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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.

About The Author

Nate Cavalieri


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