True 'Blood'

Folk singer Jolie Holland on David Bowie, Louis C.K. and the critics who've got her all wrong

Jolie Holland

with Sallie Ford & the Sound Outside
7:30 p.m. Tuesday, July 26
The Social,

Jolie Holland is pissed off. It’s July 6, the morning after Orlando was rocked by the Casey Anthony verdict, and although the 35-year-old folk singer is passionate about children’s rights, citing a specific interest in the Josef Fritzl case – an Austrian man who held his daughter captive in his basement for 24 years, fathering seven children with her in the process – and praises the work of attorney Andrew Vachss, who worked for years to close New York’s so-called incest loophole, she’s only passingly aware of the Anthony case. Today, her ire is directed not at front-page headline-grabbing defendants, but at the “fuckheads” driving like maniacs in traffic, at comedian Louis C.K., at a DJ on NYC radio channel WMFU-FM who made an offensive joke during an interview or at the city of Chicago in general.

“It’s such a segregated town. It’s such a bummer of a town,” Holland says the morning after a “really interesting” show at Passim in Cambridge, Mass., a folk club she felt honored to headline, noting that Bob Dylan and Tom Waits have graced its stage in the past. “My friend calls Chicago ‘Dum-dum town.’”

A founding member of the Be Good Tanyas, a trad-Americana group whose trademark song, “The Littlest Birds,” gets a full-band update on Holland’s just-released fifth solo album, Pint of Blood, Holland takes aim at another irritant: the idea that her sound is “old-timey.”

Her early solo efforts, especially 2003’s Catalpa and the following year’s Escondida, earned the Brooklyn, N.Y., troubadour high praise for her firm grasp on country, blues and traditional, sepia-toned storytelling. Catalpa featured three tracks labeled as waltzes, while Escondida tapped her torch side, incorporating ukulele, musical saw, banjos and marimba as Holland belted roots-inspired beat poems about going “down to Satan’s kitchen for to break my fast one mornin’.” She also points out that her last album featured a song, “Love Henry,” that supposedly pre-dates the Bible. “They were playing that song in Ethiopia 4,000 years ago.”

Over the last several years, however, the singer has recruited acclaimed musicians like Marc Ribot and M. Ward to better focus her musicality and allow for more modern production. Pint of Blood is her most rock & roll outing yet, featuring electric – and electrifying – scorchers like the mid-tempo “Gold and Yellow” and the downright anthemic “Remember.” Of course, the bitterness remains. Opener “All Those Girls,” may be one of the most venomous songs unleashed so far this year. Even her nods to the past – the beautifully spare album closer “Rex’s Blues” is a Townes Van Zandt cover – are captured with studio precision over DIY immediacy.

Despite the evident movement toward modernity, the idea of any such thing bristles Holland. Although critics have classified her sound as “retro-minded,” “classic pre-war,” “like an ancestral photograph,” and, yes, “old-timey,” she maintains that’s a “weird” concept for her.

“I’ve heard [the descriptions]. It just doesn’t make any sense to me,” Holland says. “I wouldn’t even say the first two records were more old-timey and the new records are less old-timey. There are, in some cases, more modern instruments on the latter records. I’ve always played with people who weren’t so connected to a timeline. It’s always been about choice.”

She does allow one musical departure of late. While she claims that her previous vocal influences tended more toward figures like Blind Willie McTell, the early-20th-century ragtime bluesman, she was heavily inspired this time around by a considerably more modern figure: David Bowie.

“My goal is always just to get the production to communicate the feel of the original impression of writing the song, and that’s what it feels like,” Holland says. “That’s the truth of the experience.”