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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
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"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.

About The Author

Nate Cavalieri

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