Best known for a low-fi, woodsy sound, Jolie Holland is about to rock—and she salutes herself. "I really love my new band. I was kind of in rock bands when I was a teenager, but I never fronted [one] before. It's super exciting," Holland says by phone from rehearsals in Portland, Ore. Her voice bubbles with enthusiasm, as yet unaltered by a recent move from San Francisco to Brooklyn. The tour in support of her latest album, The Living and the Dead, includes an Oct. 15 stop at Bimbo's.
Catalpa, a series of home recordings that became Holland's first release in 2003, was nominated by Tom Waits for a Shortlist Music Prize. But the jazz- and folk-inflected singer-songwriter has rediscovered rock and roll in an unconventional way, by becoming inspired by Daniel Johnston, the artist with bipolar disorder featured in the 2006 documentary The Devil and Daniel Johnston.
When Holland admitted that she'd never heard music by the prolific and troubled Johnston—who has a penchant for writing simple, heartfelt rock tunes about ghosts, superheroes and unrequited love—a musician friend acted as though it was a "medical emergency." He quickly sent her a mix tape of Johnston's best songs. It changed Holland's life.
"The tape stopped and I just started writing," Holland says. "Fifteen minutes later, I had a song. It really changed the whole direction of my writing. I was going to put that on the record, but it was personal. It's called 'Feminist Response to Daniel Johnston.'"
While that song didn't make it on to the album, "Sweet Loving Man," an old-school country paean to the difficulties of love, did. "'Sweet Loving Man' was really influenced by a Memphis Minnie song that I love a lot," says Holland. "What I was trying to do was to have a conversational sort of song, where the center is missing. Where you don't really say exactly what you are talking about."
Like one of her heroes, the folktale collector and writer Zora Neale Hurston, Holland has made a career out of sampling vintage sounds, transforming them into something brilliantly new in the process. Since her time spent playing in Canadian traditional bluegrass band the Be Good Tanyas and through three previous, well-received albums (including Escondida, recorded at In the Pocket Studios in Forestville), Holland has grown progressively more confident in both her vocal stylings and her use of instruments beyond the guitar. The song production on The Living and the Dead makes use of everything from an ancient Mozzani harp guitar to bleeping robot sounds.
The new album also features appearances by Marc Ribot, who brings his signature Lounge Lizards guitar style to the mix, as well as M. Ward and drummer Rachel (Decemberists, Bright Eyes) Blumberg. With multi-instrumentalist Shahzad Ismaily handling much of the production work on the album, the resulting sound is brighter and more fully realized than Holland's previous efforts.
"Everybody is so amazingly good. Good in that sort of spiritual way," says Holland about the recording sessions that spanned four days in Portland and another two months in Brooklyn. "They understood that it's about vibe and it's not about perfectionism. It's about bringing the energy instead of bringing your music-school books."
Holland's distinctive voice has been compared to everyone from Billie Holiday to Cat Power to Blind Willie McTell. Sounding like a mixture of molasses and sandpaper, she tunnels through one word in the time it might take another singer to enunciate 10. As a result, the listener is invited to take in lyrics that might otherwise be obscured, including those on "Mexico City," the first track on the album.
Being a true storyteller, Holland winds down our conversation with the story of how she came to write "Mexico City," an exuberantly road-weary tune based on the story of Joan Vollmer, who was shot by her husband William S. Burroughs in 1951 during a drunken game of William Tell.
"I dreamt that I was Joan Vollmer and that I woke up in bed with William Burroughs. Years later, I told the story on a radio show," says Holland. "I was playing in Lawrence, Kan., and Burroughs' partner of 23 years, James Grauerholz, came up to me and said, 'Hi, I'm William Burroughs' wife. I heard about your dream.' Then he kissed me on the lips. Yeah, it was just too weird. I had to do something with it."
Jolie Holland performs on Wednesday, Oct. 15, at Bimbo's 365 Club in San Francisco. 'The Living and the Dead' is in stores this week.