Singer-songwriter Jolie Holland has some strong opinions. The first one I learn is that cell phones are terrible for you, so this interview needs to be short. "I know scientists who will tell you," she says. Right, then.
The second strong opinion I run into is that she's almost against talking about her sound: the sound of the music, that is, in deference to the song. I've heard that Holland can't read music, and she tells me plainly that the spareness of her early recordings was due mostly to budget constraints and not aesthetic choices, but still. Holland's style is patently unique; her exaggerated hick twang warbles over lyrics like a stream over rocks, catching on some and rushing over others. Her two early projects, 2002's Catalpa and 2004's Escondida were almost entirely ghostly girl-with-guitar, with low production values adding to the homespun, haunted quality that was so mesmerizing. The full band she added for the label-bankrolled Springtime Can Kill You, released late in 2005, shores up the vintage feel. They play like a saloon band, with touches of hot jazz here and country blues there. Holland, though, approaches her music from inside the emotions that propel it, not the actual noises that comprise it.
"I don't really make my stuff around any concept that people might have of me," she says. "I don't even have an idea of the idea people have of me. What can I say? I play every night these days, and it's hard to even think that the way I feel about it makes any difference to anybody. I have stage fright. I get up onstage and feel like a freak. So that's my experience of my sound.
"For me the song is the song, not the sound," she says. "Escondida and Catalpa sounded the way they did because I was broke and couldn't afford a band. The only reason I started playing an acoustic guitar is because I couldn't afford an electric guitar."
Growing up in Texas, Holland wasn't listening to the rural blues her sound echoes. "I was all into British pop music -- Morrissey and New Order, Siouxsie, the Cure, the Pogues," she says.
Sharing a label with twisted balladeers like Tom Waits, Nick Cave and Neko Case, who call the darker places in rural Americana home is a challenging task for a new face also looking to make her way down those haunted backroads. Luckily Holland's frailty of effect, a cross between the sunshiny, marble-mouthed warmth of Lucinda Williams and the cartoony squeak of a '20s parlor-ditty singer, is backed by the power and surety of the deeply, deeply disturbed. Springtime Can Kill You is startlingly complete and beautifully spare, with an underproduced cohesion that echoes Willie Nelson's lo-fi masterpiece Red Headed Stranger. The total effect is as if one of Case, Cave or Waits' unfortunate heroines made her own album, recorded from whatever unmarked grave or well bottom her bones had landed in. The title track, to excellent effect, uses one of Waits' favorite techniques -- skewing the mix of totally straightfaced instrumental tracks, like the oompah of a baritone sax and the tinkle of saloon piano to create a weird sense of unease. The sloppy-drunk brass on "You're Not Satisfied," bleating just behind the beat, has the same effect. "Stubborn Beast," the most country (and we're talking Kitty Wells country) track on the album, has Holland in her fullest voice, with the dependably melancholy twang of pedal steel howling, elegiacally, in the distance. Springtime's song cycle of love, madness and moonshine makes gentle and masterful use of traditional blues, folk and country to create an album full of meandering, warm melodies that all sound like the mournful coda to a story that didn't turn out right, or the last dance at sunset on the final day of summer.
Holland herself declines to talk about the emotions that led her to compose the passionate cycle that is Springtime Can Kill You. "It was all about this really horrible time in my life -- it's too personal to talk about, definitely," she says. "If you've been through something similar, you'll understand. I wanted to tell it from so deeply inside the story that the details didn't matter." The ultimate effect of the vague intimations of lust and horror that come through in the album is, in fact, an overall discomfort that proves Holland got what she was going after -- the listener is captivated by the scraps of story that stitch together a disturbing emotional landscape and is drawn to her creepy warning: "Springtime, springtime can kill you/ just like it did poor me."
- Claude Shade
- Jolie Holland comes to the Parish at the House of Blues