For some, music is a natural instinct. But for Jolie Holland, the not-yet-30-year-old singer whose lilting voice lands her at Open End Gallery Saturday for an intimate concert, songwriting has become a way of life, thanks to relentless writing, constant touring, and a persistent personal manager.
Holland, a Texas native, left home at 17 to spend the bulk of her formative years on the road, and has since become a musical gypsy of sorts, first learning the guitar, and then piano, violin, and viola. And banjo. And ukulele. And tin whistle, and accordion. She rattles off these tools of her trade like they're standard practice, and as an afterthought throws in the fact that she's "pickin' up the coronet right now. It's kind of like singing." She explains, "The breathing's the same."
For Holland, breathing seems as effortless as her songcraft, emitted with a voice that's strong yet soft-spoken. Singing in a homegrown style which critics have likened to everyone from Billie Holiday to Chan Marshall (a.k.a. Cat Power), she defies comparison. Her melodies follow traditional folk song structures, yet evince traits more akin to jazz and blues.
"It's an honor," says Holland of common semblance to greats like Billie Holiday. "I've played in jazz groups for the past eight years, so it's totally appropriate."
But unlike Holiday, Holland's voice is not limited to ballads, nor is it terribly forlorn. On her debut, "Catalpa" (Anti-), the tracks--recorded in a friend's living room as demos--range from Appalachian-style blues to slow, somber waltzes, to three-chord ditties incorporating Syd Barrett-scribed lyrics. While Holland is often pigeonholed into the Triple-A (Adult Album Alternative) genre alongside the likes of Norah Jones, the singer's audience runs the gamut of the record buying public. Both "Catalpa" and this year's release, "Escondida" (Anti-), wind up on the shelves of National Public Radio-listening yuppies and indie rockers alike.
Part of her wide consumer appeal may be accredited to Holland's record label, Anti-, an imprint of the Los Angeles punk label Epitaph. Anti- signed Holland at a time when the label had no other female artists, and nearly all of its males--including Merle Haggard, Tom Waits and Solomon Burke--were legends in their own right. The label has widened Holland's appeal, but as the singer explains, her fans have been supportive since day one.
"I think that the breadth of the audience was already there before [Anti-] decided to work with me," says Holland, who now resides in San Francisco where she collaborates with several bands. "It is weird that I wrote these songs for my train-hopping friends, and then to see `Escondida' go up to number two on Amazon. I just I don't know." She stops, and utters a laugh. "I mean, that's weird."
But for some, Holland's music still brings to mind folk. A more general interest in San Francisco's burgeoning underground music scene is due to a recent so-called folk revival, led by peers like singer/guitarist Devendra Banhart and singer/harpist Joanna Newsom (signed to Young God and Drag City, respectively) with whom Holland is sometimes mistakenly grouped.
"I don't see [Holland] fitting into that," says Drag City sales and radio associate Zach Cowie, who managed this summer's double-billed Banhart/Newsom tour. "I feel that there are two--maybe even more--different sub-groups of this so-called revival. It's just the awareness; the general public is making it seem like a revival. Devendra and Joanna are way out there, way more freaky and experimental, and I feel like [Holland's music] is safer."
Lauren Viera is a Chicago freelance writer. Originally published July 28, 2004.