Jolie Holland is in Brooklyn, New York, at her apartment south of Prospect Park, when she answers the phone, turns off some tinny-sounding music in the background and says hello. She sounds tired, and explains she is getting over a cold. Her speaking voice, with just a hint of a southern accent, is surprisingly quiet and youthful---in marked contrast with the confident and mature voice she evidently possesses, as she puts it to use on her new album the Living and the Dead. She's coming to Halifax for the first time on Friday, January 30, to headline that night's In the Dead of Winter show at St. George's Round Church.
Holland has been on the move for more than a decade, starting when she ran away from Houston to Austin. "I pretty much left Texas when I was 20, for good," she says. Since then she has lived in New Orleans, San Francisco and Vancouver, and though she has been in Brooklyn for more than a year now, Holland recently moved across the park. "I was moving while I was on tour," she says, "so whenever I've not been on tour I've been pulling stuff out of boxes. I've been really uprooted."
A self-taught multi-instrumentalist, Holland grew up in a house with a piano, but only remembers taking one piano lesson. "I was really young, not even 13," she says. "The teacher was just checking out what I was doing, she wasn't even teaching me anything." With some help from friends showing her how to play, Holland learned guitar and violin as well. As she puts it, Holland was "scrambling and trying to figure stuff out. Not knowing what I was doing, but doing it anyway."
After a brief stint in 2000 as a founding member of Vancouver's The Be Good Tanyas, Holland headed back to San Francisco and recorded a batch of homemade demos that made Tom Waits a fan, caught the attention of Anti- record label, and became her debut album Catalpa in 2003. Her first studio album, Escondida (2004), added to the buzz surrounding her singing and her songwriting, with songs like the dark vaudevillian, classic jazzy-blues number "Old Fashioned Morphine." Holland's momentum continued with 2006's Springtime Can Kill You, a collection of broken-hearted love songs, most of which were born during a train ride.
Holland is the kind of lucky songwriter who is able to write a song just about anywhere if the inspiration hits her. She wrote many of the songs for the Living and the Dead while on tour with Springtime Can Kill You, and wrote a few more in the space of a week leading up to recording. She composed the lo-fi "Fox In Its Hole" and another song in their entireties in a hotel room, and another song in an airport. "They just showed up," she says.
As on Holland's previous albums, the Living and the Dead channels influences from old American music of all kinds, including folk, gospel, reggae and blues. This time, though, you can also hear a prominent strain of straight-up country-rock, or "rock" as Holland calls it, with more than a pinch of Daniel Johnston thrown in for good measure. Holland sounds like she has settled into her voice, singing from a less affected and more endearingly natural place. It suits her beautifully on a number of mid-tempo rockers with great melodies and jangly guitar hooks, propelled by Rachel Blumberg's (Bright Eyes) drumming, M. Ward and Marc Ribot's (Tom Waits, Elvis Costello) guitar playing and Shahzad Ismaily (Bonnie 'Prince' Billy) on bass, percussion and guitar. Holland and Ismaily co-produced most of the album, while M. Ward took the reins on "Your Big Hands." It's an impressive lineup. "I've been really lucky," Holland says. "Part of putting together a band is choosing somebody who is going to do what you want them to do anyway."
Holland's voice soars on album opener "Mexico City"---written from the perspective of Joan Vollmer, William Burroughs' common-law wife, who was involved in the early beat movement and died tragically at 27 when Burroughs accidentally shot her. Holland says that she has always been interested in Vollmer (a photo of her appears in the album's liner notes). "Corrido Por Buddy" recalls Lucinda Williams both in craft and delivery and builds on the themes of friendship and tragedy in the first song---"Oh Buddy, I wish I'd been a better friend," Holland sings to a friend that didn't make it through his drug abuse. But the song, and the album, is also about survival: "When I was really down, there were three little words/From a couple good people that kept me holding on."
Holland was commissioned to compose music for a documentary about a man who lived in the last remaining flop house in the Bowery neighbourhood of Manhattan. "He's sort of a genius but, you know, kind of withdrawn from society in a way," she explains. The documentary was never completed, but "Fox In Its Hole," and "You Painted Yourself In" came out of that project. "The funny thing is one of my best friends stayed at the hotel, the flophouse, a year after I had written the song," Holland says. "I went and visited her there and we went and played music on the roof."
The singer has a knack for finding dark, creepy old tunes, and the Living and the Dead has its share. "Love Henry" is a tale of a rich woman murdering her lover in a fit of jealousy. "Somebody said that song was older than the bible," Holland says. "And there's Ethiopian versions of that song." Holland and Samantha Parton (The Be Good Tanyas) close the album with a cover of "Enjoy Yourself," in what sounds like a kitchen.
Arguably, the most exciting songs on the album are the ones that Holland is most secretive about. "Your Big Hands" opens with crunchy guitar and a sexy, concrete description of someone. Holland won't say whom ("I hardly tell anyone," she says), but she does say that part of "Palmyra" is about the same person. "Sweet Loving Man" sways back and forth in a way that is both old and new, while in "The Future," Holland mourns a lost love, but also declares her independence with maturity and affection.
It seems unlikely that Holland will be ready to settle down any time soon, but for now she enjoys collaborating with people in New York. "The ecosystem is so big here, you can just play so many different kinds of music and you're not limited by your own personal shtick or what the public expects of you," she says. She's been playing on world music albums, working on a duo project called The Gentleman Callers with her friend Matt Bauer, taking gamelan classes (Indonesian music) and has plans to work on essays on gospel music from the Sea Islands. Being a wanderer isn't without its advantages---friends took her in during an unplanned stay in Austin over Christmas, and she has friends in many other places as well. There's a good chance the next time Holland packs her suitcases, it will be to head to Portland. "I really feel drawn to Portland a lot," she says. "My band is there and my closest friends are there." Wherever she ends up, it will almost certainly inspire more songwriting: good news for those following her journey with open ears.
Check out all the In the Dead of Winter Shows in our events section.