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Song Bird 

Through beguiling contrasts and magical moments, Jolie Holland has emerged with a singular, elusive sound

Wednesday, Apr 5 2006
There's not much of a view from the back row of the Central Presbyterian Church balcony in Austin, Texas, but it's clear that Jolie Holland, the figure onstage under the huge cross, is plainly dying. The room — easily 90 degrees and smelling like a wet Labrador on a muggy spring night — is literally packed to the rafters with people who have been waiting a couple hours in the rain. For the last 10 minutes, the church has been thick with an awkward silence while Holland has fumbled through one tune and abruptly stopped halfway through another. In old showbiz terms, Jolie Holland needs the hook.

"You're beautiful," someone hollers from the congregation, breaking the silence. And she is — a study in contrasts with pale skin, fierce red hair, and dark clothing. The shout is meant to be encouraging, but from the back row you can almost feel Holland flush. She's dying.

Amidst the other spectacles at the five-day SXSW music festival — a deafening assemblage of buzz bands, University of Texas frat bars, and chatty, beer-swollen music industry assholes — this quiet gig in front of painfully attentive listeners is off-putting. Tomorrow the church will be business as usual — the sermon's theme, "A Tiger in the Temple," promises to be a good one — but tonight, with all the singer/songwriters and acoustic guitars, it seems like the biggest little coffeehouse in Texas. Alongside the evening's other performers — icons like Billy Bragg, Joe Henry, and Ramblin' Jack Elliott — Holland, whom many of us have anticipated seeing for weeks, seems like a blushing, bumbling novice. Forget about a Tiger; she looks like a deer in the headlights.

"Being in a room full of living legends will make it so you can't play your own songs," she apologizes into the microphone. "It's very distracting." After this confession, she rushes through one more song, unplugs her guitar, and starts to exit the stage, pushed toward the sacristy-cum-green-room on the wings of the altar by the sympathy applause of the Labradors. She'll be panned in tomorrow's Austin American-Statesman and the high-profile show with her legendary labelmates is looking like a bust.

Before Holland can disappear, Billy Bragg emerges from the back room and meets her halfway. He takes her hand for a minute, whispers something that makes her nod, and leads her back into the lights. Then Bragg stands at center stage with Holland to his left and plays the opening chords to Gram Parsons' "Sin City," and together they harmonize the famous opening lines about a destroyed city at the edge of the world: "This old town is filled with sin/it'll swallow you in."

The three minutes that follow are what everyone came to hear. Holland's voice — sure as sunshine, confidently embellishing harmonies that descend like birds — rides atop of Bragg's melody, and together they blend so perfectly that Bragg doesn't need to play his guitar at all; every sound you need is coming from their throats.

Ask anyone who has played with or recorded Jolie Holland over the last decade and they'll tell you that she lives for the singular, unexpected moments of performing music. This is one of them. The only noise in the whole place is the duo, making that heart-stopping sound. Hearing it, you can't help but forgive Holland for making you wait in the rain, half-assing her way though a couple songs, and nearly walking off in a huff. Forget the place feeling like a coffeehouse; the redemptive salvation coming from the altar makes it feel like we're actually at church.

A long, long time ago, before Jolie Holland was considered among the most important young singer/songwriters in the nation — before she was shortlisted by Tom Waits, signed a record contract, and toured around the world — she categorized her own music as "new-time old-time: spooky American fairy tales." Tonight, before the sardine-packed pews of the Central Presbyterian Church, Holland is every character in that fairy tale all at once: the petulant beast and the heart-melting beauty, the catastrophe and the deliverance. These are the startling contrasts that make her recent record, Springtime Can Kill You, the finest document of Americana in recent history. But it's more than that — she's drawing inspiration from jazz, Southern blues, folk, and pop music to make something magical. It's a new kind of American music.

Jolie Holland is sitting across the table at a dimly lit Chinese restaurant in the Outer Mission, wearing sunglasses. It's one of her favorite restaurants — she picked it — but when the food comes she doesn't have much of an appetite, and just kind of rearranges the spoonful of white rice on her plate.

"I just got done doing this really intense cleanse thing," she offers by way of explanation. "It was really, um, gross."

It's well known that Holland, who turned 30 on September 11, can be a somewhat difficult subject — she notoriously shredded an interviewer on a nationally syndicated NPR show for asking dumb questions. But she'll field a lot of dumb questions soon. It's a few weeks before the release of her new record, Springtime Can Kill You, and a few days away from SXSW, the annual carnival where she'll return to her birth state and put herself before the machine of the music industry.

In my first dumb question, I ask if her homecoming to Texas has any special significance to her.

"People tend to make a big deal about it," she says, with a frosty gaze. "But I really don't think that the music has that much to do with where I'm from."

It's a dumb question because Jolie Holland isn't really from anywhere, and if you listen to her voice, it certainly doesn't evoke the drab suburban tract homes of Houston, where she was raised. There's a somewhat recent picture of her onstage with her two great-uncles — Bud and Bud, the Hooper Twins — who ran a Western swing club that hosted Willie Nelson and Bob Wills and the Texas Playboys, but her immediate family wasn't especially musical. Ask her what they think of her minor celebrity, and she just pushes her food around rather than respond to the second dumb question.

In junior high, Holland started playing music seriously: first viola, and then everything else she could get her hands on — piano in her teens, accordion, fiddle, and, in due course, guitar and banjo. She wrote her first song at a toy piano 24 years ago when she was 6, and hasn't ever stopped; she writes when she's walking around the city or waiting at the bus stop.

But the Jolie Holland we hear on her records doesn't sound rooted in a single place anymore than she sounds rooted in a single era. Her voice seems to come out of the wandering years that happened shortly after graduating from high school, when she drifted like Beat fiction — migrating from Austin and New Orleans with anarchist puppeteers, an astrologer named Hazel, a blurry string of shadowy boyfriends, and sideshow performers. She lived in a tumbledown shack in the swamps of northern Louisiana and in a tepee in Colorado.

Holland is finally asked a decent question, about how she survived. "I was really good at saving money and I'm really good at cooking beans," she explains. "Waitresses make a lot of money. I'd stay in one place and work for six months and hit the road. I was that gutter-punk kid with $500 in a little tin."

Then she adds, "A lot of it was lonely and fucked up. Some of it was completely unbelievable and some of it was so heartbreaking and horrible. And there wasn't very much in between."

Her manager, Chris Powers, tries to explain it. "It turns into a never-ending hyperbole," he says. "And it sounds made up, but it's not." He adds a comment that could just as easily be about her music: "There's no real timeline."

Holland moved to the West Coast in the late '90s, bouncing back and forth between the Bay Area and Vancouver, always waiting tables, living with friends, and busking. She played on the street, mostly violin, because she says that playing guitar and singing on the street made her feel like a bum. And though she always sang and played, things changed one day during a miserable winter in Vancouver in 1998. While Holland was working at a cafe on Commercial Drive (that city's version of Haight Street), Samantha Parton walked in. Parton was just like her — a singer and a wanderer — and by sharing songs and stories, the two got on immediately. Parton likens it to a collision of shooting stars. Together with Trish Klein and Frazey Ford, they eventually formed a quartet, the Be Good Tanyas (named by Holland after a song by obscure songwriter Obo Martin), and people beyond the tepees and puppeteer anarchist collectives started to hear Jolie Holland.

"How do I talk about Jolie Holland?" Parton asks. "We knew each other in another lifetime. She is my friend and was from the first day I met her. She's extremely gifted, and as a traveler and as a vagabond, we somehow found ourselves in the same place. Our experiences immediately made us kindred spirits."

Those experiences are in the verses of "The Littlest Birds," a nomadic, shuffling folk song Parton and Holland wrote shortly after they met. It starts with their voices in harmony, singing "Well, I feel like an old hobo," and rises until it reaches the footloose chorus with the claim that "the littlest birds sing the prettiest songs."

"A lot of what that's saying was coming from the joy and heartbreak of what we shared by traveling," Parton says.

By the time the song became a little hit on CBC and got recognition on NPR, bringing the Tanyas some acclaim, Holland had left the band and again returned to San Francisco. On her first record, Catalpa, she does a solitary version of "Littlest Birds," and the yearning of her rendition turns the buoyant sentiment of the Tanyas' version on its head.

"It was like going through a devastating breakup," Parton says. "It was a situation where there were four intense people with complex relationships, and the intensity was bigger than our personalities. Our little egos didn't know how to deal with it."

When things got rough, Holland's natural instinct was to fly. "It's always been really, really hard for me to stay in one place," she says. "I'm not good at living in a house."

"She is in love with the world — you can hear that when she sings," Parton says. "And she has this huge heart and stuff enters her heart and stays there and comes out of her throat. Sure, she's a musician and a songwriter, but it's more than that. She's a spirit. She flies around all over the place. She's a bird."

Everyone who has heard it can remember the first time he or she listened to Catalpa, the unlikely little demo tape that started in Jolie Holland's apartment and took her around the world. On the opening bars of the first track, "Alley Flowers," she sings double time over a pulsing tom-tom, sounding not so much like a bird as a troubled spirit, half-moaning the first line, "Some people say you have a psychedelic presence, shinin' in the park like a bioluminescence."

"Just the sound of it — I literally stopped in my tracks," says Chris Powers, the clear-eyed 28-year-old who would later become Holland's manager and broker her deal (and Catalpa's reissue) with the record label Anti- (which they chose over Seattle's Sub Pop). Powers, a incessant worrier for whom "getting out of the office" means bringing his Treo and laptop to a coffee shop in the Lower Haight, is a Berklee College of Music grad and a self-described music dork.

"You buy records all your life and there are a million good records, and good players are almost a dime a dozen," he says. "But I feel like there are only like five good songs in the world." For Powers, one of those five might have to be "Alley Flowers."

"Her voice came in, and the lyric, and I was tripped out; it was surreal," he says.

Almost as surreal is how dramatically the ragtag group of recordings, intended initially to sell at local cafe shows, took flight. It got lip service by Tom Waits and Nick Cave — who claimed the first sound of it almost knocked him over — and airplay overseas. Suddenly, Jolie Holland was everywhere. Catalpa was officially released in November of 2003 and earned uniformly high praise in the next three months, bringing in four- and five-star reviews from virtually every major music publication in the United States and Europe. MojoMojo, fer chrissakes — called it "timeless." By the time Escondida, Holland's actual debut, was released a few months later, she already had an international audience.

It's hard to compare the spectral night of Catalpa (recorded at home and at the neighborhood studio of Lemon DeGeorge, gritty with tape hiss and littered with coughs) to the breezy daylight of Escondida (captured digitally at posh Forestville studio In the Pocket, and so refined that Holland actually got critically compared to Norah fucking Jones).

The bricks and mortar of both is the quality of Holland's indescribable voice. The most common name that gets checked is probably that of Billie Holiday, and as much as a white girl born in the mid-'70s can, Holland does bring the jazz singer to mind. But reviewers have dropped the names of John Coltrane, Maybelle Carter, and Bob Dylan just as inaccurately. The comparisons are undone by Holland's songs, which, like her, can brood one moment and shine the next. Think of her music as a single-volume digest of Harry Smith's Anthology of Folk Music that makes a sleepy trip from Tin Pan Alley to Nashville's skyline.

In one of Holland's earliest pieces of press, which was later reprinted in Catalpa's liner notes, writer and critic Michael Alan Goldberg nailed it with the observation that "her recordings, while they may remind you of something from the past that you can't quite put your finger on, sound like the work of Jolie Holland, and no one else." More than any other singer of her generation, Jolie Holland sounds only like herself. You can tell it's her from the first moment you hear her voice, from the very back row of the very biggest church.

Holland put together a touring band of San Francisco musicians, whom she had met years before at a now-defunct coffee shop where she waitressed. The trio — Dave Mihaly on drums, Brian Miller on electric guitar, and Holland singing and whistling and playing guitar, banjo, and fiddle — toured incessantly. They made three tours through the States, three tours across Europe, and a trip to Australia and New Zealand, to bigger audiences each time. When the band left the road after nearly a year, the trio had played a sold-out support tour with VH1 darling David Gray and two big international jazz festivals. When she finally came home to San Francisco, the woman who had been playing the Rite Spot and Simple Pleasure cafes a year earlier sold out Bimbo's. According to Nielsen SoundScan, which tracks sales of records in the U.S. and Canada, Escondida sold more than 40,000 copies, and Catalpa — background coughs and all — sold nearly half that.

Holland's new recording will likely double those numbers. The commercial appeal of her music will always be limited, but the wave of press that has preempted its release — from Billboard to the blog world — already finds her career at the edge of a brighter spotlight than she's ever enjoyed. Whether Holland herself will enjoy it is a different story.

"Jolie is a sensitive artist," DeGeorge says. "Sometimes the pressure gets to her." Asked how she withstands the intense demands of the music industry, he says simply, "Jolie does not put up with bullshit. No way."

But since musicians' careers are literally built on bullshit (Switchfoot, anyone?), the comment is key in understanding why Holland can sing a sound as sweet as heaven's grace and also occasionally bare her teeth. "It's a defensive thing," DeGeorge says. "What she's doing is too important to her to put up with the other things that sometimes accompany it."

The new album, which will be released in early May, is Holland's best record on all fronts: The songs are better, her voice is expressive and delicately inflected, and the band behind her is so broken-in that Mihaly describes it as "a little Dionne Warwick Psychic Friends Network thing, where you just know."

"The band was playing together so long. You listen to her music and you can hear it," says DeGeorge, who produced the record with Holland. "You don't hear individual instruments; the sum is greater than the parts. You can hear how she perceives the world and how she reacts to it."

The first song on the record, "Crush in the Ghetto," opens with Holland waiting for the bus, all dressed up from the night before. With a single, delirious line, appropriately swooping down from above, she begins: "I'm flirting with the birds, I'm talking to the weeds/Look what you've done to me." The record that follows — loosely held together with themes of mockingbirds and ghostly friendships — presents a perception of and reaction to a world caught between the fine details of reality and a dreamy sense of nostalgia.

When the record reaches its title track, opening with a swinging wash of Mihaly's cymbals, Holland warns that "springtime, springtime can kill you," and we're already captured, half-drunk on the swinging lyricism of the tune.

"The whole thing about music is that music is magic," says DeGeorge, a man with sharp features and quiet disposition who has worked with Holland on all three of her records. He recorded the music for the Oscar-nominated documentary Genghis Blues and sat behind the board at S.F.'s Tiny Telephone studios during the recording of Springtime. For his next project, he's considering a musical tribute to the regions of the ancient Mongolian empire.

"The thing that you're always hoping for when you see someone live is that thing you can't expect," he says. "That one moment of magic that will just blow your mind. To try and get that on tape in a studio is the trick."

In part, Holland tried to conjure that magic by inviting friends to join her in the studio to synthesize a live performance. "Jolie loves live music, the fluidity of live performance where anything can happen, so studios have always been kind of difficult for her because she's trying to get this thing perfectly on tape," DeGeorge explains. "There are two sides to it; she loves the whole aspect of accident and chance, but on the other hand she is really serious about the quality of her music, and refuses to put her name on anything that she isn't completely proud of. In that way she's kind of at odds with herself."

"It's really important to make the production to serve the message of the songs," Holland says, adding that this is the first time that she's ever been able to get the sounds she was looking for. "I love live music and don't want a record that sounds produced in a more conventional way. That's why I'm such a control freak and haven't been able to let anyone else produce."

The moments that come out of that tension — the vocal warble on "Stubborn Beast," and gently swinging rhythms and loose phrasing of "Adieu False Heart" — gives the record an immediate, slightly reckless perfection. "On every single song there'd be this moment where me and the other engineers would look at each other and say 'Fuck, this is incredible,'" DeGeorge says of the times when he heard something that was greater than the sum of the parts. "We'd hear this sound. It'd give you the chills."

When the record closes with the sprawling expanse of "Mexican Blue" — a ballad Holland wrote to make amends with her former bandmate, Samantha Parton — the arching melody swells to its peak with another line on aviary. "There's a mockingbird behind my house who is a magician of the highest degree," Holland sings. "I swear I heard him rip the world apart and sew it back again with his fiery melody." It's almost as if she's singing about herself.

We're walking down Mission in the bright springtime sun when we come upon a box of discarded records on the curb. Jolie Holland becomes a kid in a candy store, riffling through the dusty covers and marveling at the images of Alpine polka bands and forgotten new wavers. She salvages a few — a couple campy '80s records and one called International Dance Time — and we sit for a while under a shady tree, talking about her dichotomies: how she needs to make lasting records built on fleeting moments, how she's a homebody but can't seem to settle down, and how making music seems to have little to do with making it as a musician. "There's no use putting something out there if you can't live with it forever," she says, acknowledging the dilemma in trying to create permanent documents of elusive moments.

"I just know that she was always a musician," Mihaly says. "She never came to it as a careerist thing. She always played music. She's a poet, but she was born to play music." He brings up an Emily Dickinson poem that can remind you of Jolie Holland. Of course, it's about birds. It warns about trying too hard to understand the song of a lark. It begins "Split the Lark — and you'll find the Music." By the time the poem ends, the creature is dissected into silence, and it asks, "Now, do you doubt that your Bird was true?"

Holland would probably agree with Dickinson's sentiment. Is Holland herself true? It's a dumb question. Of course she is; it's in the sound of her voice.

About The Author

Nate Cavalieri


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