Though these days it's become pretty much synonymous with alt-country, and all too often bad alt-country at that, the term Americana should be reserved for people like Jolie Holland. Her first album, Catalpa, was a mere demo that wound up getting released and ended up a personal favorite of Tom Waits. Escondida, her second record, encompasses Piedmont blues, Django-esque 1930s swinging Gypsy jazz, torch songs languidly sung, boozy Dixieland jazz, tinges of Appalachian country and gospel, hoary old Civil War and British folk music, and spare wrong-side-of-midnight laments.
Sounds like Americana, the way it oughta be, to me. But that's not the bland mush that the mainstream of Americana is, and though she won San Francisco Weekly's 2003 Best Americana award, the Houston native and current West Coast resident wants no part of the genre. Hell, she once even called it the "new incarnation of light rock, just bad and boring and fluffy."
None of which could be used to describe her. Holland's music manages to sound both Depression-era vintage and strikingly contemporary, while her songs are full of pleas for good old-fashioned morphine, desperate failed romances ("It's a long night that seems to have no end / There's big stars falling and twinkling as they fall...You motherfucker, I wanted you"), not to mention the talking starfish and singing mermaids that gambol and frolic on the beaches of her adopted San Francisco home.
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Holland's something of a mystic when it comes to animals. First among the thank-yous at the end if the album is one to the "red-winged blackbird." Something of a bird-watcher myself, I asked her about this shout-out to the little, odd-voiced marsh denizen. "Um, I had this really amazing experience where I dreamed that the red-winged blackbird went extinct. And it was really an anxiety dream -- this was the morning that I went in to record Escondida. I had this dream about eight in the morning, and then at ten I was out shopping, and I was standing on this urban street a block a way from Golden Gate Park with all these groceries in my hand, and this red-winged blackbird flew directly at me and perched in the tree closest to me. I only see that bird maybe once every three years. I was stunned. I just looked at it there in this tree, and then it flew away right over my head. I was like, that's a sign from God! That was kinda the guiding omen for the record."
Holland first became acquainted with those birds on the muddy banks of the upper reaches of White Oak Bayou, near her childhood home in the Cypress area. "The most important thing to me as a kid was just running around on the bayou, and now I go out to the same places and they're all developed," she says, echoing a lament I have heard from several Houston-bred musicians who have left town. "It's sad."
Though her twin great-uncles were Western-swing musicians, she hated country as a child and was something of a Cure and Siouxsie Goth dilettante for a time. Her first instrument was the toy piano, and by the age of seven she had added poetry and songwriting to her skill set. By the time she left junior high, she also had started in on the viola and violin. Encouraged by hearing David Garza's early band Twang Twang Shocka Boom, she also learned guitar. In high school she played the first of not very many Houston gigs, a show from the back of a flatbed truck at the 1992 Westheimer Street Festival. She was only 16. "It was really funny because my friend named the band Brass Buttons," she says. "Much later I figured out she named the band after a Gram Parsons song. I was long gone before I figured that out -- that band only existed for one show." Holland didn't gig much here after that. "I was in this band that I won't even tell you the name of, but we didn't really do shows, and then I hit the road and I was out of Houston."
From there, she passed up on college and ping-ponged between the Bohemian scenes in Austin and New Orleans, and then she lit out for the left coast in 1997. Along the way, she and her then-boyfriend peddled vizsla puppies, and Holland learned the banjo and soaked up the Harry Smith Anthology while living in a tepee in Colorado. After living in San Francisco for a year, she headed north for Vancouver, where she helped start the alt-country band the Be Good Tanyas, but left after one album. She headed back south to San Francisco in 2001. Around then she started the extremely informal sessions that became Catalpa, and the CD she once sold only from the stage at her shows proved to be so in-demand that it was picked up by the Anti label, home to Nick Cave, Elliott Smith, Joe Henry and most fatefully for Holland, Tom Waits.
"I wish nobody had told me this, but he had my record for a week, and I knew about it," she says. What could Waits be doing all that time? Maybe he liked it. Maybe it bored him. Maybe he called his friends over and said, "Listen to this bilge -- this has got to be the worst crap ever."
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"That was horrifying," Holland says. "I couldn't sleep or eat for a week -- maybe like six hours a night and one meal a day. I was fucked up, so nervous, freakin' out all week. By the time that I found out he loved it, I was so exhausted that it really didn't make much of an impression. I was like, 'Thank god. Now I'll see you later. I'm going to sleep.'" (While Holland was sleeping, Waits went to work and nominated the album for the 2003 Shortlist Prize that eventually went to Damien Rice.)
And now we have Escondida, which seems to be destined to make a bunch of short lists of top rootsy CDs this year. The lazy comparison is to Norah Jones -- another Texan who hacks a rootsy path -- but Holland is edgier, rooted in older material, and if she's equally languid, she's also a much more dramatic and melismatic singer. "I don't really care that people make that comparison, but she's definitely not a studied influence of mine," she says. "At all."
A cross between Toni Price and Ricki Lee Jones with a Southern accent strikes me as the better critical shorthand description -- as Holland shares both Price's affinity for Depression-era Southern pop -- by which I mean country and blues -- and Jones's boozy-sounding vocals. (Albeit in Holland's case, "Goodbye California" is ruined for me by her accent, which sounds so over-the-top that she seems to be doing an impression of the way a Texan would talk instead of just letting it flow. See also Williams, Lucinda and Griffith, Nanci in this file.)
But hell, that's just a quibble. Escondida and the talent behind it shouldn't stay hidden for long.