an amp? Great. Rad.”
[She returns to me for a second] It’s so nice to work with a great touring band.
“Indigo — I’m so grateful for you. Thank you. I’m so happy you’re picking out an amp for me right now. It’s so rad. You are the fucking best!”
JH: Sorry about that.
SM: No sweat. This seems like a pretty personal record.
JH: I like a lot of songwriters who are kind of naïve in their writing. Two of my favorites are Willie Nelson and Daniel Johnston. There’s just a naïve quality to their songwriting that I’m incredibly interested in. So, I don’t know if I’m being more personal or vulnerable, I may just be trying to use that voice more. Many times it’s more about the song than it is the truth-telling, if that makes sense. That’s a funny answer, but it’s cool if you get that.
SM: I would think getting too personal would make things difficult to play night after night.
JH: The psychological format of these songs was actually supposed to be that they would be more fun to play. Because I have been guilty of writing things that were way too dark to ever perform. Actually, a lot of the songs on [2006’s] Springtime Can Kill You I never played live because they were filled with far too much teenage, brokenhearted bulls—. On the new record, it’s still personal, but there’s more storytelling. On the last record, I wrote “Corrido por Buddy” about a friend of ours that was a gay Mormon and killed himself. He was an amazing character, and I wanted to give a tribute to him, but it’s so sad and painful to play that song. So I think, in a lot of ways, this new record is a bit more comfortable than that. I’m not bleeding all over the place on it.
SM: You’ve worked with Marc [Ribot] a lot now. How’d you guys hook up?
JH: He just worked with a lot of people I’ve worked with. And I’ve actually been good friends with his manager for a really long time — long before she was his manager. But that’s not how we hooked up on this record. Shahzad has worked with him for a long time and played him the demo. And he liked it.
SM: Marc is just one of a lot of amazing musicians you’ve been able to work with.
JH: I’ve been so lucky, but it used to be so hard for me. I’m a self-taught musician, and I used to think that I wasn’t sophisticated enough to be playing with all of these great people. But I’ve really come to accept the fact that I’m a songwriter. And in order to shine as a great instrumentalist, you have to work with songwriters that you vibe with. And I feel really comfortable now in that role as circus leader and am much more at ease playing with all of these great musicians.
SM: Are you a person who is constantly writing?
JH: I used to try and write songs when I was a teenager. But I was 14 the last time I tried to write a song. Now, the songs come to me and get me to write them, and it’s been that way for many, many years. I’ve actually been pushing them away lately. I got my heart broken a year ago, and I refused to write any songs about it. And that’s kicking and screaming. It’s what everyone writes songs about. But I completely resisted. But now, finally, that’s changing.
JH: I mean, I literally cried every day for a year. It was horrible heartbreak. Only now am I writing again. It was very recently that two songs came to me in the middle of the night, woke me up and made me work on them. It was like being shaken out of a deep sleep and harassed. And I couldn’t get back to sleep until I got them down. It’s funny, but that’s how it happens. I write all of these things in my head.
SM: That’s the only place you keep the ideas?
JH: Well, in this case, I was really lazy and didn’t want to get out of bed. So I text-messaged myself all of these thoughts in the middle of the night. But I’m pretty good about being able to write out a notation well enough to understand what I meant and play it later. But I didn’t do that this time. I wrote out the words to the song, and then I texted phrases to myself of different melodies from songs that were similar. So, regardless to say, I end up having quite a few funny little notes in my drafts.
SM: Don’t want to get ahead of myself, but now you’re making me look forward to the next record — a friend to be sad with.
JH: Oh, these are not sad songs. I refuse to write heartbreak songs about it all. No way. I just refuse that entirely.
First published by NBC San Diego on October 3, 2011