Catching Up With... Jolie Holland

Music Features Jolie Holland
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Jolie Holland has long existed in the shadows of other singer-songwriters. Maybe it all comes down to her voice: There’s a unique quality to it that can be initially off-putting to some, but once you’ve spent time with it, honed in on how she twists and turns her annunciations, what emerges is an artist who is expressive on many different levels. Her music is often times characterized as timeless, and her catalog largely possesses an aesthetic that defies any sort of “flavor of the month” notions. 

After spending a long time in the Bay area, Holland recently relocated to Brooklyn to complete her fourth record, The Living and the Dead, which dropped Oct. 7 on Anti- Records. Paste recently sat down with Holland in a small park along Fifth Avenue in Brooklyn, sharing morning caffeine amongst children playing on swing sets and benches, to talk about her upcoming projects.

Paste: All and all, how long were you in the studio for?
Jolie Holland: I don’t know. It’s hard to say—four really intense days in Portland.

Paste: When was this?
Holland: November, December [2007]. I’d say two months of work in Brooklyn. Spread out, not the whole weeks.

Paste: I wasn’t surprised that [the album] was 10 songs.
Holland: I like short records. Some of my favorite records are 40 minutes long.

Paste: When did you start writing the lyrics to this?
: Most of it is about two years old. Well, about a year-and-a-half to two years.  And a lot of them are actually from within a six month period.

Paste: And does M. Ward play on anything, or just do arranging?
Holland: It’s all…the truth of the matter, there is what’s on paper, officially. We say [he played on] one song, but he contributed parts to a bunch of things. He put in little ideas with certain things. He was really cute about it—he literally would show up at the studio, look at everybody, and say “You’re all professionals, I’ll see you all later.” But then he would pick up the guitar, and come up with these golden, straight-shooter things. We didn’t even know we were going to use some that stuff. He did pretty much all the guitars on “Mexico City.”

Paste: He played all of them?
Holland:like Keith Richards. He’s unreal, he’s a powerhouse.

Paste: I’m happy for him, that his record is doing well.
Holland: For me, [the] linear time of where records come out—I don’t even think about that. I just got introduced to Captain Beefheart, like, four years ago. It’s an art, you know?  I went and stood in front of Rembrandt with a friend of mine who studies Flemish realist paintings, we stood in front of it at the Met and cried together.

Paste: I love those people that can make records that can defy things that people like me try to put time frames on.
Holland: I don’t know…for me, what I want in music, is to put me into an experience of non-linear time. 

Paste: That’s what I want to.  But I’ve never characterized it as that.  It’s that circle Will Oldham’s talking about [in the Bonnie ‘Prince’ Billy song, “So Everyone.”]
Holland: (laughs) It starts, and it ends. I was sitting in a bar, the Jay Street bar, the other night, and my dear friend Leif started whistling. It was a cover of “La Vie en Rose.” And he’s not a professional musician. And he started whistling, and it made me feel like I left my body through the top of my head. I just left. It was amazing, it was so beautiful. One of the most beautiful musical experiences I’ve ever had.

Paste: It seems like there are some new styles and arranging on this one for you. Like for “Corrido Por Buddy” […] Did you want to play around with those sorts of things?
Holland: I think, ideally, the form—it’s just like building a vehicle…

Paste: A car metaphor?
Holland: Yeah, I’m all into car metaphors now. I’m all about traction and knowing where neutral is. And the transmission. And the torque convertor. I’m all about that shit right now, am totally into car metaphors. So, lets see, exactly—the story of “Buddy” is supposed to take you to a certain place. And the form was predicated by that necessity.  awful, it sounds like a hook from an Elvis Costello song. And it’s the incredibly painful truth. I finished writing that song as quickly as I could, and I didn’t play it for a year.  I was like, “Fuck, I’m glad I’m done writing that song.” 

Paste: “Love Henry”- is that the one that has the washed-over microphone?
Holland: Sounds like a telephone?

Holland: That is a telephone. It’s a microphone made out of telephone parts from the 40’s…that mic was mic’d on my voice and a really nice tube mic on my guitar. We got the guitar from Retro-Fret. We had this guitar, and we were like, “We have to do something else.” And I’ll play the oldest song I know, on this amazing guitar. And we ended up using it. 

Paste: Its one of those tunes in there that’s weird and stands out. But doesn’t feel like it’s odd.
Holland: Shazad [Ismaily, who co-produced The Living and the Dead] told me that Will [Oldham] and I do this same thing, where the performance of the song is at its intensity in any performance. And other singers, as far as Shazad has explained to me, don’t perform the songs under any circumstances like that. The way he explains it is hard because he’s explaining myself. When you only do something one way and don’t do it another way, it’s hard to know what you’re doing.  Basically, for me, performing the song is to get to a certain type of transmission—transmitting a part of the song, not transmission like a car. And if it’s not doing that, it’s not the song, for me. I just can’t sing the words. That’s not what performing a song is. 

Paste: You can tell.
Holland: Cool. I’m so glad I had that experience with Leif. It made me, basically, so high to hear him do that. It’s like I can understand that experience of music outside of myself. 

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