Jolie Holland: Sad-eyed lady of the lowlands

Her debut album has been lionised by Tom Waits and Nick Cave. Gavin Martin meets the Texan singer-songwriter Jolie Holland
Click to follow
The Independent Culture

Jolie Holland has been seeking kindred spirits ever since she began making music as a child in her suburban home near Houston, Texas. Holland wrote her first song aged six but waited until she turned 28 to release her debut album, Catalpa. The album's 12 songs were recorded in friends' houses and makeshift garage studios. Although initially not intended for release, they are an astonishing testimony to the depth of her learning and ability to transform a wide range of influences into an immediately affecting and deeply fascinating personal style.

An early critical champion compared Catalpa to Bob Dylan and The Band's The Basement Tapes. When Tom Waits heard the album, while it was still being distributed at gigs and through Jolie's website, he became a fan and, along with his fellow Holland cheerleader Nick Cave, persuaded his label, Anti- (a subsidiary of Epitaph), to sign her. The girl who seemed destined to remain an independent outsider has finally found a home.

Today, Holland is sipping tea in a West End café on a short stop-over in London. She's in town to meet her boyfriend, Adam Wolf. In keeping with the peripatetic life she leads, directly after the interview she's off to Rome, then on to Galway, and then back to Petersburg. She wears 60-year-old horn-rimmed glasses bought in a San Francisco junk store and peppers her conversation with infectious laughter.

"I didn't actually compile the album. I just gave tapes to a friend of mine who is a cinematographer and who has really good taste, " she says. "It was really just a record to put out into the neighbourhood and to sell at shows.

"I don't actually own any recording equipment but a lot of my friends do. My mentality about recording is to put it down dry and natural. There's no studio to play with, no weird guitar sounds. I have a really antique guitar that I got in a garage sale in San Francisco, an old American guitar like the blues guys used to play. All my influences tend to be very old-fashioned."

On her website, she describes her music as "new old time: spooky American fairy tales". Catalpa features adaptations of the forgotten 1920s Texan blues queen Hattie Hudson's "Black Hand Blues", the troubled English 1960s genius Syd Barrett's "Jug Band Blues", a re-interpretation of a poem by W B Yeats, and a song by the Afro-American novelist and anthropologist Zora Neale Hurston. Holland cites Will "Bonnie Prince Billie" Oldham as a rare modern influence, but her style is unique. Her own songs feature Cajun waltzes and hobo laments, old-time gospel melodies and delta demons. There's apocalyptic dread in "December 1999", political protest in "Periphery Waltz", and elsewhere dark mystery and tender intimacy are recurring touchstones. Taken as a whole, Catalpa sounds as old as the hills and as strange and exotic as the Deep South tree from which the album takes its name.

A self-confessed nerd, Holland grew up surrounded by books and instruments, convinced she was destined for a life as a classical musician. But other voices called and she set out in directions suggested first by The Smiths and The Pogues, then by Woody Guthrie and Blind Willie McTell. A key incident in her evolution came at a family get-together when an uncle challenged her to play something her grandmother could understand.

"I listened to The Smiths as a teenager, and after a certain point my accent was gone. I went to a cosmopolitan school and no one had a Texas accent. It was hard for my grandparents to understand what I was saying when I went back to see them in east Texas.

"I just want to make music that is giving, I want to make something valuable. One of the most valuable things about music to me is the way it brings people together. That makes the cross-generational thing so important. I think it's about love. I think there's a really stubborn element about people that they want to speak the same way that their grandparents spoke.

"In the past few months, I've been listening to gospel music from the Georgia Sea Islands recorded by Alan Lomax. So many people blow tradition off. Their interest is only in referencing something that has happened in the past 15 years. I don't get that. When you listen to these Georgia Sea Island songs, the language is completely hip and modern urban black slang. At the time, that way of speech was considered totally backward, but people stubbornly keep their so-called bad English. I find that so inspiring."

After deciding against a college education, in 1994 Holland hit the modern minstrel trail, spending time in New Orleans and Austin, the Colorado mountains and Vancouver. In Colorado she lived in a tepee, discovered the old, hidden America as captured on Harry Smith's Anthology of American Folk Music, and learned to play the banjo. "That was fun. We cut trees that had fallen down in an avalanche. It was perfectly cured wood and we were behind the wilderness boundary so there was no one to stop us.

"It was a great place to discover music by Neil Young, a lot of Bob Dylan that I'd never heard, Elizabeth Cotton, Mississippi John Hurt and Blind Willie McTell. He's my favourite singer, so from the heart. He sings old gospel songs and makes you feel like he wrote them."

In Vancouver and San Francisco she busked on the street. Not so much fun, but a valuable learning experience. "I only ever played fiddle on the street because a guitar on the street is too stereotypical. In the towns I was playing so many addicts just stand on the street corner holding a guitar but basically begging. You learn how to make an immediate impression with a random audience; you may have only five seconds to grab someone's attention so you have to go for it. You don't want to be out there too long because its really hard."

It was in Vancouver that she met Samantha Parton and formed The Be Good Tanyas, though she left before the release of the group's first album.

"It was totally cool, they have their own direction I have mine. Sam Parton is still one of my best friends in the whole world," she insists.

But one of the most striking songs on Catalpa, "I Want to Die", was written during that time. "I wrote that in a back of a moving camper van going across South Louisiana. I'm often inspired by a songwriter I've just been exposed to; that was the first song I wrote after being exposed to Townes Van Zandt. In the song I was trying to make fun of how I was feeling but I was really desperate, something had to change in my life. That was the last song I wrote when I was in The Be Good Tanyas. I realised something had to change."

Relocated to San Francisco, she met Wolf and a host of fellow conspirators among the city's old-time and modern-day community of bohemian artists, political activists and rootsy musicians. When at home she plays with an improvisational collective called Little Boris and the Shoes and has just completed Escondido (Spanish for hidden), her first album for Anti-, due for release later this Spring. Her future appears as enticing as the illustrious past she draws from.

"My ambition is to not ever to have to be a waitress again. It wasn't that I didn't like waitressing but I just think I can serve the world better as a musician. My goal is to never to have to stop being a professional musician. I want to have as long a career as possible, like Willie Nelson or Lucinda Williams. I want to make a heap of records and still have something to say when I'm 60."