At just 32 years old, Texas-born singer/songwriter Jolie Holland has already been around the musical block and then some. In addition to the four critically acclaimed studio albums the current Brooklyn resident has released since moving to San Francisco in the early ’00s to start her solo career, the sultry singer with the timeless and unique voice has appeared in the film King of California, sung backups for a Bad Religion side-project, played violin on The Speakers’ Yeats is Greats album, and helped found the much-heralded Canadian alt-folk band The Be Good Tanyas. And this list doesn’t even touch upon her previous careers as a traveling teen folky and San Francisco waitress.
But in truth Holland’s new album The Living And the Dead (her first to really utilize a producer) is so good that everything that came before it seems like a pleasurable blur, although all of her previous, more immediately folky work is deservedly acclaimed and worth checking out in earnest. By recruiting the likes of Marc Ribot (Tom Waits, Elvis Costello, etc.) and M. Ward to play guitar and (along with cred-soaked producer Shahzad Ismaily) help shape the new album’s addictive and original sound, Holland has organically evolved the personal bluesy/jazzy folk of her previous work into a tantalizing sort of velvety indie folk-rock that at certain moments can only be described as Feist blissfuly interpreting Bob Dylan’s Time Out of Mind. Or, in other words, heaven.
In a recent interview, Holland told me that having the encouragement and assistance of so many esteemed underground heavies was a big part of the album’s artistic success: “They really put love, energy and magic into the songs they worked on. M. Ward only worked on a few songs because he thought I should produce on my own. But I had to disagree. At least for now, at least for this record, I needed the support. I think mostly I’m just a ball of nerves [during the recording process], and I’m slowly realizing how I need to work in the studio: the more people I really trust and can rely on artistically and spiritually, the stronger the end product. I need to be around people who can carry some of the artistic weight of the record with me.”
And that’s not to say that Ribot, Ismaily and Ward took liberties with The Living And the Dead and effectively usurped Holland’s vision. She knows what moves her (lately it’s the words of Anais Nin and Tom Spanbauer, the music of the Pogues, Willie Nelson, Daniel Johnston, etc.) and what she steadfastly considers the most essential ingredient of any powerful art: honesty. Indeed, while there’s stunning poetry here (like “I’ll dance at your funeral if you dance at mine” and “when you rise into the wind / remember that’s exactly the place you painted yourself in”), Holland doesn’t just use her lyrics to swoon you with pretty lines. “Palmyra” hints at the depressing aftermath of Hurricane Katrina; the opening track “Mexico City” drew inspiration from Jack Kerouac’s early novels, and the liner notes include a photo of Joan Vollmer (the drugged-out wife William Burroughs accidentally shot to death in Mexico City before he gained fame as a novelist); but Holland’s own experiences and gentle admittances highlight most of the new record, which (along with her inviting, silky voice) make it unbelievably intimate, though also equal parts rousing and relaxing. From tales of traumatizing breakups to witnessing the deterioration of a friend who fell into drug addiction, much of The Living And the Dead seems like a personal conversation (and an educational one at that) with a transcendent young artist who’s meeting adult existence head-on.
But let’s get back to that voice. Half deep South, half Mission District-hipster blues, all self-taught enchantment. Asked how it developed, Holland told me, “Before I dove headlong into music, I was a visual artist. I learned [via] art history the perspective that originality is the most important element, and that building on frameworks begun by the predecessors in your field requires respect and bravery. For me, every element of [vocal] phrasing is connected to the love I feel for all the musicians who move me, whether they’re my friends or they are no longer with us. Some of the most effective, powerful, moving music I have ever heard has come from untrained ‘non-musicians.’”
Which brings us to Holland’s frequent mentions of Daniel Johnston in interviews — she recently told the Village Voice that Johnston “brought her back to rock ’n’ roll the way no one else has” — which is consistently amazing when you consider that the West Virginia-raised, mentally troubled singer/songwriter has lived such a notoriously manic life, straddling the edge of sanity and creativity (and what can be called musicianship) while gaining fans as noteworthy as Sonic Youth, Beck, Spiritualized and even Holland’s label-mate and hero Tom Waits, who recorded a version of Johnston’s epic freak-out “King Kong” a few years back. And Waits’ own creatively manic music was a core influence on The Living And The Dead, down to the cover art. When I told Holland I thought her new LP sounded and felt a whole lot like Waits’ classic Rain Dogs album, particularly the “Clap Hands”-esque “Fox in the Hole,” she said:
“Hey — good job! You heard something that was deep in there. Rain Dogs was a huge inspiration. Strangely, I almost forgot that it was part of the bedrock of the record ’til Jason Leonard (one of my collaborators) heard that influence. The more conscious elements I’m in debt to from Rain Dogs are the cover (blue and yellow mysterious photo of a man and a woman; bold graphic letters) and part of the rhythms on some of the songs, [which] are indebted to ‘Downtown Train.’”
One imagines that decades from now some emerging artist will be talking about the angelic fem-rock of The Living And the Dead (with everything from the lust-filled country waltz of “Sweet Loving Man” to the eternal “Love Henry,” which Dylan once called “older than the Bible”) as a “bedrock” influence on their own alluring record. But until then we can get haunted, happy, horny and generally luminous enjoying Holland’s enticing studio stuff and get excited with the knowledge that the vagabond songstress (currently living out of a suitcase On the Road) is en route to Boulder.