Jolie Holland has a new record called Wine Dark Sea. Due for release some time next year, it’s sort of a return, but in the same it’s a continued expansion of an ever-widening grip on the varied elements of music that make up her universe. I spoke with her a week before going into the studio on a completely different topic. My attempt was to figure out why her song Mexican Blue and in addition its album Springtime Can Kill You has such an intense hold on me. It took us a while as we sort of wove around the topic, and I was never expecting resolution, but in the course of our chat she said one thing that settled it all, without diminishing the grip that started this conversation.
Garrett Tiedemann: With your family, did you have much musical accessibility? Were they involved with the church or…?
Jolie Holland: They’re Jehovah’s Witnesses and the music is really bad. There’s nothing classic about it. It’s just really awful music.
GT: So how did you come out of that?
JH: People forced me to go to meetings up until I was about twelve or something. After that I didn’t have anything to do with it. But it was always like half time. Up until the age of four I was in a total Jehovah’s Witness household, but my parents divorced and then it was half the family that was Jehovah’s Witness and the older generation was too, all our grandmothers were.
GT: Was it more on your mom’s side or your dad’s?
JH: A lot of the back generation was Witness, but my dad is still a Jehovah’s Witness and my mom isn’t. So that’s how I was raised in terms of religious music. But I love gospel music.
GT: It’s amazing. There is truly nothing like it.
JH: Yeah, it’s so important in terms of American musical history and it’s this constant flow of music and musicians out of gospel, out of the church, into pop music, to this day.
GT: And it’s so much about having music be part of your life. It’s not just this thing you do for fun. It’s completely intertwined in how you make a living with living.
JH: Yeah, it’s so ceremonial. It’s so exciting. I like to go see good gospel music every once in a while. It’s funny, we had a Chinese New Year party at my house a little while ago. I love Chinese New Year. It’s one of my favorite holidays. I lived in San Francisco for a long time and it’s such a Chinese city so I was just around the celebrations. Especially being away from New Orleans, it’s kind of a substitute Mardi Gras experience.
GT: I can believe that. I remember when I was a kid taking a trip to San Francisco and walking around Chinatown, being in awe of the environment.
JH: It’s so interesting.
GT: And it’s so full of life.
JH: The sweet thing about Chinese New Year as compared to Mardi Gras is Chinese New Year is such a family oriented event and it’s not about getting trashed. And just the whole environment on the streets is so amazing. You are just wading in confetti and teenagers in dragon costumes dancing in the street. It’s so cute.
We do this Chinese New Year party and it’s kind of like a Seder; it’s like a ceremonial dinner party and then it turned into just a regular party, but you don’t talk about anything sad, you don’t sing any sad songs. I’ve got a couple paintings up in the house with skeletons in it and I had to cover the skeletons. You’re not supposed to think about death, you are supposed to focus on all these positive things and everybody is supposed to wear really bright colors, especially red, so it was so much fun, it was so successful.
That was the second year in a row, but the one before I had a broken heart and I was singing these new songs that I had written and my friend who was co-hosting the party with me said, “You did it wrong. You were singing sad songs. That’s not okay.” So we really concentrated that everybody knew the rules. But there was this boy who plays gospel piano and he was over here. It was so awesome. Do you know what that illustrative style means?
GT: That illustrative style?
JH: Yeah, like, the way that the gospel band backs up the preacher?
GT: Oh yeah, yeah.
JH: And, they’re just sort of accentuating what the preacher is saying and kind of egging him on. He was doing that and we were just talking about regular subjects and he was illustrating it with the gospel style piano. It was so much fun.
GT: That sounds amazing.
JH: It was adorable. And everyone’s wearing really bright colors. It was super cute.
GT: That sounds great.
JH: But in terms of my family and music, my great uncles were twins. I’m a twin as well.
GT: I did not know that.
JH: Most people don’t. We’re not identical and we’ve never played together.
GT: Is she a musician too?
JH: No, she’s not. She’s not a professional musician. So my great uncles used to play with Bob Wills in Texas. I don’t know if that rings a bell with you, but he’s a really important Texas musician. And they played with Willie Nelson. They had a club in Houston, like a western swing club in the ’50s. They were friends with Elvis. They were on the Louisiana Hayride, which is kind of the weird cousin of the Grand Ole Opry.
GT: That’s some education.
JH: But at the same time, I wasn’t around them too much. I didn’t get to see them too much. I didn’t get to play with them until I was a lot older.
GT: Were you aware of what they did and the people they interacted with?
JH: It was just the air I breathed. I didn’t think about it. People would dance with us when we were tiny babies. You know, go see the uncles play western swing at some big dance event and we didn’t think about it. The family was proud of them for what they’d done.
GT: But it’s just the life they led.
JH: Yeah, but also, in the typical fashion they picked on them too. You know, like, “God damn musicians, ya’ll are so lazy.” But at the same time they weren’t. They had really good day jobs and supported their families. There was respect for what they did, but also they just picked on them. I feel like that informed the way that I grew up. I wasn’t discouraged from getting into music, but at the same time I wasn’t supported. They never got me music lessons, and it was always a very private thing. It was weird. I cannot imagine it, you know, and I was really mad at my parents for a long time because if I had a kid writing songs since the age of six there is no way I wouldn’t have gotten them music lessons. You know?
JH: I would have supported them in any way I possibly could have, but my parents were just like whatever.
[Continued in Part 2]