by Michael Goldberg
Monday, February 24, 2003
The Elusive Jolie Holland
An amazing San Francisco-based artist releases what could be the album of the year.
You have to strain to make out some of the words she sings. Even when you turn the volume up, the recording has a slight muffled quality, as if there were a thin wall between you and the singer, whose name is Jolie Holland. As if you were hearing a voice coming at you from the past, all those years between then and now, between her and you. But then you hear those first lines, the ones at the start of "Alley Flowers," a song off her new, debut solo album, Catalpa: "Some people say you got a psychedelic presence/ Shinin' in the park with a bioluminescence..." And you know that this isn't some old time recording. You've never heard anything quite like this before. "I'm trying to give people this very spontaneous, from-the-heart sound," Holland said recently.
She sings like a young old-time mountain woman with one foot in the past, one foot in the now. Her voice is comfortable, recognizable, yet different. It's a voice that's sweet and fragile, a voice that understands both hard times and love. When you listen to Holland, you hear a real person singing. At times she just seems to be conveying the story, in the most matter-of-fact manner. For some of Catalpa it's as if a tape recorder had been set up in a room of a San Francisco apartment and Holland simply played her favorite songs, which just might be how some of this wonderful album was made.
Her phrasing is unusual. She sings her words in a way that catches you off-guard. With a weird, dull, rhythmic sound that somehow reminds me of an underwater recording of a train moving down the tracks, and a quiet guitar for accompaniment, Holland sings: "Down these streets I see" pause "you comin'" hesitation "from afar."
On the Jolie Holland Web site, she describes her music like this: "New time old time: spooky American fairytales."
Spooky. That's certainly a good way to characterize "Alley Flowers."
When you hear the album's second song, "All the Morning Birds," you might think of Bobby Dylan, back when he was a kid in New York, back before he'd really made it, back when he was still a folk singer. Only this is folk by way of some jazz chanteuse. "By three a.m. all the morning birds will be crying," she sings, and as she does, she sweeps you into her world. "And that old highway will be sighing and my dreams feel as cold as my bones on the long walk home/ And my coat is old and growin' thin/ And my feet are numb and stumbling/ And it's many the thought of a long lost friend/ That comes to me again and again." She ends the song by whistling a brief solo. Imagine! Whistling. And it works.
Holland listened to folk, blues and jazz when she was younger, drawing on the work of such artists as Leadbelly, Woody Guthrie, Billie Holiday, Dylan and the numerous artists on Harry Smith's American Anthology of Folk Music (as well as such tragic rock icons as Nico and Pink Floyd's Syd Barrett) to come up with her own stripped-down modern folk music.
Her music feels at one with some of Dylan and The Band's "Basement Tapes" recordings. You can imagine her sitting on the steps of a rundown Southern farmhouse, singing her songs to some friends and family. There's mystery here. There's an elusive quality to these recordings, and you'll play them again and again. More is encoded in Holland's voice, the words (often hers, sometimes penned by others), the sparse music than you can get at. So you keep listening, trying to get to the soul of it all. "Well, I feel like an old hobo I'm sad, lonesome and blue," she sings during "The Littlest Birds." "I was fair as a summer's day/ Now the summer days are through/ You pass through places/ And places pass through you/ But you carry them with you on the soles of your travelling shoes."
Holland grew up in Houston, Texas, and wrote her first song at age 6. She plays guitar, violin and ukulele. As a teenager she performed onstage, according to her bio, which goes on to recount: "She figured out how to play some Syd Barrett songs, abandoned the concept of going to college to hit the road in 1994, and bummed around between Austin, Texas and New Orleans among visual artists, musicians, circus performers, puppeteers, etc."
Holland headed west in 1997, eventually landing in San Francisco. Before long she was in Vancouver co-founding the Be Good Tanyas. She split before the group's debut, Blue Horse, was released in 2001. She appears on that album, singing on a few songs including "The Littlest Birds," which she re-recorded for Catalpa. Of the Be Good Tanyas' debut, England's Q wrote in 2001, "If you buy one country album this year you should make it The Be Good Tanyas'."
Holland had felt constrained by the demands of a group. "There were too many cooks in the kitchen something had to change," she recently told the S.F. Weekly's Dan Strachota.
She returned to San Francisco, where she now lives, and put together Little Boris and the Shoes, which performs once a month at San Francisco's Rite Spot. Holland recorded Catalpa, her first solo album, with the band, which includes Chris Arnold (musical saw, percussion), Dave Mihaly (drums, bells) and Brian Miller (electric guitar). She's released it on her own label (it can be ordered from her Web site). I bought my copy at Amoeba Records; it cost me $10. You really have to wonder when a DIY artist like Holland can sell her album for $10, while the majors are selling theirs for nearly double that.
There's a color photo of Holland on the cover of the album. It's out of focus and the contrast is so extreme that her face appears white and part of it blends into the white background. She's looking down, looking away, wearing a red dress, playing a red accordion. You get this sense of someone who's only half there. Or maybe someone who's moving so fast that she's already on to something new. One can imagine her, like Dylan, morphing quickly from album to album, changing her music, her attitude, her persona. For someone who could make as unique and striking a debut as Catalpa, just about anything is possible.