I once read an interview with Jolie Holland in which she mentioned how her songs come through her from some other world. I imagined the lyrics as they tumbled through space, shuttled through a portal between a magical realm and her hand, swirls of mist and the soft glow of candles lighting their way. For her fans, this image is not far off. Holland’s songs often send the broken and weary to the floor, mimicking prayer as she plays songs like “Honey Girl” and “Do You?” on repeat long into the night. She delivers the kind of melodies that add some weight to the heart and draw the hair up into tiny little spikes at the back of the neck. Not exactly in the same manner as John Williams’s score for Jaws, of course, but in a way that brings the listener to believe in the unseen. Her songs can haunt us, but only in the best of ways. Her music keeps us company when everyone else would like to walk away.
And it’s no wonder, really, that Holland has received accolades from megastars like Tom Waits and Bob Dylan, proclaiming their love for her bluesy-rootsy-soulful work. Surely, her music must also pierce them with searing loveliness. And force out great big sighs. And then pull them back inside of themselves like it does to the rest of us.
At a young thirty-seven, she has recorded five solo albums and collaborated on many other musical projects since leaving her birthplace, the giant, dusty state of Texas. And it turns out that Holland, whom I met up with for a book-shopping field trip, extracts more than her painfully rich lyrics and musical notes from the cosmos. Amidst her waking hours, which are saturated with songwriting, performing, and work on collaborations like the Portland Cello Project’s recent recording of Beck’s Song Reader, she is also a lover of literature and is currently writing her first book.
“I was a child prodigy, and I was a total freak. I had read most of Shakespeare by the time I was eleven,” says Holland over El Salvadorian food on a gray San Francisco afternoon. “Duke University asked me to write an article for them about gifted children when I was eleven, and I flipped out. I didn’t even show anybody because I had no support for being who I was.”
Who she was, it seems, defied everything her strict Jehovah’s Witness upbringing had attempted to mold her into. A voracious reader with a curiosity for all things mystical, Holland moved on from Shakespeare and soon found herself reading novels like Kosinski’s The Painted Bird and J. R. R. Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings series by the time she was twelve. Though she was quickly running out of age-appropriate reading material, she felt that writers like C. S. Lewis were “lame.” “I felt like he was talking down to me,” she says. “I didn’t like it. It was way too young-adult for me.”
These days, Holland is mostly interested in reading esoteric stories about voodoo and music, finding inspiration in the works of writer and experimental filmmaker Maya Deren, Nigerian folktale writer Amos Tutuola, and even journalist Nick Tosches—though she’s quick to laugh and point out that some feel he objectifies women and that he talks quite a bit about blow jobs.
At some point between her Texas upbringing and today, she found herself doing what every free-thinking young woman does at one point or another: leaving her family and heading west to pursue her art. Holland landed in San Francisco before heading east again, this time to her current home in Brooklyn. She’s busily at work on new songs and a new book, a collection of short stories about the unbelievable, primarily focusing on ghost stories she’s collected through interviews with people from all walks of life.
“My very favorite ghost stories are from people who don’t believe in ghosts,” she says. “But oh dude, when people start talking about orbs and shit, I just blank out. I’m like, ‘Just tell me what happened.'”
Holland draws from the archetypal and analytical teachings of Carl Jung in the retelling of her collected stories, which include an account of writer (and nonbeliever) Rick Moody’s experience with the ghost of Katrina Trask at the infamously haunted Yaddo writers’ residency in Saratoga Springs, New York; a friend’s childhood memories of nightly visits from spirits of Alaska’s native Tlingit culture; and another’s aural experience of an invisible choir in a hotel lobby.
She’s even dabbled in some hands-on research for the book. “I got past-life regression therapy as a part of my research for my book,” she says, “but I didn’t see anything. I think I was kind of scared of my regressionist.” She laughs. “He was an ex-military man, and it kind of freaked me out, like, this guy killed people…’You are getting veeerrry sleepy…’ I’m sure he’s a nice guy, but it scared me.”
None of what Holland shares with me causes alarm. I’m already a little woo-woo myself, and open to most of what our conversation descends into, including Holland’s own past-life dream experiences and stories of haunted houses. Even if I didn’t believe, something about her would convince me to instantly join any cult she’d consider starting.
Still, she says she maintains a healthy level of skepticism when it comes to this project and isn’t concerned about what the nonbelievers—what she refers to as “fundamentalist atheists”—have to say about her lack of scientific evidence for the accounts she shares. She sees most of the tales as beautiful synchronicities. “It doesn’t fit into socialized reality, and that’s all right,” she says. “Who cares?”
Approaching work as an author, she says, is quite different from her experience of songwriting. “Songwriting is really…it is super trancy. It’s really hard to look up from it. You’re totally absorbed. But the thing is [with playing music], I have to wait for my collaborators. I’m on their time a lot of the time. I have to wait for them to get done with the other projects they are doing, and then in the meantime, I can work on the short stories. And they’re short. They are so short. The interview process was more extravagant, and that can take forever.”
Again, I imagine Holland summoning exotic muses, lighting candles, consulting a crystal ball in some New Age-y sacred space in order to create her art. And just when I’m making a mental list of good luck trinkets with which to fill my home office for inspiration, she shocks me. “I finish verses on the subway that I could never finish sitting in front of my piano. I just bring a book, and I bring earplugs, and I can just do it.” On the subway? I’m stunned. “And mopping. I write songs when I’m mopping. So I don’t know—on one hand, I’m like, ‘This is really important, and I shouldn’t be doing housework,’ but it helps sometimes.”
Holland also reminds me that being an artist isn’t as simple as a quick chant of “hocus pocus,” and that there are sacrifices to be made when you decide to dedicate your life to your art. She tells me about double-booking recording sessions and dinner plans—and choosing the music instead of time with old friends. She tells me about her friend, writer Vanessa Veselka, spending five minutes on dates so as to not disrupt her writing schedule. And about another friend who practices guitar eight hours a day, her partner reminding her to eat. Just thinking about it brings on guilty-slacker writers’ block. I just want a magic charm.
“To be an artist, you have to do ridiculous things,” she says. “You have to practice for like eight hours a day—if you want to—or learn how to do really fine-tuned, weird things to develop yourself and that express something about you. But even if you clear the time to write, you don’t know if the gods are going to show up.”
The gods that show up for Jolie these days include Maya Deren, Mikhail Bulgakov, Dante, Zora Neale Hurston, Amos Tutuola, and Blind Willie McTell. She draws heavily on juju from literary figures. The title of her last album, Pint of Blood, references a William S. Burroughs quote, and a new song, tentatively called “Palm Wine Drunkard” after Amos Tutuola’s similarly titled book, is rich with mystical metaphor:
You can drop me off in Limbo on your way to West Hell / I will give your regards to the moon and the stars from the / Bottom of a wishing well
Just like a palm wine drunkard playing ghost guitar / I’ma shake you right down and take you right back to the / Place where you already are
I start to wonder about using magic—literally—to help with artistic endeavors. I grow curious about the possibility of selling my own soul for this purpose.
“Only one person I interviewed actually believes that selling your soul to the devil is a real thing,” she says. “He grew up with Townes Van Zandt as his uncle, and he was like, ‘Yeah, Townes sold his soul to the devil. Yup. Absolutely.’ And he meant it in a really specific way. It was super interesting. He said, ‘You can’t do it unless you have kids.’ You have to put the kids’ lives on the line somehow. You have to sacrifice your involvement with their lives for your art, and he also said you’re no good unless you do it.”
I start to wonder how much creativity I could get in exchange for my daughters, and I pause, imagining for a moment that Holland herself has sold her soul to the devil or has a direct link to the gods in order to have so much focus, to create such prolific and deeply moving work. I start wondering if she can also teleport, and if so, I worry that she has witnessed me crumbled in a gruesome heap of tears and snot, sobbing to her albums on the darkest nights of my life. I wonder, too, if the two of us getting so wrapped up in all of this voodoo talk—and therefore never making it to the bookstore as planned (she gave me her list of must-reads, included below)—will lend itself to my re-entering my own trancy, late-night writing magic.
So I ask her. “Did you sell your soul to the devil?”
“I don’t know. My family might say I sold my soul to the devil,” she says with a laugh. “But I don’t have kids, you know. But I did totally blow off my life and my family obligations to kick Jehovah’s Witness ass so I could do this.”
The gods or the devil. Wherever it comes from, whatever helps guide her vision, it’s working. And her fans, believers and nonbelievers alike, should lay a few humble offerings of thanks at their feet.
Jolie Holland’s Must-Reads:
In the Hand of Dante, by Nick Tosches
On Celestial Music by Rick Moody
Divine Horsemen by Maya Deren
The Palm-Wine Drinkard by Amos Tutuola
Two Years Before The Mast by Richard Henry Dana, Jr.
If I Can Cook/You Know God Can by Ntozake Shange