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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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"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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