Jolie Holland's voice runs like a thread through her many and varied projects. On her new album, Pint of Blood, it's the voice of an old soul, an "indie-country queen" (as bowlegsmusic.com called her) full of bitter wisdom and complicated stories.
Holland's is also the voice of the wandering dusty roads and riding the rails. A native Texan and self-professed "compulsive wanderer" (her catalog attests with songs like "Wandering Angus" and "Goodbye California"), Holland has been based in Brooklyn for the past four years. But, she says, "I've moved almost every year that I've lived here. I have all these old suitcases that I keep my stuff in. I'm always ready to move."
Once one of the Be Good Tanyas, she penned "Littlest Birds," perhaps that band's best-known song. On Blood she revisits that song, but instead of an airy amble, it has a darkness and a weight. It has pedal steel, swagger and bite. Surely, years of near-constant motion have informed Holland's poetically cryptic lyrics, her low warble and her particular spin on Americana as filtered through traditions that span Appalachian folk and New Orleans jazz, Gullah roots and Texas country. "Songwriters echo each other like mockingbirds," she says. "You take one thing and you pass it on."
Holland lists her songwriting heroes as Townes Van Zandt, Willie Nelson and Daniel Johnston. (The latter is manic depressive; Holland she says she loves him but could never hang out with him. Again.) Holland's own life experience (or perhaps it's just her aesthetic) underscores her sound with a dark pang. "I love really revealing, devastating songs," she says. "After a while I started realizing that stuff is really painful to perform. With The Living and the Dead [from 2008] and this album, I was trying to write stuff that's more sociable."
The idea of a pint of blood, she says, has to do with a William Burroughs quote about how if you spend an hour with a person who makes you feel like you've been drained of plasma, that person is not your friend. "The pint of blood is about what you get back from really wonderful people," says Holland. "That kind of positive energy."
This doesn't mean that Holland no longer derives inspiration from the Van Zandts of the world. (Of the late Texas singer/songwriter she says, "he did not receive salvation through his work, but that doesn't mean we can't receive salvation through his work.”) Or the Johnstons. The possessed and dispossessed. "It's important to realize even if a person is a crazy person who you'd never want to be around, their music can be really good for you," she says. "I really think music is first and foremost about spirit."
Among the less-tortured influences, Holland counts the very much alive musician Michael Hurley. Of him, Holland says, "It's super-inspiring to be inside his songs. Just learning a few of his songs is an amazing education." With collaborator and tour-mate Grey Gersten, Holland is in the process of making an album covering Hurley’s songs.
Gersten is in Rain Machine, the side project of TV on the Radio's Kyp Malone; Malone and Holland toured together earlier this year. "I've always worked with people whose music was all over the place," says Holland. "I write these songs and I don't think of them as attempting to be timeless. It's all very fresh to me — I'm not taking on the trappings of what's considered 'of the moment.' I try not to be bullied by fashion in any sense." The cross-grenre collaborations don't seem like a stretch.
For example: "I realized a lot of rappers like my music," says Holland, who's long sang backup and played instruments in ensembles with hip-hop artists. Gersten tells Holland that because her writing has so much to do with condensation of meaning and rhythmic delivery, there's a natural confluence between her songs and the aims of rap performers. One of Holland's projects in the works (long term) is with Boots Riley of The Coup and Street Sweeper Social Club.
And then there's her work on film scores, an undertaking that seems to simultaneously thrill and depress Holland. "I don't know what the hell is going on," she says of one film that was supposed to be completed last summer. "I don't even think about it anymore." But she loves a single band or musician-scored film: Neil Young for Dead Man, Wu-Tang Clan for Ghost Dog, Cat Stevens for Harold and Maude. Holland's music has made it into films: She sang "Flood of Dreams" in King of California. Other songs don’t see the big screen: "June," on Blood, was originally intended for the score of that most recent (and likely curtailed) indie film.
"We're talking about Grey producing an album of mine where I mostly play solo and whether or not the movie happens, I'll probably use those songs," Holland says. "There were songs from the last record that were supposed to be in a movie, too, that lost its funding."
Lost funding seems a recurrent reality. "It's super scary sometimes," she says. Scary in an if-I-pay-so-and-so-back-I-can’t-pay-the-rent way. "But if you keep scaling down, it's possible. If you live in the country, it's possible." And there are breaks: the right connection, the right collaboration, the right songwriting credit on the right album.
"Every once in a while, something works out," says Holland. "Or maybe I'll just get a yurt and live in somebody's yard."
— Alli Marshall can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
who: Jolie Holland
what: Touring in support of new album Pint of Blood. David Dondero opens.
where: The Grey Eagle
when: Friday, July 29 (9 p.m., $12 advance/$15 day of show. thegreyeagle.com)