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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

Page 2 of 4

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.

About The Author

Nate Cavalieri


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