Summoning Ghosts

Jolie Holland's stunning voice brings back Americana

An awful lot has changed for Jolie Holland since she last performed in Tucson. In May 2003, the San Francisco-based singer-songwriter spent a few days in town, performing for tiny but appreciative audiences at the Red Room at Grill, and at Solar Culture. A co-founding, former member of alt-country-folk darlings the Be Good Tanyas, Holland was looking to establish a fan base of her own, a few fans at a time. The sheer singularity of her talent, coupled with support from a few friends in high places, would soon enable her to surpass those modest ambitions.

The previous year, she had self-released her first solo album, Catalpa--a haunted collection of demos that was lo-fi in the best way, like a dusty but great 78 with a history. Catalpa is the kind of record that feels as if you're hearing something private, something not really meant for ears beyond its maker. Its songs don't sound rooted in any particular time or place; instead, they're bizarre amalgams of every shred of Americana that preceded them. But through the murky recording and the craft of the songs, there was one thing that stood out above all: that voice.

Jesus, that voice.

Like the spare, understated music that accompanies it, Holland's voice is evocative of fin-de-siecle Americana while remaining original and modern. Her voice, with hints of a Texas upbringing in her charming accent, is often compared to Billie Holiday's. In fact, she doesn't sound much like Holiday--the comparisons are more likely due to their shared gift for unique phrasing. On Catalpa's "All the Morning Birds," when she sings "all the highways will be saayyed," she means "sad," and the forlorn quality of her voice shows how deeply she feels it. During the song, Holland coughs, a gesture that, were it employed by a certain species of mid-'90s low-fi rocker, could be taken as a disingenuously self-conscious tack. Holland, however, withstands any scrutiny of her authenticity.

I compared her to other modern traditionalists like Cat Power's Chan Marshall and Michelle Shocked in these pages in 2003, and was mighty humbled when I heard a radio interview in which Holland confessed that she was flattered by such comparisons, even though she had never actually heard Cat Power's music. She instead mentioned how much Blind Willie McTell--rather than any modern performer--had been an influence. In that aforementioned blurb, I also mentioned Harry Smith's Anthology of Folk Music, which in retrospect seems far more apt a reference point than any contemporary that might come to mind. Whether she's summoning the ghosts of the Appalachian mountains, the back-porch players whose names will never be recovered, or her beloved Delta blues practitioners--Mississippi Fred McDowell and Skip James among them--she is, as much as anyone today, embodying the conceptual basis of the ballads, hymns and blues, the country and the folk that was dubbed the "old, weird America" by Greil Marcus when writing about Smith's Anthology of Folk Music.

In an unexpectedly propitious turn, Catalpa found its way into the right hands: Tom Waits nominated it for the Mercury Prize; Nick Cave came backstage after one of Holland's performances and planted a kiss on her face out of appreciation. Not quite coincidentally, within months, Anti-Records--a subsidiary of Epitaph, which counts among its roster Waits, Cave, Merle Haggard, recent signee Neko Case, and which will release the posthumous From a Basement on a Hill, by Elliott Smith--had released Catalpa as it was originally recorded, and signed Holland to record what became Escondida, which was released earlier this year.

Owing to its sonic clarity, Escondida is even more traditional than its predecessor in many ways. It's also far better. The songs follow the path of Holland's blues heroes more faithfully, adhering to a certain set of traditions while still retaining the qualities that made her special in the first place. It's a set of songs mostly about love, which is only occasionally broken up by, say, a song whose narrator begs for morphine to kill her pain because "it was good enough for my grandpa." Hell, it's all pain; it's just how we choose to medicate it.

Holland bravely faces that pain head-on, with viscerally palpable results. The end product is simultaneously, convincingly, devastating and beautiful.

Trust me, and go see her this week. When the diminutive Holland sings, "The littlest birds sing the prettiest songs," you won't argue.

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