In July I speak to Jolie Holland on the phone the morning after she plays Norman, Oklahoma, two weeks into her tour to support her new record, Pint of Blood. Though her answers often surprise me—she’s the kind of subject who keeps you on your toes—I find her one of the most engaging people I’ve spoken to in recent memory. Laid back and easy to converse with, she demonstrates a searching intelligence that’s keenly aware of who she is and how she belongs to a particular context in contemporary American music. By turns funny, guarded, candid, proud of her accomplishments, and humble, she generously provides insights into the creative process behind the songs on her new album, which mask depths of pain and sometimes violence beneath their surface.
The Rumpus: You’re originally from Houston. You often draw on folk and other traditional forms of music with regional or geographical roots. How have the different places you’ve lived informed what you do as a musician?
Jolie Holland: I love Chinese music. It’s awesome when I get to hear it live on a regular basis. I used to live in LA, and I got to see the Chinese orchestra play there. I live in New York now, and there’s this one erhu player I see on the subway every once in a while when I go through Chinatown. He blows my mind, he’s so beautiful. I’m really into the different ways people all over the world resolve a musical phrase, but I do what’s culturally appropriate for me. I don’t even know where Appalachia is, and I don’t know if I’m necessarily influenced by Appalachian music. There’s so much music in Texas. There’s so much music from the Gulf Coast. It’s the musical estuary of America, and there’s no getting around that. But it’s not folk music in a certain way. You can’t write it off with an anthropological label. I remember growing up and hearing Cajun music on the radio and so many different flavors of swing and hip-hop and stuff from all over the place, and then all the Mexican music, which is so killer.
Rumpus: As a singer-songwriter, you play in a genre that draws on traditional music, and yet you also play in a genre that values innovation. Do you feel like you belong to a particular tradition, or do you find those distinctions superfluous?
Holland: I don’t want to assume something is real if it’s not. I don’t want to say I am part of something I’m not part of. That would be obnoxious. One thing I believe will answer your question, and it answers the question for me, is that every single living hero of mine, without me having to look for them, has contacted me and told me they liked my stuff. That includes Bob Dylan, Tom Waits, Michael Hurley, Mavis Staples. To me, that says however you want to think about it, I am part of some tradition.
Rumpus: Can you talk about your songwriting process? Some of your songs, like “Sweet Girls,” play on turns of phrase. Some, like “Remember,” seem more narrative. When you write a song, where do you start? When you start writing, do you have a sense of how it’s going to sound at the end of the process?
Holland: The normal thing for me is to write a song in my head—music and lyrics both—because that way the song is not tied to the constraints of an instrument. A song like “Springtime Can Kill You” really shows its roots in that sense because it’s a pretty difficult melody to sing. I didn’t think about that when I wrote it. Some of my friends who are great singers have said, “I can’t even sing that.” When I wrote it, I let the melody lead, and I had to establish what the roots were. I had to learn how to play it, and then I had to teach the band how to play it, which was fun. I did write the rhythm. I guess that’s what comes first for me. The lyrics don’t come first, and the ideas are always cooking in their own way—I’m always being my own sous chef about concept and structure—but really, the rhythm comes first, which is why it’s important for me to work with a creative and sensitive drummer.
Rumpus: You’ve been referred to as a confessional songwriter. How would you describe your relationship to your characters?
Holland: I love songwriting and poetry that’s totally, embarrassingly personal. That doesn’t have anything to do with me; I like it when I read other people’s stuff like that. When I started writing songs, it didn’t occur to me to not write that way because that’s what I like. That’s what I like about any art form, awareness of the human mechanism; that’s where the good stuff is. I never feel like any of it is too personal. If I think I may have gotten to that line in some songs, I don’t release those songs. Sometimes you know more in the act of doing the work than you do with your regular conscious mind. That’s true for a lot of songwriters and writers in general and other types of artists. I’ve had songs out me about stuff I was unaware of, and I decided not to release those songs, even though I thought it was good work in there.
Rumpus: Do you work to a schedule? Do you have particular habits or disciplines?
Holland: I’m a writer, and I think a good rule for me as a writer is to wake up, make coffee, and write, either hang out at the piano with the coffee, or hang out with the computer and work on the book. But that’s not how I write songs. The way I write songs is, I make them force me to write them. I was going through some super rough personal life shit a while ago, and these songs would come to me and try to get written. I would tell them to fuck off because I didn’t want to write them. I didn’t want any person outside myself to be attached to those songs and want to hear them. I don’t normally push songs away that hard. But it was amazing because the songs would come back in complete form. They would come harass me, and I’d be like, I know that fucking melody, you can fuck right off. Eventually, I think they moved on. They’re going to go pick on somebody else. I hope so. Actually, I don’t hope so. It’s some sad shit.
Rumpus: Do you take notes and write things down while you’re walking around out in the world?
Holland: I send myself text messages. I call myself, and I have a little book I write things in. I use a Moleskin for a wallet. It’s got a little pack in the back where I stick money or a Metro card, and then, in the rest of it, I can scribble things to myself. I’m not very disciplined. I don’t really try to write songs. I haven’t tried to write songs since I was 14, and I thought the songs I tried to write sucked, so I got intothis different method, which is kind of like fishing. I’d be interested to see what it would be like to try to write songs. I have a sly, backwards way of trying to write songs now. I’m always thinking about structure and form, and then whenever the emotional material shows up, it might or might not fit into any of the available ideas I’ve been thinking about. It’s not a forced thing. I’m just constantly interested in structure.
Rumpus: You mean song structure?
Holland: I like to notice how a song works. A lot of times, the songs I’m writing will have a completely improvised structure, like “Tender Mirror.” I didn’t think about the structure while I was writing it; it came through pretty much in that form. You could say there’s an A and a B section, and it doesn’t go back. It’s all in the same key, and there’s a refrain. I also like to think about the psychological structure of songs, like the song I wrote, “Sweet Loving Man,” is based on this one Memphis Minnie song I heard a long time ago where it’s really conversational, but you can’t tell what the people are talking about.
Rumpus: Your new record has been described as having a loose, organic feel. Were the songs fleshed out before you went into the studio, or were you still writing them when you started recording? To what extent does the process of recording become part of the songwriting process?
Holland: I don’t ever walk into the studio without songs being completely written because I can’t afford to do that. I’m not interested in writing on the spot. Some people do, and I think that’s cool. Kyp Malone, my good friend, who’s in TV on the Radio, loves writing in the studio. I think that suits his type of music better than mine. The way he approaches structure is really different than the way I do, so it can work for him. For me, it’s much more of a quiet process, and I don’t want to be under pressure when I’m doing that. As for the looseness, I think that’s a collective hallucination because this is the only record I’ve ever done that was predominately to a click.
Rumpus: You mean a metronome click?
Holland: Yeah. We didn’t use it on every song, but we did on most of the songs, and I think the presence of a totally steady rhythm allows people to hear my rhythmic improvisation in the singing because I wasn’t listening to the click; just the drummer was. It was in Shazad Ismaily’s headphones. Also, there are so many terrible writers that are just copying each other. They don’t really have strong opinions, and they don’t know what they’re talking about, so the word loose might be partly from the telephone game, and then also the hallucination created by using a click track.
Rumpus: How much improvisation do you and Shazad do in the studio? The two of you play just about all the instruments except for another guitar player, right?
Holland: Yeah. Grey Gersten was the third most represented player. A great deal of it was improvised, though we were aware of the structure. That’s what it’s like with the kind of music I play. Everybody knows the structure, but what you do inside the structure is always open to how you feel in the moment.
Rumpus: In the promo stuff I’ve read, you said the recording was done in the studio and also in private spaces. Did you also record at home?
Holland: Shazad and I cut a couple tracks in our homes. On “Tender Mirror,” that’s my piano. We cut “Wreckage” at his house. The equipment he has is nicer than what you find in 90 percent of the commercial studios around the country, so it wasn’t inferior recording quality.
Rumpus: Hearing the album, it feels like you’re hanging out in the studio with the band. I don’t know a better word for it than vibe.
Holland: That’s great. That’s what I’m always going for, and I thought the working environment of this record was particularly sweet.