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The Littlest Songbird 

Jolie Holland sings the prettiest tunes -- informed by ghosts, bayous, and a whole lot of traveling

Wednesday, Feb 19 2003
When Jolie Holland steps onstage at the Hemlock's "smallest show in town," she elicits the amount of applause you'd expect for an unknown performer. As she adjusts her cat-eye glasses and her weathered acoustic guitar, the audience members shift in their seats, getting antsy. Then she opens her mouth and begins to sing, and the room grows as silent as a teetotaler's confessional. As Holland's voice slides over her words like warm honey, the crowd leans forward, awe-struck at her tales of Cajun ladies, Harlem poets, and wayfaring strangers.

By the time she's whistling in perfect pitch during "All the Morning Birds," the man next to me is stomping on the floor and hollering. "After a while, you think you've seen and heard everything," he says between songs. "But she's amazing!"

As Holland finishes her set with a rewrite of the blues traditional "It Takes a Worried Man," she climbs from the stage and is mobbed by new fans. She seems slightly taken aback, especially when she quickly sells out of copies of her self-produced CD, Catalpa. Such adulation shouldn't come as any surprise to the Texas-bred singer. Over the course of her stateside wanderings, she's picked up glowing accolades from such varied performers as blind bluesman Paul Pena, country warbler Victoria Williams, and funk drummer Zigaboo Modeliste. Each time NPR features an interview with or a song by her former band, the Be Good Tanyas, she's inundated with e-mails, asking her what she's up to. And when she plays locally -- solo or with half a dozen other groups -- Holland finds herself approached by people from all walks of life, anxious to know just where she hails from. The short answer may be the Lone Star State, but the full picture must include Holland's brushes with makeshift tepees, shoe-loving ghosts, and traveling choirs.

Born in 1975, Jolie Holland grew up in the suburbs of Houston. While her parents weren't musically inclined, her twin great-uncles were well known in the western swing scene, playing with Willie Nelson and the Dixie Chicks' great-aunt. "I was a total nerd, and all I did was play music and read books," Holland says, sitting among toy accordions, pocket trumpets, and multiple guitars in her Upper Haight flat, blues singer Memphis Minnie on the stereo.

Holland taught herself piano at age 6, the first of many instruments she'd conquer. During junior high, she played viola, before trading it in for a cheap fiddle she found in a pawnshop. After discovering Twang Twang Shocka Boom -- an acoustic Austin combo led by David Garza that combined folk, Tex-Mex, and rock -- Holland taught herself the guitar. "I really liked pop music, but I couldn't figure out how to play it myself, because I'd never had any education," she says. "It was so mysterious. How do you communicate to people through music? And then I heard Twang Twang Shocka Boom and said, 'Oh my God! That's how you do it!'"

Holland fed herself a steady diet of Woody Guthrie, Bob Dylan, Leadbelly, and Syd Barrett, and began performing out. (Her first show was on the back of a flatbed truck, at Houston's Westheimer Arts Festival.) As for her singing style, she patterned herself after otherworldly crooners like Nico and Billie Holiday. "A few singers just sound so intoxicated," she says. "You hear Billie Holiday and you think, 'Where the fuck did that come from?'"

After graduating from high school in 1994, she turned down an offer to attend the Museum School of Fine Arts in Boston, and moved instead to Austin the following year. She roamed between that town and New Orleans, soaking up the sounds from both locales, until she decided to head out west with her then-boyfriend in 1997. The twosome took their time, rambling across the country for nine months, financing the trip by selling off purebred vizsla puppies. When they reached the wilderness boundary in Colorado, the couple set up a tepee for a month and a half, where Holland taught herself to play the banjo and absorbed the old-time charms of Harry Smith's American Anthology of Folk Music. Upon arriving in San Francisco (Holland wanted to see the Church of John Coltrane), they stayed with her boyfriend's best friend, who just happened to be Freddy Price of junkyard bluesers Rube Waddell.

But though Holland liked the Bay Area scene, she wasn't done rambling. After a year, she lit out for Vancouver, drawn by the city's rumored "long-standing feminist collectives." While there, she hooked up with Trish Klein and Sammy Parton and formed the Be Good Tanyas, taking the name from a song by Holland's pal Obo Martin. (Fourth member Frazey Ford joined later.) In 2000, the band toured the U.S., offering up gorgeous chestnuts like the Parton-Holland number "The Littlest Birds," which NPR still plays. At a radio gig at New Orleans' WWOZ-FM, the Tanyas ran across former Meters drummer Zigaboo Modeliste, who reportedly remarked, "Lots of feeling, lots of feeling," upon hearing them sing.

But by the time the outfit's Blue Horse album came out in 2001, garnering raves on and in the Utne Reader and the British music mag Q, Holland had quit the Tanyas. Although she sang lead on two of Horse's most striking songs, the aforementioned "Birds" and the traditional "Lakes of Pontchartrain," she was happy to be free of the group dynamic. "There were too many cooks in the kitchen -- something had to change," she says.

So Holland headed back to the Bay Area, driven by a budding romance and the warm communal vibe she'd previously encountered.

Odd circumstances seem to follow Holland wherever she lives. One of her first houses in S.F. reportedly was haunted, with both a cat ghost and a shoe-stealing apparition making appearances. (The two gave name to Little Boris & the Shoes, the any-genre-goes improv band in which Holland plays at the Rite Spot every second Friday of the month.) And then there was the wounded cockatiel she brought home, which would often jam with practicing musicians in the house, even soloing on one occasion.

Maybe such creatures are drawn to Holland because she has a natural affinity for them. Feathered friends appear in two song titles on Catalpa, a book of birdcalls sits on a shelf in her room, and she mentions gorilla paintings and elephant orchestras in conversation. She even has a new song called "Spooky Pony Blues," which manages to put forth both voodoo metaphysics and salacious insinuations. "I was a horse-crazy little girl; I finally got to stick all that lingo somewhere," Holland laughs.

Recorded over the last year, Catalpa showcases the musician's many talents. Not only does she cover old-time singer Hattie Hudson's "Black Hand Blues," but she also reworks W.B. Yeats' poem "Song of the Wandering Angus" as well as "Mule on de Mount," an African-American work song made famous by writer Zora Neale Hurston. "She's this great role model for me -- someone who did incredible artistic work without a lot of support," Holland says of Hurston. The album also includes improv pieces featuring Holland's guitar and ukulele alongside singing saw, banjo, and bells. But the best songs are stripped-down originals like "All the Morning Birds," in which her vocals threaten to break from the weight of heartache, and "I Wanna Die," which seems as much about the joys of hitting the tarmac as shuffling off this mortal coil. Finally, there's a version of "The Littlest Birds," featuring her lyrical suggestion that "the littlest birds make the prettiest songs."

"There's a Southern kind of darkness coming out of her, like a Leadbelly kind of thing," says Sonny Smith, a local singer/ songwriter who's played with Holland. "Catalpa trees and wanting to die and that kind of thing."

But while the CD offers a good taste of what Holland can do (as will a "pretty fancy" album she's working on with Lemon De George, the sound engineer for the Oscar-nominated film Genghis Blues), nothing compares to the experience of seeing her live, whether it be at an unadorned solo set, a country-blues gig with her trio, or the anything-goes Little Boris nights. In those settings, Holland showcases new material -- coming fast and furious, thanks to a recent breakup and a move from her haunted environs -- and draws from her vast repertoire, digging into songs with the consonant-blurring style of the best jazz singers. "I'm trying to give people this very spontaneous, from-the-heart sound," Holland says. "I really like hearing people sing from the heart."

She also enjoys giving listeners the stories behind her songs, like how she wrote "Gimme That Old-Fashioned Morphine" after taking a Greyhound bus from Texas to California, all hopped up on her grandfather's pain pills, singing traditionals with a touring gospel choir. They don't write them like that anymore.

About The Author

Dan Strachota


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