Born to Bruise
"I was tied to some train tracks in Cheyenne, Wyoming."
It's certainly among the best excuses I've ever heard from a musician tardy for an interview. And coming from Jolie Holland, it almost seems feasible. After all, this is an artist who actively courts both danger and anachronism, so the image of a black-clad, moustache-twirling villain targeting her for locomotive-assisted bisection seems more likely than it might in the case of say, Beyonc. But still...
"It was a really intense, long, all-day photo shoot," she explains.
Ohhhhh, I get it now. Phew.
"It was really fun," she insists before going on to explain the genesis of the session. "Just recently I was at the Charity Guild Shop in Houston (1203 Lovett) looking for Halloween stuff and I found this hilarious...it looks like a swimsuit with a whole lot of sequins on it and a little tiny skirt of white feathers and it's just ridiculous, and it was only four bucks so I couldn't just leave it there. I wore it with fishnets and some gold shoes from the '40s and lots of necklaces. And so for the photos we pretended that I was the tightrope walker that had pissed off the strongman and the circus was on its way out of town and he'd just left me tied up on the track." She pauses, reflectively. "It was ungodly cold. The coldest I've ever been in my entire life. I was practically naked, lying on the ground in Cheyenne and it was like 40 degrees. I was laughing so much it was hard to look scared. I'm not a good actress. Then later we did a bunch of boring pictures of me with clothes on. But I'm still cold. I'm wearing, like, three coats right now."
This one turn as a campy pseudo-damsel-in-distress notwithstanding, Jolie Holland is an artist who many people are taking seriously. She signed to prestigious Anti- records a couple years back (where she joined a peerage that includes the likes of Merle Haggard, Ramblin' Jack Elliot, Tom Waits and Nick Cave) after Tom Waits proclaimed himself a fan and began publicly championing her music, even campaigning for her to receive the 2004 Shortlist Music Prize. It's obvious that having one of her heroes as a fan still boggles Holland's mind.
"Oh my goodness," she says of Waits. "I love him so much. This morning I woke up and 'Black Market Baby' (from Waits's Mule Variations CD) was stuck in my head. He's such a light to us all. Another one of those lights is Will Oldham, I think. They're both such characters but they do everything in a really human way without sacrificing any of that oversize personality."
There are subtle but dazzling musical elements on Holland's recent Springtime Can Kill You CD wherein she's clearly forging a humanized idiosyncrasy to match that of her idols. A close listen to the brief, blithe title track reveals unique instrumental breaks in which Holland whistles the wistful, angular melody in multipart harmony with a horn and a guitar, creating an unheard but mellifluous sound.
"I was definitely trying very hard with that middle section to make something nobody had heard before," confirms Holland. "It's supposed to be like medicine, a little sugar to get it down. Are you supposed to be on the table?" she adds. "Get off the table!"
"I'm talking to the kitty cat," Holland offers, helpfully. "Go on, get off the table! I'm staying with the nicest people in the whole world and they've got this total mafia don cat. He's like 'Don't fuck with me, I'll leave a dead squirrel in your room.' That's his thing: If you don't feed him enough he'll put a disemboweled, dead squirrel in your room. He's a bruiser-boy."
Of course, Jolie is something of a bruiser-girl herself. Fortunately for us, her gutted victims come in the form of song. One of the most lyrically damaging tracks on Springtime is "Nothing To Do But Dream" which comes with its own built-in analgesic in the form of its gorgeous, lulling melody and arrangement. "I took my sister to the river," Holland croons nonchalantly, "and I came back alone / And this sickness that's on me is settling in my bones / And my Daddy is suspicious but I know how he does / He won't find out about it till she's safe down in the mud."
"That song is bitter as fuck," confirms Holland. "I wrote it in 15 minutes. I did not know I was gonna be writing a song and then 15 minutes later there was a song. It was after a very traumatic event. And I wrote it in 1998 so it's the oldest song on the record -- I was just waiting for the right place to bring it out. The two obvious parents of that song are Blind Willie McTell, who I was completely obsessed with at the time, and you can tell the way the bridge breaks down is very McTell-like...And then the verse structure is totally "Cold, Cold Ground" by Tom Waits. That song just sorta came out of me many years ago and the thing is, it still teaches me stuff. There's a line in there: 'I remember who we could be.' What does that mean? That's like some kind of crazy discussion of eternity and longing for something ungraspable."
While waiting out this ungraspable eternity, Holland is keeping busy with a series of collaborations. She appeared on the recent Rogue's Gallery compilation of sea shanties and pirate songs, which she says was a fantastic experience. "I fucking love Hal Willner," she gushes regarding the iconoclastic producer, who has been responsible for some of the strangest and most cohesive various artists releases in memory, including star-studded tributes to Charles Mingus, Edgar Allen Poe and Walt Disney. "I just walked in and laid it down. He just let me go; I waltzed in there and got my bandleading game going and he just let it happen. So great." She also recently found time to record a duet with another one of her role models, Lucinda Williams, as well as collaborating with eclectic hip-hop maestro Sage Francis. "I played this violin part which he looped, and I sang part of Dante's Inferno in the original Italian," she explains, all like it's no big thing.
Not every artist could so easily navigate the landscapes of hip-hop jams, country weepers and seafaring songs, but it seems to be second nature for Holland.
"It's true that I'm always frightened of being pigeonholed," she explains. "But I also totally come out of scenes with metal players and jazz players and hip-hop people and burlesque artists and circus people, and everybody's hanging out together and everybody respects everybody else's angle. It all seems very normal to me." Jolie Holland appears on Thursday, November 9, at McGonigel's Mucky Duck, 2425 Norfolk. For more info, call 713-528-5999.
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