Where Jolie Holland goes, acclaim follows. Since beginning her solo career in 2003, Holland has been nominated for the Short List Music Prize by Tom Waits; musicians as diverse as Sage Francis, Booker T. Jones, and Bad Religion’s Greg Graffin have sought her out to contribute to their recordings; and the reviews of her albums—from 2003’s Catalpa to last month’s Pint Of Blood—have all been fairly gushing. And rightfully so: Holland’s voice is a versatile, textured instrument that complements arrangements ranging from ’70s-style rock to experimental jazz to contemporary indie-folk. Before Holland is joined on the stage at Lamberts tonight, July 21 by her newly-christened backing band, The Grand Chandeliers, The A.V. Club caught up with her to talk about Neil Young, revisiting old songs, and her time in Austin.
The A.V. Club: Pint Of Blood is your first record credited to Jolie Holland And The Grand Chandeliers. Where does the band name come from?
Jolie Holland: The first Grand Chandeliers were my backup singers when I played one song at Carnegie Hall. That was [saxophonist] Colin Stetson, [singer-songwriter] Matt Bauer, and [TV On The Radio multi-instrumentalist] Kyp Malone. Like all good things, it just started out as a joke, and then it kind of turned into the name of my New York band. I’ve been playing with Shahzad Ismaily and Grey Gersten for several years now.
AVC: When did you play one song at Carnegie Hall?
JH: It was an R.E.M. tribute night and it was super amazing. Patti Smith was there, and I think most of R.E.M. was there. It was super fun, and I got to play my favorite R.E.M. song, because nobody had picked it yet—“Don’t Go Back To Rockville”—and my Portland band [The Hunting Party] and I recorded it.
AVC: Your bio says that Pint Of Blood was inspired by Neil Young’s Zuma. Was that something you had in mind when you were writing it, or did you see the connection after it was finished?
JH: I was really inspired by Neil Young over the past few years more than I have been before. Neil Young is such a beautiful, naïve writer. Most of my favorite writing involves almost photographic representations of feelings. Good haiku writing is that style, where it’s all about depicting the immediacy of an experience, and Neil Young is so beautiful that way. He really preserves this childlike, descriptive quality that I appreciate.
But I almost chose that record at random, except “Don’t Cry No Tears” is a killer song, and “Barstool Blues.” But the look of the album has a lot to do with Zuma. The handwritten liner notes, and the drawing on the cover.
AVC: What made you decide to revisit “Littlest Birds” for Pint Of Blood?
JH: I never had the band to record it properly. Unless you finish something the way you intended to do it, it’s always going to bother you. I play it all the time. I rewrote some of the words over the years, and I finally had the right band to be able to record it properly. There’s a lot of stuff that I would re-record. I never thought that the songs on Catalpa were a done deal. My feeling about music is that it really is about how the song is being performed in the moment. So I definitely see every song as a malleable entity.
AVC: What’s it like to take on a song like Townes Van Zandt’s “Rex’s Blues”?
JH: I’d sat with that song for so many years, and I’d heard it in so many different ways, to the point where that’s what I have to say about that song. I have a lot of different ways that I imagine performing that song. A song isn’t going to stay alive unless you keep playing it, and keep bringing new things to it, and keep feeling it. I think it’s a symbiotic and important process. I think about how Johnny Cash covered songs, and totally reinvented them, and how important that’s been for the culture. I think I have a similar, proper lack of taking a song too seriously, that you can’t get inside of it in a way that’s most personally sincere. I think to be overly ginger with a song is to disrespect it and to disrespect yourself.
AVC: You used to live in Austin, and on The Living And The Dead, the city kind of floats around the record. You mention it a few times in “Corrido Por Buddy,” and “Fox In Its Hole” is about squatting in the city. When you come through Austin now, does it still feel like the same city to you?
JH: Everywhere I go, I see the ghosts of my past experiences there. It’s interesting. I just look at the spots, and it’s like going back to any place you used to live. The places that I spent time at were so—it was such a non-commercial experience when I lived there. I think I never went into a bar and bought a drink. We would hang out at people’s houses, and then I would play music on the street. The areas that I spent time in were really close to [UT]. Those areas are constantly in flux, but they’re also pretty stable. The same kind of things are going to go on. The actual scenes that I remember are pretty similar.
JH: No, that’s not right. None of those were collaborations. That was me being hired to work for them.
AVC: What’s it like to get those sort of phone calls?
JH: It’s different every time. Chuck Ragan never paid me, and we didn’t talk about money, so that was a real bummer. I needed the money, so I was incredibly insulted. Working with Dave Dondero, he’s someone I admire and love, so that was great to get the call from him. Working with Greg Graffin was super cool. I appreciate that he wanted me to be on that record.
AVC: That’s a pretty eclectic group. Are your tastes that broad?
JH: Yeah, my tastes are broad. But those are all singer-songwriters, really, all those people. They’re all great songwriters, but I wouldn’t say that there’s any extreme breadth between any of those people. I find it interesting when people think that they know what kind of music I like, or what I listen to. People tell me all the time, “Oh, you’d love her!” They’re usually wrong. If anybody says that, it usually means they’re totally wrong. I don’t give a fuck. It’s just nonsense. It doesn’t make any sense to me.