By David Chiu
Jolie Holland’s music is steeped in haunting American Gothic imagery. References to moonshine, honeysuckle vines, back roads, weeds and mockingbirds seem both as literary and cinematic as they are Southern in character. Those images are further conveyed with her bittersweet gin-soaked amalgam of folk, jazz and blues.
The 31-year-old singer describes her songwriting as mythical. “The use of symbols and kind of like broad strokes to mean a lot of different things—like that’s how I mean mythical,” she explains.
Holland’s subdued tales of melancholy, heartbreak and joy with romantic underpinnings can be heard on her recent third album, Springtime Can Kill You. The songs here sound as dreamy as they are lovelorn. The title track itself reveals a sort of irony about what we usually think of spring—as a time of rebirth and renewal. “The expectation in everything around you, everything is so beautiful,” she says. “A heartache at that time is just horrible. It’s just, like, extra horrible.”
Her distinctive jazz- and blues-inflected croon has been compared to Billie Holiday and Bessie Smith, although she admits to being more inspired vocally by a legendary bluesman. “I never had any [voice] lessons,” says Holland. “If you listened to Blind Willie McTell you might hear how I got my voice. Blind Willie McTell is the guy that I’m actually trying to sound like.”
Holland recorded Springtime Can Kill You in San Francisco backed by a cast of talented musicians. “On this record,” she says, “I just got pretty much all my favorite players in San Francisco to be on there. Everybody on there is somebody I deeply admired and respect.”
A native of Houston, Holland knew she wanted to become a songwriter since she was a child. By her teens, she was into punk rock, The Pogues and the Texas-based band Twang Twang Shock-A-Boom. “They really steered me into the direction that I am going now,” she says of the latter group. “Their lead guy [David Garza] went on to do a solo thing. I love what he does. I want to work with him somehow.”
Holland, whose previous albums include Catalpa (2003) and Escondida (2004), has also appeared on Bad Religion singer Greg Graffin’s recent solo effort, Cold as the Clay. Before she embarked on a solo career, Holland was a former member of the group the Be Good Tanyas (the lovely “Mexican Blue” from Springtime Can Kill You is dedicated to Be Good Tanyas member Samantha Parton). Since then, Holland has drawn raves for her music, most notably from Tom Waits, who nominated her for the Shortlist Music Prize in 2003.
When asked if she was a hopeless romantic, Holland responds that she has a really bad and unrequited crush at the moment, which she finds painful. But then she quickly follows that with, “It’s so good for you to be in love at the same time.”