Jolie Holland's voice, a spectral yet throaty alto, exists in a realm of its own. It floats above the nebulous strains of folk, jazz, alt-country and indie balladeers (Cat Power, maybe?) that intertwine in her largely acoustic repertoire.
It's arresting enough that no less an eminence than Tom Waits nominated her for the now-defunct Shortlist Music Prize after hearing 2003's Catalpa, which was nothing more than a demo at the time. Holland lost the prize, but won a spot alongside Waits on ANTI- Records.
Waits's endorsement is still paying dividends — his longtime associate Marc Ribot lends his guitar expertise to "The Devil's Sake" on Holland's fifth album, last month's Pint of Blood. Like her other three albums since Catalpa — Escondida, Springtime Can Kill You and The Living and the Dead — the arrangements are as cozy as the lyrics are harsh ("All Those Girls," "Wreckage").
Perhaps Holland, 35, picked that particular trait up from Townes Van Zandt, whose "Rex's Blues" closes Pint of Blood. She grew up in Houston before lighting out for Austin, New Orleans, San Francisco, Vancouver, San Francisco again, and now New Orleans one more time. Ironically for someone who's done so much traveling, Holland was having trouble with her van's GPS outside Rock Island, Illinois, as she spoke to Chatter one afternoon last week.
Chatter: Do you identify yourself as Texan?
Jolie Holland: Yeah, absolutely. My family died at the Alamo. I'm so, so Texan. My family came to Texas on a Spanish land grant.
C: You've mentioned Daniel Johnston in the past, and you cover Townes Van Zandt on the new record.
JH: Yeah. Both of those guys are really important to me.
C: You must have soaked up quite a bit of the music from down here.
JH: Yeah. How could I avoid it? My great-uncle used to play with Bob Wills, and they were friends with Willie Nelson. They used to play with Willie Nelson [as] Bud & Bud, The Hooker Twins. I grew up listening to Western swing. When I was a teenager we were listening to David Garza, and I loved ['90s Houston rockers] de Schmog so much.
C: The title of Pint of Blood suggests it might have been a difficult album to make. Was it?
JH: No, it was fantastic. It's kind of a joke, the title. Which I'll explain if you're interested.
C: Sure. Please.
JH: It's kind of the inverse of a William Burroughs quote, where he says if you hang out with a person and later on feel as though you've lost a pint of blood, or he actually says "a quart of plasma," then that person is not your friend. So it's like the definition of how it feels to be around good people.
C: Could you sum up your reaction when you found out Tom Waits had nominated Catalpa for the Shortlist prize?
JH: Well...no. I don't think there's any way to...I can't put it into words at all.
C: Has anyone ever called you an old soul?
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C: Do you think you are?
JH: I don't know what to make out of all that stuff. One of my best friends who's in his early sixties — he lives in Houston — he always says that I remind him of some of his mother's friends, which I always thought was cute.
He talks that way, and I trust his perspective, but I don't know what most people would mean if they say that.