With only a short time in the public eye, Texas-born singer-songwriter Jolie Holland has managed to seduce fans with a sound that seems to tap some collective musical subconscious, evoking the time-honored sounds of long-gone American musical legends. While her distinctive, sliding voice and jazz-infused arrangements often draw comparisons to Billie Holliday (with a Texas drawl), her neo-traditionalist folk sensibilities have put her in the class of singer-songwriters like Gillian Welch, Lucinda Williams, or long-gone Appalachian songsters. Holland's unexpected success was truly grassroots, with what was meant to be a private demo tape spreading around the world and becoming an underground favorite that led to the release of two commercial album releases.
Jolie Holland was born in the mid-1970s and and raised in Texas, the daughter of parents with Louisiana Creole roots. Without the benefit of a music teacher, she began experimenting with music at age six, when she started composing her own songs on a small toy piano. According to her official website biography, her first jab at lyrics came with a poem she wrote the following year. For two years in junior high, she was first chair viola; the limitations of the classroom, however, soon had her seeking her own musical frontiers. By her early teens, she was learning to incorporate the guitar (which she learned at age 14) and a pawnshop fiddle into her creations. By 16, she was performing her own songs in public. While a fan of [Pink Floyd founder] Syd Barrett and the punk group Screeching Weasel, she also found inspiration in the folk icon Woody Guthrie. In the blues she discovered a music that resonated with her Southern roots.
"It's hard to say that where somebody's from has that much to do with what they really sound like," she would later tell the music magazine One Way. "I'm from suburban Houston—it's like any suburb. [But] I think I have a real strong imprint from my grandparents' generation-Louisiana and East Texas. Leadbelly's from the same part of East Texas as my grandparents. They were proud of that."
Holland's musical exploration of the South would intensify in 1994, when, after high-school, she hit the road to travel the region with a sort of itinerant carnival of puppeteers, musicians, visual artists, and other creators. Finding her place in the art scenes of New Orleans and Austin, Texas, she became content with her decision to not go to college.
Moving west in 1996, Jolie found new musical acquaintances, all the while accentuating her Southern sound. Both in San Francisco and Vancouver, Canada, she lent her fiddle and backup voice to local bands. In Vancouver, she met fellow folk musicians Trish Klein and Samantha Parton, with whom she played in the neo-traditionalist group Be Good Tanyas. Holland was the band's original songwriter, contributing to the 2001 debut album Blue Horse. As the band grew and musical divergences became greater, however, Holland left the group.
Back in San Francisco, she began toying with the idea of compiling her disparate solo recordings onto an informal demo tape. Drawing on the musical accompaniment of her visiting friend and Be Good Tanyas co-founder Parton and handing the material to her friend and sound expert Chris Arnold, he returned to her an arrangement whose success would go beyond Holland's wildest expectations. First conceived as an indie CD to sell at concerts and to friends, the demand became greater and Holland hired people to make more copies. "By the time there were 40 copies out in the world, this guy I know who used to publish a magazine was offering me $30,000 for the rights to it," she told One Way. Realizing the growing demand for the CD, she began peddling it online. The music was soon heard on independent radio stations on both coasts, reaching the top 10 on New Jersey's free-form station WFMU (which is heard throughout the New York City area and online). While the music caught the ear of Sub Pop Records, it was finally re-released in 2003 on the Anti Records label as the CD Catalpa (named after a tree she saw in Texas). "The thing about Catalpa is that it's from five different sessions," she told the Chicago Tribune. Some of the songs were drunk recordings me and my friends did in the attic, and some of them I was dead sober and had just walked off a waitressing shift."
Holland's CD got an unexpected push after her debut album was heard by musician Tom Waits, who nominated her for the prestigious Shortlist prize in 2003. It was thus perhaps no surprise that one Chicago Tribune reviewer referred to her as "Norah Jones with some rough edges or, alternately, Tom Waits with many of his rough edges cleaned up."
The success of Catalpa was followed by the release of Escondida in 2004. "If you like your music sexy, slow, sleazy and a little bit weird then this is the album for you," stated the BBC. With clearly higher productions values than the lo-fi debut album, it got mixed reviews. The arrangements on Escondida were "clever" but unintrusive, stated the Phoenix New Times. "Although the tracks use marimba, musical saw, ukulele, sax and drums, the band remains in the background as Holland's pliable drawl pulls you into her slightly skewed visions of the world." The Washington Post was less kind, stating that Holland had "trouble singing on key" and failed "to compensate for her minimalist delivery with sturdy song structures. Her line lengths are uneven; her rhyming is only approximate."
Despite any differences of opinion, Holland clearly developed a growing fan base, with numerous sold-out concerts around the world. In 2004, she embarked upon nine months on the road, including three European and three North American tours, as well as tours of Australia and New Zealand. Throughout the first half of 2005, she headlined music clubs throughout the United States. She performed in July at the Montreal Jazz Festival and in August at the Pickathon Roots Music Festival in Ontario, Canada.
"Holland's music comes from the same fountain of Americana as the Band, Emmylou Harris, Tom Waits—a kind of noir, beatnik twist on time-honored musical traditions," stated the San Francisco Chronicle, "With her deeply personal, anti-showbiz style, Holland doesn't seem a likely candidate for VH-1 stardom. Her songs don't fit into ready-made modes of the music business and she is unconventional to the core. Her music sometimes tends toward a whole-wheat, PBS kind of gentility that is never going to play in a white-bread world. But people are going to find out about her."
For the Record …
Born c. 1975, in Houston, TX; daughter of parents with Louisiana Creole roots.
Peformed with itinerant artist group, 1994; co-founded music group Be Good Tanyas, contributing to album Blue Horse, 2001; informally produced demos that would be released officially as Catalpa, 2003; released Escondida, 2004.
Awards: Mercury Shortlist music prize nomination, 2003.
Addresses: Record company—Anti- Records, 2798 Sunset Blvd. Los Angeles, CA 90026, website: http://www.anti.com. Website—Jolie Holland Official Website: http://www.jolieholland.com.
Catalpa, Anti, 2003.
Escondida, Anti, 2004.
Chicago Tribune, January 26, 2005; March 27, 2005.
Phoenix New Times, May 6, 2004.
San Francisco Chronicle, September 20, 2004.
Washington Post, February 4, 2005.
Anti-Records website, http://www.anti.com (May 26, 2005).
BBC—Radio 2, http://www.bbc.co.uk/radio2 (May 26, 2005).
"Jolie Holland," All Music Guide, http://www.allmusic.com (May 26, 2005).
Jolie Holland Official Website: http://www.jolieholland.com (May 26, 2004).
One Way Magazine, http://www.onewaymagazine.com (May 23, 2005).
Shortlist Music Prize, http://www.shortlistofmusic.com (August 12, 2005).
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