Mississippi-born Claire Holley has a firm grip on the musical vocabulary and storytelling obsession of the South. And, like any great Southern character, she’s as complicated as the recipe for sour mash whiskey. Simultaneously sweet and gruff, she can sing luxuriant, summer-drenched ballads with the best of them, but there’s something of the honky-tonker lurking underneath. It’s a quality that gives her records a rough-and-tumble sexiness—like Rickie Lee Jones singing John Prine.
On her latest Yep Roc release, Dandelion, Holley’s tough and tender sides blend in character-driven songs that play out like short stories, from the truck stop madwoman of “6 Miles to McKenney” to the numb bartender of “Henry’s.”
“I wasn’t one of those little girls who wrote poems for my mother,” Holley laughs. “I feel like, as a writer, I was a late bloomer. People talk about how my songs paint pictures and tell stories. I honestly don’t know how that happened, other than that I’m interested in people and how they work. In a sense, some of the songs are like little vignettes. Like little cameras going into a room and then pulling back out.”
As a lyricist, Holley swings easily from impressionist sketches in long, unbroken lines to clipped, economical conversations. She shifts from poetry to prose and back, invoking Yeats on “Tread Softly” and O’Keefe’s swaths of color in the title track. She manages to be literate while remaining real.
Dandelion marks a break with tradition as a recording artist for Holley. Rather than teaming up again with John Plymale (Alejandro Escovedo, Squirrel Nut Zippers) who produced her first three impressive records, she chose to co-produce this effort with bass player Steve Graham and guitarist Rob Seals. “I felt like I needed to try something new,” she explains. “I was really wanting to make a record where musicians were playing in a room together. Where you can tell they’re playing live and feeding off each other.” The result is a vivid, spacious sound.
This organic approach is an earmark of Holley’s recording and writing techniques. The impressions carved by her songs come from unhindered emotion and openness instead of intellect. “The way I know if a song is working is if it sounds right to my ear, if the line is musical,” she concludes. “I don’t just mean if I like the notes. It’s almost like I’m trusting something I don’t even understand. I don’t always understand why I like a line. I just like the way it sounds. I trust my ear more than my logic.