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
in Brooklyn, sharing morning caffeine amongst
children playing on swing sets and benches, to talk about her upcoming
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 . 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?
Holland: 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.”]
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
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
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.