Very quietly, singer Jolie Holland is one of the more respected songwriters working today. She's been around a while; first as a member of folk outfit the Be Good Tanyas, and now as a solo artist. The demos that eventually became her debut, Catalpa, attracted the attention of Tom Waits, who nominated her for the Shortlist prize, and her 2004 album, Escondida, is a touchstone of Americana.
The Pitch: It seems that with each solo album you've released, you've moved further from the folk leanings of the Be Good Tanyas. Is that an intentional shift?
Jolie Holland: Everything I do is intentional, but my intention is not to be less folky, you know? My intentions have nothing to do with the Be Good Tanyas. People talk to me about the Be Good Tanyas, and I barely know those people anymore. I started the band, and then decided it wasn't something I wanted to do -- for business and musical reasons, and social reasons -- a really long time ago. I worked on all their records, but I have never listened to a Be Good Tanyas record. Never even listened to one.
Is there a reason for that?
Because it was so socially awful to work with that band? But, there's nothing I can get listening to that music except a stomachache. But, no, I'm not intentionally creating distance between myself and the Tanyas. I don't even remember if there was any commonality. I'm interested in some North American-based, European-based folk music like some people, but I don't even know what they're doing.
Let's talk about you new album, then -- that being the reason you're on tour, and coming to Kansas City. What made the process of recording Pint of Blood different from The Living and the Dead? You had a lot of collaborators on your last album.
Well, you know, not really. I wrote all the music on Pint of Blood. There were guest producers -- or, really, one producer, Mr. M. Ward -- and he worked on a couple songs, but it was all my material, and I co-produced it with many of the guest producers, but Shahzad Ismaily and I were the main production team.
The direction for me is always more live and more ensemble playing. Escondido was made in four and a half days, and it was all very live, and then Springtime was made in two weeks, and it was all very live. Like, almost everything was live ensemble, but it wasn't exactly rock, you know? Like, there was a really light drummer -- Dave Mihaly was playing on that. He's a jazz drummer. He's not interested in playing different material. Or, he's not interested in playing rock. He had the opportunity the first time around to play rock. He's part of that generation, and he didn't want to. He wasn't interested.
So, in order to perform and record the types of songs I started writing, I had to start working with different people. So, I started working with Rachel Blumberg and that was a total dream. It was so great to work with her as a drummer. And then, this last record was me working with a band that I was even more intimate with. Because, Rachel and I just met each other in the studio. This is me working with my rock band. Just Shahzad and Grey Gersten.
The Living and the Dead was recorded in different locales, but I know Pint of Blood was recorded in your home studio.
That's not true. For some reason, that so-called fact has been getting around. No, we recorded in some studios in New York, and some of them were tantamount to home studios, but they were studios.
They were studios that were in people's homes?
No, they were in a basement in the Lower East Side, but it was the equivalent of some New Yorker's home studio, but it's top-of-the-line equipment. Some of it -- there were a few things that were done in either my home or Shahzad's home. We did the tracks to "Tender Mirror" in my house, because my piano was in really good shape, and then we did "The Devil's Sake" in Shahzad's house. But, the equipment we were using was nicer than in most professional studios around the country. We were using really nice stuff. It wasn't like most people's home studios.
To go back to the collaboration question I had earlier -- you've done work on a lot of other people's albums, and I'm curious as to how that allows you to express yourself as an artist.
I love being a side man. I started out in scenes where I was playing backup in all my friends' bands, and they were playing backup in my band, and that is still the case, to a large degree. But, it happens less and less, as my job fronting my band has gotten more busy. But, I love playing backup with people. I love being in a great songwriter's band.
Does it allow you to move into genres you might not be comfortable tackling on one of your own albums?
I'm pretty fearless with whatever so-called genre I feel like I need to take a song to, so no. I'm just serving the songwriter's vision, and of course, you learn a lot anytime you're in a great bandleader's band.
What sort of things have you taken away? What sort of things have you learned?
I didn't go to music school, so I've kind of learned everything from being in other people's bands. I feel like just simple enthusiasm is sort of the only way that people learn things. Like, I was totally unaware of what my voice sounded like, even, until Dave Mihaly picked at me to sing. And, I wasn't even aware of what my violin playing sounded like 'til I played with other people. So much music only has context in playing with other people.
Does playing with other people allow you to hear what you're doing with another set of ears?
I would say, strictly, to the answer of your question, is no. The thing about playing music, period -- and it's especially the thing about playing with other songwriters -- if you learn the value of not thinking, you learn the value of just being able to respond without mentality. And, that's almost impossible to describe, but it's so exciting. And, I always find that to be true: the less that you're thinking as a player, the more perceptive you are.
As a songwriter, are you thinking of it as you go along, or do you just go with it, and come back to it and analyze it afterward?
I write in my head. I don't write with an instrument. I don't really understand the construct that you're coming out of with your question, because it just seems it's a lot more complicated than my experience.
That's different than the way it works for most musicians with whom I've spoken, where a melody is picked out on a guitar. What's the process like, coming up with something strictly in your head, rather than at an instrument?
Sometimes, it's just like I hear the song in my head, and then I just go get it down on paper or sing it or something. Sometimes, it's just that complete, and other times, I'm trying to refer to a feeling or an idea, and try to depict a feeling, musically.
It's fascinating -- these songs springing fully-formed, rather than this being a piecemeal process.
Yeah, I find that's such a true way -- if you start with the idea, first, and then let the idea teach you how the song is supposed to go, you're not stuck to your own limitations as a musician. You can imagine it first, completely independent of your limitations.
So, rather than tackle it based on chord progressions or instrumentation available to you at the time, you compose the entire instrumentation in your head?
The feeling is more like it, and then you look at what the capabilities are. You say, "Oh, I've got these musicians. How can I use these musicians to accomplish what's necessary for the song?"
When you say "feeling," is that a sonic feeling, emotional feeling, or some combination thereof?
The music is just a tool of the feeling. The music is just some big arrows that point in the direction of the feeling. The song doesn't necessarily evoke. Evocation is none of my business. Something is going to happen in every listener that has nothing to do with me. All I can do is point in the direction of my experience and have the music try and tell my experience. And, it seems to me, the more expressly I'm able to do that, the more capable the music is of being useful for anyone else, in terms of being able to take them somewhere, or them being able to be inspired by their own experience through the music. Basically, so that it's useful.