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Between gods and mortals: An interview with Jolie Holland

by Ryan Snyder

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It’s not at all surprising to listen to Jolie Holland’s music and find out she has relatively obscure influences; then again, you could also look at the label that she calls home and know that ANTIdoesn’t stock generic brands. With artists like Tom Waits, Mose Allison and Mavis Staples on their roster, Holland stands among the ineffable, the indefinable and the transcendent, and yet her fluttery, affective voice absolutely sounds at home. In a steady state of evolution from her dusty Americana origins of Catalpa to her beatitudinal The Living and the Dead, Holland has proven to be a little too twangy to be called jazz and too eccentric for pop, yet she’s carved out a sound that has moved beyond such conventional descriptions altogether.

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Y!W: It’s been a couple of years since your last album. What are you working on these days?

JH: In the next few months, I will actually have three albums completed by the end of the year, along with a book I have coming out.

Y!W: Fiction or nonfiction?

JH: It’s nonfiction, a narrative cookbook inspired by If I Can Cook/ You Know God Can by Ntozake Shange, which is so fun. It’s like this historical cookbook from a black political perspective. She talks about things like when Toussaint L’Overture’s forces threw Napolean out of Haiti, what did they have for their victory dinner, and then teaching her daughter how to cook it. Then she goes on about all the annoying bullshit about black people and watermelon before she goes on to talk about how to grow a really good watermelon.

Y!W: What’s your own angle going to be?

JH: I’m a real nutrition nerd and have been studying all this epicurean nutrition. It was piqued by my nutritionist, who says she accidentally cured someone’s vision. I’m super into that kind of thing. I cook like that, and I’m really into the historical element of it. People tell me that when they come to my dinner parties that they notice they feel really good the next day.

Y!W: I heard somewhere that you like to make music also.

JH: Yeah, there are three records I will have made by the end of the year, one of them is a live rock record with my rock band recorded in studio and the other is just new songs of mine. I have two bands right now, one is the West Coast band called the Hunting Party. The other is the New York band, which is made of people who are constantly getting hired by huge stars… people like Iggy Pop and Yoko Ono. I really can’t afford to take them on the road right now, but maybe one day. That band is Shahzad Ismaily and Grey Gersten, and sometimes Jim White, who just has a gorgeous sound. Kyp Malone from TV on the Radio sometimes sings backup. The other record is just me and Grey Gersten, my best friend, who is a super awesome guitar player. He comes out of the experimental world, but has a great understanding of the blues.

Y!W: What’s this one going to be about?

JH: We’re going to do a duo record and cover the songs of Michael Hurley. Have you heard of him?

Y!W: The name rings a bell. Can you give me a refresher?

JH: He’s as old as Dylan and has put out so many albums, but a lot of people aren’t aware of him. He’s a syncretist like Dylan, like both have a real good handle on a broad range of American music, but when they perform it, it really just sounds like them. They both are really able to put everything together in a really seamless, sincere and artistic way.

Y!W: Those same values are kind of reflected in your own music.

JH: Right after Catalpa and right before Escondida I was exposed to Michael’s music. This is a man who’s had a 40-, 50-year career and there are two songs that I’m not crazy about. You know, I love Townes Van Zandt and I love some things he’s done, but Michael just does it for me and I’m very grateful for his work. There’s a song on Escondida that was the first song I wrote after I fell in love with Michael Hurley called “Amen,” and I’ll probably work out a version to play on the road with Mavis because it’s a real appropriate song to play.

Y!W: Mavis is going to be incredible, isn’t she?

JH: She is so magic, she’s my favorite singer in the universe. For me it goes so far past her voice, it’s her spirit as well. She’s so moving that to me she’s more than just a singer.

Y!W: You share a label with a few people that fit that description.

What’s Tom Waits like?

JH: I wish I knew, I’ve never met him. I hear through people that he and Kathleen Brennan enjoy my stuff, which is flattering.

Y!W: So no confirmation that he exists in the corporeal sense? JH: You mean like he’s just an angel who has descended from heaven? Y!W: Somewhat.

Jolie Holland will open for Mavis Staples at the Hanesbrand Theatre on Saturday.

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