Texas-born troubadour Jolie Holland possesses a singular voice, one steeped in America's darker musical traditions. Her old-timey creations run the gamut from aching jazz to stark, Southern Gothic ballads. Holland's elastic vocals sound like Billie Holiday recast as a vintage country heroine. But what would be precocious in lesser performers is in Holland hauntingly original.
Don't believe it? One of her highest-profile fans is carnival barker-barroom crooner Tom Waits, with whom she shares a label, the Epitaph Records offshoot Anti.
A self-taught singer and fiddle, piano and guitar player, Holland is comfortable in a variety of styles. She's also a willing traveler, crisscrossing the country to bring her unearthly tunes to eager fans -- this week, she'll give an intimate performance at the Higher Ground Showcase Lounge.
Although she currently professes to homelessness, Holland usually resides in San Francisco, where she moved in 1996 after several years of bohemian drifting. By that time she was already a seasoned musician. "I played my first show at 15, but I started writing songs when I was ridiculously young, like 6," she says.
Now 30, Holland has had a lifelong love affair with antiquated art. "I was the kind of kid who'd get crushes on dead poets," she relates. "I'd read a bunch of Dylan Thomas and literally swoon. For some reason, I was just wired that way. I could never understand when my mom and my sister were like, 'Oh, so-and-so is so cute!' I was like, 'It's just some guy on TV -- who gives a shit?'"
By her early twenties, Holland had chosen her career path. "Basically, I realized I was fucking up music stuff in order to be a waitress. It was time to sink or swim." She skipped college and hit the road, quickly adjusting to being a vagabond. "I'm so existential about it," she says. "But I must have some predilection to [the lifestyle], if I can say that."
From her home base San Francisco, Holland ventured to Vancouver, British Columbia, and founded the Americana crossovers Be Good Tanyas. She penned much of their debut, Blue Horse, but had already split by the time of its release in 2001. Her departure was the result of competing visions for the group. "I wanted the band to run as a collective, but nobody else did," she says. "I just got tired of the lack of process."
Holland's 2003 solo debut, Catalpa, wasn't intended to be an official album. A collection of homemade demos, it was originally sold to friends and at gigs. But the buzz grew, and soon she was receiving airplay from as far away as New York. Eventually, the tunes caught the attention of Anti, who re-released them, warts and all. Although the recordings are raw, Holland wasn't surprised by the attention they received. "The songs are just really sincere," she says. "They're straight out of my life. Maybe people just needed something like that around."
Its follow-up, Escondida, in 2004 was a more traditional studio outing. The tunes have heart, but Holland isn't completely satisfied with the end result. "There's some stuff I like, but I think it's too stiff," she says. "I sound scared on it, really small. And that's not how I sound live."
Her latest disc, Springtime Can Kill You, was released this year. The sessions were more off-the-cuff, with several cuts recorded before a small audience of friends. Lyrically, the album paints spring as a time of both renewal and unrest. "Springtime, springtime can kill you / Just like it did poor me," Holland sings on its arresting title track.
Springtime strikes an uneasy balance between elation and anguish. Scenes of heartache and infidelity are offset by references to blooming flowers and chirping birds. In "Adieu False Heart," the songwriter contemplates her own demise: "When I lay down to take my rest / No scornful one to wake me / I'll go straightaway unto my grave / Just as fast as time can take me," she bluely intones.
Holland wrote the tunes while making a futile attempt to settle down. "Every word and every metaphor on this record is true," she explains. "I was trying to honor my Texas housewife ancestors, but it's just not appropriate for me. I was living in a very masochistic way -- the kind of masochism that's socially acceptable for women." Springtime ably showcases her angst.
But Holland doesn't believe emotional extremes are necessary to be creative. "I'm trying to challenge the idea that I have to be going through something painful or ridiculously ecstatic to write," she says.
Still, many of her compositions evoke a kind of desperate living, where uncertainty lurks at every corner. And in some ways, it does. Despite her recent critical acclaim, not much has changed for Holland. "There's a lot of shit to keep me humble," she says. "I don't live anywhere, and I've been wearing the same outfit for two days. And when we go on tour, I have to pay for everything. So, yeah, there probably is more money, but I don't actually see it."
Her rewards often come in the form of peer recognition. Immediately following our conversation, Holland is to leave for L.A., for a recording session with another supporter -- celebrated songwriter Lucinda Williams. She's also friendly with Vermont's reclusive folk hero Michael Hurley. "I was just a fan," Holland says of Hurley, "and I sent him a fan letter. Later I found out we had some friends in common. I'd really love to work with him, but I don't want to jinx it."
When asked about the Tom Waits connection, Holland serves up a surprising revelation. "I haven't actually met him," she says. "He's sort of like my fairy godfather. He's a fan with a big name. But it means so much to me because I've always loved his music."
Holland was recently mentioned in a New York Times article about America's burgeoning "freak-folk" movement. "I didn't read it, because it didn't make any sense," she confesses. She has a point. Although her music is often acoustic, Holland has little in common with wild-eyed Aquarians such as Devendra Banhart. But she doesn't pooh-pooh the free publicity. "I appreciate my face being on the fucking cover of the Arts & Entertainment section," she says. "I called all my New York friends and they were so happy."
Holland doesn't spend much time worrying about fitting into a ready-made group of artists. "It would be nice to belong to a 'scene,'" she says. "Actually, I think I have one. It's just that a bunch of 'em are dead."
Holland's music may conjure ghosts, but its creator is very much alive. And rambling on. "The label bet on me, and it turns out I'm a pretty good racehorse," she says. "So I just stay on the road and keep running."