Catching Up With Jolie Holland

Music Features Jolie Holland

On her fourth studio album Pint of Blood, Jolie Holland evokes the emotional depth and rawness of her musical heroes, including the Velvet Underground and Neil Young. Channeling the likes of these influential musicians has done wonders for the singer-songwriter—as her rugged vocals, honest lyrics and beautiful simplicity give her newest album a subtle yet poignant power.

Since finishing Pint of Blood, Holland traveled the West Coast, from Los Angeles to Seattle, on a radio show tour. She played with three different bands, including several musicians from Sallie Ford & the Sound Outside, and even recorded an album with them. Back in Brooklyn after the West Coast tour, Holland took the time to chat with Paste about Lou Reed, her Texas roots and her struggle to find good, authentic Mexican food in New York City.

Paste: Your album Pint of Blood has been streaming on our website for the past week or so. So far it’s gotten pretty good feedback from listeners.
Holland: It’s great, I really like the things that Paste has to say about it. It’s some of the first public response I’ve seen to the record.

Paste: Tell me more about the album. What was the production process like? And you worked with Shahzad Ismaily again?
Holland: Shahzad and I, this is our second time to produce a record together. It just felt really amazing, felt so much more personal and kind of quiet and meditative. The whole process was just like we were doing yoga the whole time. It’s really awesome to get an established working relationship with another artist. That felt really amazing.

Paste: Was there any specific inspiration behind the album, the songs on it?
Holland: The whole idea behind these songs, I just kept realizing that I was writing songs that were not physically difficult to play on stage but emotionally difficult to play on stage. I was writing songs that were about intense things. Musically, because I like when other songwriters do stuff like that, I’m attracted to those kinds of songs. I’m realizing how hard it is to perform those kinds of songs. You’re putting yourself through a lot every night when you go on tour with those kinds of songs so I was trying to write stuff that would be less cathartic and more fun. I still feel like the material is kind of heavy but I just think it’s going to be a lot easier to relate.

And then the meaning behind “pint of blood” as the title is a quote by William Burroughs where he says something like if you hang out with someone for an hour and then feel as though you’ve lost a quart of plasma, that person is not your friend. So the idea of naming it “pint of blood” is kind of the inverse of that. It’s about experiencing and being around people that make you feel amazing, that kind of expand your sense of vitality.

Paste: I noticed about your production process, it’s very DIY, from the songs themselves to the handwritten lyrics to you painting the album art.
Holland: Well, every single record that I’ve done has been done in that same way. I was always this final authority about everything. So it’s interesting that you feel that this album communicates it more. But it’s always been exactly like that. One thing I’ll contribute to that is that, as an artist and musician, I’m really inspired by the idea of a tribute to other people, really having some strong inspiration about other certain projects.

This project was really inspired in a very loose way, it’s a very loose tribute to the Neil Young album called Zuma. Zuma is super raw and live and there are some really good songs on it, and then also all the lyrics are written out by hand, and the cover drawing is incredibly crude like the artist just did it in 10 minutes. I almost went to the School of the Museum of Fine Arts in Boston, and I used to be more of a visual artist. I designed all the covers of my records but this is the one I was most hands-on about. I didn’t mean to spend as much time as I did on the painting, but I spent like an hour painting that. I wanted it to feel like a sketch.

Paste: Has Neil Young always been an influence? I also read that Lou Reed and the Velvet Underground have been for you too.
Holland: The Velvet Underground has always been really important to me just in terms of aesthetic leadership. They are just so amazing. I just found out something really beautiful about Velvet Underground, actually two really hilarious things. The first thing I found out is that before Lou Reed started Velvet Underground he used to be a jingles writer, like he wrote things for commercials. And you can kind of feel that in some of their songs, like there’s this real heaviness to the phrases, like they can stand on their own.

The other thing I found out was about the way they were writing music. They just decided they were never going to play blues clichés, which is kind of what so much music is built on, musical clichés like a string of notes that comes out of the blues. So you can really feel that originality in their work. So the Velvet Underground have always been a big deal. And even from Springtime Can Kill You there was a really strong testament to the Velvet Underground. Even in my first album I think you can feel that as influence.

Neil Young, I just got really inspired by him in the past couple years. I heard some songs that were really amazing. There’s this song called “Flying on the Ground [Is Wrong]” I was really fascinated with, and my song “Remember” is really inspired by that song.

Paste: What originally got you interested in music?
Holland: At first I thought I was going to be a visual artist, a painter, and then I just had some really hard things happen when I was in my late teens. One of my best friends kind of flipped out, and it was just really an awful thing to deal with. I was on my way to go to art college, and then it was such a bummer, and I hit the road to try to just like get it off my mind and it basically didn’t stop. As soon as I hit the road I met all these amazing artists and musicians, who are still some of my closest friends, and I could see that they were doing amazing things without having gone to college. It wasn’t really like I was going to go get some kind of business degree or practical degree, and then I just kept moving. I found it really hard to do visual art while I didn’t really live anywhere, so I ended up putting all my energy into music.

Paste: How do you think your journey as a musician has evolved since then? You’ve traveled independently, then joined the Be Good Tanyas, and now are back to solo work…
Holland: I mean it’s just about learning to sort of how to be a tight rope walker, learning your balance, figuring out, really feeling what your center of balance is and how to follow what you’re most interested in. As a musician I’ve learned to love ideas that later on I found out didn’t work, direction that I really wanted to go in, I just really kept getting more grounded, more focused on understanding what I have to offer as a musician. And through that, learning what kind of people I want to work with.

Paste: Do you find it’s been more of a personal growth or a growth as a musician?
Holland: You can’t really separate them especially since what I mostly do is, I’m a songwriter. But it goes hand in hand, especially because I’m really interested in super individualistic playing. I’m not the kind of person who would be studying classical violin and be getting better in classical violin. I’m just trying to develop my own voice. Any kind of personal development is musical development.

Paste: You’re from Texas originally, right?
Holland: Yeah, I was born in Texas.

Paste: Your music has a very rootsy, raw, Americana feel to it. Do you think growing up there had any influence in your music?
Holland: There’s so much going on in Texas music. My family was in Texas since back when it belonged to Spain, since like the early 1700s. My uncles played Western swing and I used to, when I was a baby, I would go see them playing Western swing. I played with this guy Bob Wills who is one of the originators of Western, and I played with Willie Nelson, so I did have this interesting connection to this really grounded music. Texas music is so distinct, but this is stuff that I learned later. When you’re younger it’s really hard to have any kind of perspective about it, but it’s interesting to know you feel that influence.

One time I heard a German anthropologist say something like, “Culture is everything you don’t notice.” So I didn’t notice how much Western swing influenced my work until I got to New York and then I tried to play music with New York musicians, and a lot of them had a really hard time playing my music because it doesn’t have the same background. Even though my music is not Western swing it has some feel in it, but I was totally unaware. Like the song “Honey Girl,” it’s rhythm is kind of like Western swing and it was really difficult to find the right drummer that could express that properly. I went through several drummers before trying to find someone who could play that song.

Paste: The drummer you ended up with, what was their background?
Holland: It was Shahzad, and he actually has a super interesting musical background because his parents are from Pakistan. So he was born here, but he has a super fresh perspective on American music, like he didn’t have records from the 60s and 70s laying around house that he heard as a kid.

And it’s so interesting, on one of the songs he is doing something that kind of references The Beatles. In the song “Wreckage” Shahzad is playing all the guitar on there and [the West Coast musicians] had to learn the part that he played. [They] said it’s pretty amazing that Shahzad was playing things like The Beatles, but you know he didn’t know that he was referencing the Beatles. So it’s when [musicians are] totally fresh that way it just puts a real lightness into the music, in the same way that the Velvet Underground did that they didn’t use blues clichés. It has a childlike energy, like this real, fresh energy.

Paste: For your next project, will you continue to work with Shahzad?
Holland: I already made a record that might come out next, I’m not yet sure, but I made this record touring with my West Coast band. So that might come out next, but the next record I actually make I think I’ll make a solo record.

Paste: What else is next for you? Will you be touring, working on new songs…
Holland: I’m going to be touring for a while, but I’m also doing a lot of writing right now and that’s been a lot of fun. I’ve been working on a cookbook with a bunch of stories in it. It’s not just recipes, it’s like a narrative cookbook. And then I’m also writing a book of essays and stories.

Paste: Awesome! What kind of food do you like? What will be in the cookbook?
Holland: One thing, for whatever reason, there’s just terrible, terrible Mexican food up here in New York! You can probably find one or two restaurants in the entire New York City area that are authentic Mexican restaurants, but generally the Mexican food out here is super weird and sucks [laughs]. It’s so awful. There’s this place down the street, me and my roommate were having margaritas there the other day. It’s a nice place to hang out and drink margaritas, but after a while we got hungry and were like, “Oh god, we’re going to order the food!” And there’s something so weird and wrong about New Yorkers, they just can’t do Mexican. It tasted like Chinese food, like a Chinese taco [laughs]. It’s so weird. So I just learned how to make a lot of Mexican food!

And I just love essay writing and short stories. There are a couple cookbooks I really love that are mostly stories. Alice B. Toklas, she was Gertrude Stein’s partner, she wrote one book in her life and it was this cookbook with all these stories, like, “And this is what we make when Picasso is over for dinner!” And then there’s this other book I really loved called If I Can Cook/ You Know God Can by this writer named Ntzoake Shange. She was a really great American playwright. It’s super awesome.

Paste: It sounds like you have a hand in pretty much every aspect of the arts, from recording music to writing to visual art – do you plan to continue?
Holland: Maybe I’ll get back into visual art. I really just want to challenge myself to finish these books because I really have always wanted to be a writer. So I’ll see what happens, I’ll see if I can do it.

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