To listen to Jolie Holland’s new album, Escondida (Anti/Epitaph), and its predecessor Catalpa, is to be caught up in the rapid-eye movements of a blissful, surreal, folk-noir, freeform (some would call it entropic) dream. But you’re awake, so it’s more like the essence of heavy-lidded late-night conversations with friends and oneself. Off-the-cuff and uninhibited (you know how you’ll do anything during these times), surreal (because you’re half asleep), real (because you’re not, really) and veiled, as one tends to feel during these times.
You’d think such a dreamy, masterfully woven effect would be born out of lofty, highly conceptual forethought, artistic conceit. But Holland is miles from that—more the girl who can build a treehouse from whatever happens to be lying around.
“We had a so-called practice,” she says, “and I played the drums. I know f—k-all about playing drums.”
But these things don’t stop Jolie Holland. The Texas native truly marches to her own drum. Although a co-founder of Canadian roots-music darlings The Be Good Tanyas, she split just as the band was breaking. “I’m still friends with them, but it was just too many songwriters for me. I was writing all these songs, and I knew we’d never get around to playing them.”
So while the BGTs were garnering raves for their first album, Blue Horse (on which Holland co-wrote “The Littlest Birds”), she created Catalpa, a devastatingly charming bottle of old-timey musical reveries. Much of that album was improvised, as her band—jazzers, all—eschews practice, holding spontaneity at a premium over structure. It beguiled critics and fans alike, as will Escondida, since it was made the same way, and from many of the same sessions.
“I try to just let songs come naturally, out of experiences,” she says, pointing to “Amen,” one of Escondida’s many standout tracks, and the one that came out of that “so-called practice,” her dalliance with the drums. As she describes it, she felt her way around Dave Mihaly’s drum kit while Mihaly sat at her piano playing to the memory of a dream. “[As he played] I’d sing about dreams ... totally just making up stuff and playing around.” Neighbor (and Catalpa producer) Chris Arnold joined the pair and they played through the wee hours. “We were totally acting like kids,” Holland muses.
She wrote lyrics for the song as she walked home that night. It took “like, two seconds,” she says. “It just came to me, the whole melodic structure, and I live five houses away, so I sat down at the piano and wrote a verse and a chorus, then went to sleep and had a great dream. I woke up and finished the song.”
She’s quick to shoo away any ideas of genius: “I’m not a super-genius,” she protests. “I can’t write 12 songs in an hour.” Yet most of the songs on Escondida were written during the same two-year period that spawned the Catalpa tracks. That’s still a stunning output; she sees this and relents, somewhat.
“I do write most of my songs in 15 minutes or less, but sometimes one needs refining. But I also like really self-contained, spherical songs, like haikus—so it’s hard to, you know, add on to something like that.”
You can judge Holland’s talent for yourself when she appears this Thursday at Halo, and perhaps hear her play her new violin, itself a happy accident. Her grandfather, when he passed, left her the back of a violin and an instrument-dealer friend of Holland’s told her it was an extremely nice piece of wood, that it deserved a master’s touch—a $20,000 to $30,000 job. He recommended respected Salt Lake City violinmaker Paul White, but Holland happened to meet Salt Lake’s other master violinmaker, Gary Vessel, first. She showed him the wood and he raved.
“He said it’s one of most amazing pieces of Oregon maple he’d ever seen, and after he thought about it for two seconds he said, ‘I’m gonna make you a violin.’ He did it for free, but part of the deal is I have to play in Salt Lake City to get it.
Jolie Holland, Halo 60 E. 800 South Thurday July 22 9:30p.m.