You Need A Song When You’re Sad: An Interview with Jolie Holland

Jolie Holland is an American musician and songwriter. Formerly a member of The Be Good Tanyas, her recent albums include Catalpa, Escondida, Springtime Can Kill You, the Living and the Dead, and, most recently, Pint of Blood. You can find her here and here.


UFR: I’ve read in several places that you’re a big fan of musicians such as Will Oldham and Tom Waits. What in particular do you like about their music?


Jolie Holland: Waits is a genius syncretist, like Dante. He hung the fucking moon and the stars. I love him.

Will Oldham is a great songwriter and performer. I’m not signed up with all his material, but his work that moves me is perfectly indispensible.


UFR: Your most recent album, Pint of Blood, is really great. Can you talk about it a little bit?


Holland: Aw, thanks. I wanted everything as live as possible. That’s not new for me, but having rock material performed live with the drums, voice, and everything live was new. The Living and the Dead was made on two coasts with a lot of different musicians. Pint of Blood was all made in New York with just 3 musicians: Grey Gersten, Shahzad Ismaily and I. There’s only one guest on one song — the great Marc Ribot on “The Devil’s Sake.”


UFR: Something so distinct about your music, I think, is that which goes along with the music: the words. In another interview, when you were asked about your songs, you said, “They all mean something… But unless the listener has gone through the same thing it can still be secret. You can explain it to them in detail and it will still be a secret.” What do you mean by that?


Holland: One of my best friends said something to me the night we first met, that took me ten years to understand. Even simple-things statements can be completely mysterious, if you have nowhere to put them. Most people don’t really expect The Truth in song lyrics, so I know I can say heavy stuff that goes perfectly under most people’s radar, like a super crass joke in a Marx Brother’s movie. It wasn’t obscene cause the kids wouldn’t understand it.

I like other people’s lyrics that function for me as guideposts. Blind Willie MacTell’s lyrics have taught me so much about life and love.

I love this line of Sleepy John Estes’: “When I went to pack my leaving trunk, I never saw no whiskey — the blues made me sloppy drunk.” It rhymes like a nursery song, and it’s so simple, but it tells the truth about how totally fucked up and disoriented you can feel when you know you have to leave. It’s a human line that goes out to the people who are going to understand.

I’m not scared to tell the truth of certain experiences in my songs, cause there’s a real privacy in being straightforward.


UFR: A real strength of yours, I think, is your fearlessness. Through your music, you appear confident in looking at life honestly, as you talk about life’s darkness just as much as its light. What draws you to discussing topics such as death, loneliness, sadness and even madness?


Holland: All applicable, important subjects to the people I’m really writing for: my friends and myself. You need a song when you’re sad, when your people leave you, and when your friends lose their fucking minds.


UFR: A simple, yet big question: Why do you write?


Holland: I just came out of a phase where I wasn’t writing songs. I had a badly broken heart, maybe the only real broken heart I’ve ever had. Cried almost every day for a year. And I didn’t want to write anything about it. I didn’t want to do that to myself. I didn’t want to ever have to bring any of that on stage. Lots of songs came knocking and I just turned out the lights, pretended that nobody was home. Funny thing was, a lot of them kept knocking. That experience taught me a lot about the resiliency of even unwritten songs.

During that period, I asked my friends why they wrote songs. My favorite answer came from Michael Hurley, who answered, “Can’t help it.”

Now that I’m back writing songs, it kinda’ feels like that. What do you say? I’ve been doing it since I was six years old.


UFR: I’m wondering about your writing process. What does it look like? When you’re first drafting a song, are you concerned with both the text and the song itself? How do you negotiate between the two?


Holland: The words and music usually show up at exactly the same time… But there’s the trick of knowing when to separate pieces of songs and turn them into their own songs… Also the trick of getting the verses that didn’t just show up and knock on the door to go with the verses that you’ve made to accompany them. My favorite songs I’ve written have a really crystalline structure, where each verse relates internally with the verses that are written the same ways. “Palmyra” is like that: “Cold hard world” mirrors “old ninth ward” even though those phrases are distant from one another: their symmetry is not necessary for an immediate rhyme. Words themselves determine the rhythm of the song.

I’m usually doing something completely unrelated to songwriting when a song shows up…like cleaning the house, or walking down the street. I don’t ever sit down with an instrument and try to write…unless I’m hired to write for a movie, and even then, the songs often just show up while I’m out on the street. I wrote “You Painted Yourself In” in an airport, with flight attendants giving me dirty looks. I wrote “Crush in the Ghetto” at a bus stop.

I also collect ideas about structure for a really long time in case they might someday become useful…like making birdhouses and setting them up in your yard, not ever knowing what kind of bird might want to live there, or if the birds will completely ignore it… I’ve held onto some structural ideas for ten years before the right song flew into it. “Sweet Loving Man” was like that. I had this idea of a shape, like a circle with an empty center. I wanted it to be a narrative song, like only the sorts of words that people would say to each other under normal circumstances, not poetic language at all… just people talking to each other so intimately that they never bother to even really state the subject. Someone overhearing the conversation wouldn’t get a sense of what they were really talking about. I had this structure all thought out, and when the song showed up, I was actually just backstage getting ready to play a show. I didn’t even sit down to write the song. I just wrote down a verse here and there. It took me about fifteen minutes. All the words relate to something that was going on between a friend and me at the time, so there was nothing to ‘make up.’ That’s another great thing about telling the truth. It makes the writing really simple and useful to yourself. We played the song on stage that night!


UFR: I’m thinking about your cover of “Delia” and I know you didn’t write the song, but it seems like you could have. I mean that because you deliver it in a way that seems distinctly yours, as you do all of your music. Also like your music, the song tells a sort of story. As a musician do you consider yourself a storyteller?


Holland: Thank you. That’s good and useful feedback. Blind Willie MacTell can sing an old chestnut of a gospel song, but you believe he wrote it. Most of my (deceased) ‘teachers’ do that sort of thing. Nobody’s ever told me I do that too.


UFR: Do you think you’ve “made it”? For anyone trying to “make it” in the world of music, what advice would you give them? Have you done anything that you look back on and wish you did differently?


Holland: The successes that really mean something to me involve whether the music I make is important to the people I love. I know that’s true. And then, a great many artists whose work I admire have come out of the woodwork to let me know they appreciate what I’m doing. I could die right now quite happy, knowing that Bob Dylan played my songs on his radio show, and even said my name. Michael Hurley, one of my favorite songwriters in the universe, has said some very sweet things to me. The first time Johnny Depp heard me sing, he was reportedly totally into it. Tom Waits and Kathleen Brennan’s support mean the world to me. Marc Ribot, one of my favorite musicians on the planet, said some very kind things about my songwriting. Mavis Staples, Queen of my heart, and in my opinion, the greatest singer in America, said some terribly kind things about my singing. Grey Gersten and I once played two songs at a party that Lou Reed was at, and he complimented us for about ten minutes straight till I was afraid my face was going to fall off. Many other people whose work I completely adore have been very supportive to me. Try to put this all into the context that I was a homeless teenager who never had music lessons. The highs have been incredibly high, and the lows very low. It’s been hard to understand, with where I came from.

All that love means a hell of a lot. I’m gonna’ die happy, but I can’t take any of that to the bank.

Unfortunately, I don’t know if I have any words of wisdom for anybody. When I decided to be a professional artist in America, I made a pact. I thought of all the great American artists who died in the gutter, and I said, hey — I’m throwing my bindle in with y’all. Zora Neale Hurston, Blind Willie Johnson, Poe, and Stephan Foster, among many, many others. Nick Tosches goes on a beautiful rant in his book, In The Hand of Dante, talking about how artists don’t get paid hourly, daily, weekly, monthly or annually. They get paid posthumously.


UFR: As a songwriter and musician, what’s been your biggest obstacle?


Holland: Paying the rent.



UFR: What are you currently listening to?


Holland: The Plastic Ono Band, Exile on Main Street, The new Waits record, Marc Ribot’s record Silent Movies and my friends’ bands, mostly unreleased records — Amy Annelle, Stefan Jecusco, and Gill Landry.


UFR: Do you have any interests or hobbies outside of music?


Holland: I was just remembering something one of my close collaborators said today — Grey Gersten recently thought out loud that I am not defined by what I do as a musician. That’s something my friends know, but I wouldn’t expect other people to get that impression.

I’m writing a book of first hand accounts of ghost sightings, and then essays about all the correlations between different people’s experiences. My friend Carey Lamprecht, the great violinist, visual artist, and civil rights activist is illustrating some of the stories. Some of the images and stories will relate in a graphic novel sort of a way. I’ve been collecting firsthand ghost stories for fifteen years. Another one of my best friends is a Dr. of Divinity from Harvard, whose mother was a painter and a mystic. A lot of his and his mother’s ideas are incorporated into the book.

I’m also a pretty serious cook, with a focus on the scientific angles of Dr. Ray Peat and Dr. Lita Lee.


UFR: Finally, a question I’m always trying to answer: If you had to choose between the Stones’ Exile on Main St. and Dylan’s Blood on the Tracks, could you?


Holland: I’ve never listened to Blood on the Tracks as a record, although maybe I know some songs off of it. Funny you mentioned Exile on Main Street. I brought it up earlier too. Rolling Stone magazine kicked it to shit in the original review. That’s always good for a laugh.


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