JIM WELTE. Writer. Editor.

Jolie Holland: Pastoral Folk Musings and Old World Damage

By:  | published on September 17, 2008

Jolie Holland: photo by Kate KunathOn her latest effort, The Living and the Dead, a gifted singer-songwriter continues to grow, putting panic attacks and stress-induced illness behind her.

At last month’s Pickathon Roots Music Festival near Portland, Oregon, singer-songwriter Jolie Holland sported sunglasses throughout her nighttime performance.

But the choice of eyewear was no act of hipster vanity.

“You might think the sunglasses are pompous and ridiculous,” she told the crowd. “I do, too. But they’re kind of like my pony blinders. They keep me from freaking out. It’s nice to be playing for you all, but it’s scary.”

The audience didn’t know the half of it.

Holland, a supremely gifted singer, has established herself as a singular, visionary talent over the past decade. The Texas-born chanteuse, something of a nomad in her late teens, moved to Vancouver in the late ’90s and co-founded the female folk ensemble Be Good Tanyas before leaving the group abruptly in 2000 to pursue a solo career.

Her first solo album, 2003′s Catalpa, was full of raw homemade demos that revealed a remarkably sinuous voice and a beautifully literate lyrical style. None other than Tom Waits nominated Holland for the Shortlist Music Prize. The two records that followed, 2004′s Escondida and 2006′s Springtime Can Kill You, drew widespread acclaim as Holland carved out her own space within the fabric of haunting folk, sultry jazz, and early Delta blues.

Despite the praise, Holland established a disconcerting pattern in the course of making those records: She’d craft wonderful arrangements and poetic lyrics, and then let critique and self-doubt overwhelm her to the point that stress-induced sickness would engulf her for weeks afterward. The trend plagued her, making each record, each live performance, each media interview and photo shoot—almost every aspect of being a recording artist—an anxiety-laden ordeal.

But a funny thing happened after Holland finished recording her latest effort, The Living and the Dead, which hits stores October 7th via Anti- and features appearances by M. Ward and guitarist Marc Ribot, as well as her ex-Tanyas mate Samantha Parton: She didn’t get sick.

“It was more fun than the other albums I’ve made,” says Holland, 32. “But it was still super stressful. It wasn’t a picnic. It was grueling. Anytime there is that much responsibility with that much money involved and with really talented musicians involved, it’s super stressful for me. Making a record for me is always a harrowing, nail-biting experience.

“This was slightly less so,” she adds drolly.

Holland credits time and personal development in making this record a less traumatic affair. After living in San Francisco for seven years—her longest stint anywhere as an adult—she’s now a full-fledged Brooklynite. Whether it’s been natural or a product of close proximity to New Yorkers, Holland is becoming more comfortable with communicating arrangements and instructions to session musicians and studio hands.

“There is absolutely no school for that kind of shit. You just start getting it at some point,” she says.

But it has not been a solo journey. Holland says she has found a lifelong collaborator in Shahzad Ismaily, a 36-year-old, Pakistani-born, multi-instrumentalist who co-produced Living with her. The pair didn’t even know each other two years ago.

“Now he’s family,” Holland says.

Anti- initially resisted Holland’s choice of the largely unknown Ismaily as producer, instead going with Ward, who has earned a rock-solid reputation in recent years for his solo work and alongside Zooey Deschanel as She & Him. But the sessions didn’t progress well, and Ward, who produced one song on Living and appeared on two, eventually pulled out. Holland went back to Ismaily, who was already playing bass on some of the recordings, and the pair began working at Ismaily’s apartment in Brooklyn to finish the record.

Ismaily’s greatest strength was his ability to set Holland at ease when she was distraught, be it musically or personally. Parton calls Ismaily “a genius” and “the sweetest person that I think I have ever met in my life.”

The producer’s impact is most apparent on the album’s final cut, a cover of the late-1940s song “Enjoy Yourself (It’s Later Than You Think).” The appropriately titled track features Holland and Parton giggling their way through it.

“You try not laughing your ass off while Shahzad is doing some fucking weird Lawrence Welk impersonation,” Holland says. Parton adds that Ismaily’s impression also included “some sort of hand puppetry and he had a duck whistle.”

The track adds levity at the end of a record that is heavy at times, gloomy at others, and poetic throughout. Ismaily says his previous work with singer-songwriters had him prepared for anything, but that Holland’s combination of incredible talent and extreme self-doubt was astounding.

“I am extremely used to singer-songwriters being really uncomfortable in the recording studio,” says Ismaily, who helmed Carla Bozulich’s Evangelista in 2006. “But Jolie is probably the most uncomfortable in the recording studio out of any of the songwriters I have ever worked with. Some days I feel astonished that the record got finished at all.”

Holland would often get six bars or so into a track and stop, dissatisfied with herself. This went on for hours… even days.

“Meanwhile, everyone else in the room was hanging on her every word and thinking to themselves, ‘Wow, that photo courtesy of Jolie Hollandwas amazing. I can’t believe she is singing like that right in front of us. That was so beautiful, it’s a shame she stopped,’” Ismaily says. “It was miraculous whenever a full song was recorded to tape.”

Ismaily’s impact on Living, and Holland in general, was much more subtle than impersonations, puppetry, or whistles, however. Currently at work on a musical composition and literary project along with his partner Jenni Quilter at Headlands Center for the Arts just north of San Francisco, Ismaily says his success with Holland had everything to do with developing a real relationship with her.

“It’s not that there is a set arsenal of tools as a producer,” he says. “It ends up being more about friendship—how to make someone feel better if they are not in a good place.”

It helped that much of the recording was done in Ismaily’s apartment. When that didn’t work, they packed up all the gear and headed over to Holland’s flat. Walks around the neighborhood—some in silence, others packed with conversation—would help break the tension.

The walks, the conversations, and the goofy impersonations all eventually allowed Holland to get to a point where she was doing full takes pretty regularly. She even liked some of them.

In an ironic twist, Holland took musical inspiration for Living from someone who makes her own struggles seem paltry by comparison. Portland-based songwriter Stefan Jecusco introduced Holland to the music of Daniel Johnston, the Texas singer whose astounding songwriting gifts and lifelong battle with schizophrenia were the subject of the 2006 documentary, The Devil and Daniel Johnston.

“There’s no way that this record would be what it is if Stefan hadn’t introduced me to Daniel Johnston,” Holland says. “I just hadn’t really figured out how I could do it. But the emotional directness of Daniel’s songwriting, and his sincere and guileless approach to rock ‘n’ roll, was a huge inspiration for this record.”

Ward praised the move.

“She’s taking more risks and, in general, I think that’s a good thing,” the singer said in an email while on tour.

Inspired by Johnston, Holland takes a more direct lyrical approach on Living, particularly on the set’s third track, “Palmyra.” Backed by Ribot on electric guitar, Holland croons, “Only a few old petals left / On the rose that touched your hand / My little heart is a graveyard, it’s a no man’s land / You could tell I didn’t care / You kept pushing ’til I did / Woke up in a pit of despair on your bed / And I wonder how I could do without you / Absurd, how absurd.”

Parton praises her longtime friend’s ability to write lyrics that are both intense and timeless.

“It’s very poetic, but it doesn’t come across as contrived,” she says. “It’s not easy listening, but it’s not over your head.”

In addition to instrumental contributions from the likes of Ward and Ribot on guitar and Ismaily on bass, Holland also connected with ex-Decemberists/Norfolk & Western drummer Rachel Blumberg, a move that helped her transition to a more rock-oriented sound.

“I just didn’t have the band to do this record before now,” Holland says.

Now that she does, Holland is a whirlwind of musical endeavors, with countless ideas swirling around in her head.

There’s the album of cover songs by James T. Booker, the late “Piano Prince of New Orleans,” in collaboration with R&B legend and Booker’s near-nominal inverse, Booker T. Jones, with whom Holland recorded a cover of Louis Armstrong’s “What a Wonderful World” in 2007.

She’s also mulling the idea of a covers album of songs by Jecusco, whom Holland holds in the highest regard. Both Ismaily and Ribot have expressed interest in participating in that project. In September, Holland will hit the studio with Victoria Williams for an album produced by JC Hopkins, an old friend of Holland’s from her days in San Francisco.

photo courtesy of Jolie HollandAfter finishing Living, Holland briefly formed the Devil’s Questions, a choir with Parton and a handful of other artists, that was inspired by Wingless Angels, a 1975 choir record from former Kingston Trio member John Stewart and a bevy of friends.

“I would be honored to work on anything again with her in the future,” Ismaily says, noting that the pair has five additional songs in the can that didn’t make Living which could serve as the building blocks for a new record in 2009.

With her insistence that none of it has come easy and her Pickathon set as evidence, Holland’s evolution as an artist is far from complete. But many of her collaborators say that her confidence is catching up with her immense talent.

“I’m learning how to ride that horse,” Holland says. “I’ve gotten back up on it this many times and it actually does get easier. There is a place on the horizon where I won’t be a total freak.”

– See more at: http://www.crawdaddyarchive.com/index.php/2008/09/17/jolie-holland-pastoral-folk-musings-and-old-world-damage/2/#sthash.YkuSw4Wl.dpuf