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"The world's always falling apart for some people. And there's a lot of people right now whose world is falling apart. [I wrote it] in response to all that kind of stuff, all this war. It's a scary world." — Jolie Holland on "Old Fashioned Morphine"



Holland, as she appears on the cover of her new European single, "Sasha." Photograph by Michael Goldberg.


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by Michael Goldberg

Monday, May 3, 2004

Jolie Holland Navigates Our 'Scary World'

More (And Less) Is Revealed On Escondida

When I listen as Jolie Holland sings, in a dreamy, intimate, self-assured Southern voice, "Sister don't get worried/ Sister don't get worried/ Sister don't get worried/ 'Cause the world is almost done," I feel a kind of spiritual calm. Her voice is so reassuring. She is singing about the end of the world (or perhaps death), but the way she sings those lines, you don't care. If the end is this beautiful, this seductive...

The song she is singing, "Old Fashioned Morphine," is on the San Francisco singer's exquisite new album, Escondida. Holland wrote the song, and she says it's based on the Blind Willie McTell version of "Old Time Religion" (which McTell recorded in the '40s) and a Blind Willie Johnson version of the spiritual "Wade in the Water." But Holland has remade it as a New Orleans blues, sour, slurred jazz with the drummer working his brushes lightly on the snare, sturdy acoustic guitar helping carry the rhythm, the trumpet and sax harmonizing like two drunken sailors staggering back to the boat as the sun begins to rise. And then Holland, singing — in that voice that reminds us of Billie Holiday or Bessie Smith or Tammy Wynette or Nina Simone, but doesn't really sound like any of them — with a determined cool matter-of-factness on the verses, then getting drunk and dreamy as she lets us know that our time here is short.

As is the case with many of Holland's songs — in addition to Escondida, she has two other albums, Catalpa, and a limited-edition, out-of-print Jolie Holland Live — repeated listening to "Old Fashioned Morphine" reveals layers of emotion and meaning. And raises some questions.

What, exactly, is Holland telling us? She sings with the voice of an angel, but one with dirty wings, one who has hoboed the backwaters of this decaying nation that is the U.S. Should one take the lyrics literally? Of course not. "I'm certainly not encouraging anyone to fuck up their life," she writes in liner notes to Escondida.

In other words, when Holland sings, "Give me that old fashioned morphine/ It's good enough for me," she's not endorsing drug use.

But what, then? With Holland's work, you often shouldn't take things at face value. Perhaps this story is being told by a man or woman on their deathbed. Still, why the references to Beat/ cut-up writer Billy Burroughs (a junkie for part of his life) and the promiscuous adventuress Isabelle Eberhardt?

One can't help but smile at the phrase "Old Fashioned Morphine" replacing "Old Time Religion." One drug substituted for another? But the song is tragic, as well as funny.

'Apocalypic Blues'

When I asked Holland recently about "Old Fashioned Morphine" during an afternoon interview on a bench in the Golden Gate Park Panhandle, not far from Holland's apartment in the now beaten-down Haight-Ashbury, where the ghostly aura of the area's Bohemian/hippie past is still in the air, she called it an "apocalyptic blues."

"I think of it in a really loose way," she explained. "I was never thinking about addiction when I wrote the song. It was more about using morphine medically — morphine is the last thing they give somebody. Morphine's a terrible drug, but at least it works for what it's meant to do."

An "apocalyptic blues? "The world's always falling apart for some people," she continued. "And there's a lot of people right now whose world is falling apart. [I wrote it] in response to all that kind of stuff, all this war. It's a scary world. That's what it's about."

But she also described the song as a "like a collage," and, later, with the Burroughs reference in mind, I thought of her song as a kind of audio cut-up piece in which she borrowed from the past (the way the old blues and country singers "remade" older songs) to create art that is about the present and the future.

This is the age of culture recycling, and the past sometimes seems like some huge stack of old magazines that's being used to make art. Hip-hop, of course, took a tradition that goes back to the very beginnings of man making music (spend a little time studying "concert music," which is the correct term for what we more often call "classical music," and you find that even Bach studied and "borrowed from" his contemporaries, learning from them, building on them) and went digital with it, literally taking pieces of older songs and working them into new ones.

The greatest rock 'n' roll artists — Bob Dylan, the Velvet Underground, the Rolling Stones, The Beatles, Nirvana, Captain Beefheart, and on and on — shamelessly drew on the past, and not just for inspiration. Words, melodies, ideas for arrangements, vocal approaches — anything and everything has been fair game. But what separates the great artists from the rest is, of course, what they do with those raw materials.

A Clear Vision

Jolie Holland has a clarity of vision, and her recordings, while they may remind you of something from the past that you can't quite put your finger on, sound like the work of Jolie Holland, and no one else. I keep thinking of Bob Dylan, because Holland, like Dylan in his '60s heyday, makes new songs that speak to the now, yet feel timeless and "old," like they're part of the culture, part of what Greil Marcus has called "this old weird America."

Holland, in her 20s, is a stubborn woman — she is not going to compromise her art. She has been homeless, she has worked as a waitress (she only quit that job about a year ago) — she has done what she had to do to survive. And now that, finally, her time has come, she is in control. The stakes are high. This is her life and she's not about to blow it.

Like Neil Young, like Tom Waits and Miles Davis and Jagger/Richards and, yes, Dylan, she knows what her art needs to be. From the Bohemian/beat/rootsy album graphics to the songs and the way they are arranged and played and sung, Holland, the artist — with three albums recorded and released in the past year — seems fully formed. Which doesn't mean that her next album will sound anything like the previous ones. Already she is thinking about a gospel album, or perhaps something even more jazzy and country than what she has done to date. I could see her return from wherever it is she goes for inspiration, with an album of strange, searing rock 'n' roll music in the years to come, or perhaps an album of just Jolie, singing a batch of new songs to the accompaniment of her guitar or ukulele or piano. For sure there will be nothing predictable about the work she does as the future unfolds.

A Late-Night Album

Escondida is about more than just one song, of course. The album's other 11 songs are, by turns, romantic, tragic, sad, suicidal, and angry. Holland pauses near the end of "Do You?" and then speak-sings to a friend, "You motherfucker, I wanted you." It's one of many surprising moments where she does the unexpected. And even on the 50th listen, I still smile.

"Darlin' Ukelele" is a gentle lullaby with an eerie accompaniment that includes a solo by Enzo Garcia on musical saw. "Sasha" and "Black Stars" are about love affairs — one that went sour, another that never even got off the ground. "Damn Shame" is about a lover who has left, leaving the singer to wonder what happened. "Tell me one more time why you went away," she sings.

This is a late-night album, one that you put on at midnight, when you're feeling tired, when your mind is free to free-associate. The music, be it Holland's simple, powerful piano on "Damn Shame," or her ethereal ukulele on "Darlin' Ukelele," has a feeling to it that I associate with, for instance, Dylan's piano playing on "Dear Landlord." There is a melancholy, a sadness, a sense that life just ain't fair pervading Escondida. And yet, paradoxically, listening to this music makes me feel so alive. Others have noted a "real" quality that comes through. The truth often isn't pleasant, but it is the truth.

On the cover of her first album, Catalpa, Holland appeared like a half-formed vision, her face bleached so white you could barely make out the details. The music was ghostly, like something you strained to hear through apartment walls. At first, when you look at the cover of Escondida, you see Holland holding a fiddle and a guy (her friend CR Avery) playing a harmonica, and you might think that this is gonna be some kinda country/bluegrass album.

Only the photo is out of focus, black and white, really grainy. Holland is looking right at you, but you can still hardly tell what she looks like. There's the shape of a hat (a black porkpie hat?) on her head, some eyeglasses — but nothing, really, is revealed. This cover photo is like some abstract art piece. This is not folk art, this highly self-conscious modern art, and perhaps to underline that, a negative image of the photo serves as the CD tray insert that makes me think of Man Ray. "Escondida" means hidden. Really, it's the perfect title for an album by the still elusive — perhaps even more so than ever — Jolie Holland.

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