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vol 6 - issue 03 (nov 2003) :: untapped
UNTAPPED TALENT: JOLIE HOLLAND
interview and image by vinnie baggadonuts

AH, THE DARK COMEDY THAT IS MY LIFE. JUST WHEN YOU THOUGHT THINGS WERE LOOKING TOGETHER AND MATURE HERE AT TASTES LIKE CHICKEN, MY INTERVIEW WITH MUSICIAN JOLIE HOLLAND HAPPENS. BUT NOT EVEN SCHEDULING MISCOMMUNICATIONS AND DEAD TAPE RECORDER BATTERIES COULD STOP US FROM HAVING A LAUGHING GOOD TIME. READ ON, AND SEE WHY IíM CUCKOO FOR CATALPA.

Vinnie: I heard you had a little incident today.

Jolie: Well, my manager said I was gonna have to do these interviews at such and such a time, and I said, ďSure. Thatís fine.Ē But he never said that I needed to call anybody.

Both: (laughing)

V: Well, just so you know, Iím recording you.

J: Okay.

V: And also, just so you know, youíre relatively new to me. I had never heard of you before, but I stumbled across your page on Anti- Records' website. I listened to the songs, and I loved them. So I emailed Anti- and said, ďSend me more stuff!Ē And they sent me Catalpa! I think it's beautiful.

J: Oh! When did you get it?

V: Um,.. probably a week or so ago.

J: Alright! Cool. Itís so funny-- itís really kind of shocking to me how well itís done. (laughs) I just wanted to release it in my neighborhood.

V: (laughs)

J: Itís definitely gotten around without distribution. Even to Europe! But I never intended it to get any bigger than the neighborhood. I was just selling it to people in town to help fund an upcoming album.

V: Yeah?

J: It was never intended for release. There are coughs on it! (laughs) I mean, most of the songs were recorded so my friend could learn how to play guitar better. It was mostly just like I'd get off work and go over to his house and record a few songs onto his digital 8-track. He doesnít know how to really record or anything.

Both: (laughing)

J: I mean, some of them were done, if you look on the engineering tracks, thereís, like, five different engineers. So there were a lot of different situations, but most of the tracks are just from my friendís living room.

V: (laughs) Then how did it get to Europe? Was it just from bootlegging?

J: People wrote me and wanted to get copies of it.

V: Wow!

J: I guess people had just heard that I used to be in this band called The Be Good Tanyas. There were some songs that had been really popular all across the world, so they heard about it through there.

V: You werenít in The Be Good Tanyas long, were you?

J: Um,.. I started the band, played with them for the first year or so, and I quit in 2000.

V: Any particular reason?

J: Just a real emerging musical difference. I just figured I could do what I wanted to do better, in a different context.

V: Did it seem a bit more poppy or accessible with them?

J: Yeah, I guess so. Not necessarily poppy, but,.. I donít know really. I even played on the second album, but I swear Iíve never listened to the whole thing. I like a lot of the stuff that they do, but,.. I donít know. I feel really distant from the work I did with them. It was an interesting project I did with them for a while, but, I donít really have a lot to say about it.

V: Well, it does sound like night and day. I listened to both of The Be Good Tanyas' albums, and it just seemed to be evolving differently. I mean, after hearing them, and then hearing Catalpa, it all just seemed to be a different direction from the one you were going in.

J: Their stuff is a lot more what you call folk music. We probably all listen to the same stuff, but we definitely went in different directions.

V: So when did you get the call that this was going to be released on Anti-?

J: Even before I signed the record deal with them, Andy and I were talking about releasing Catalpa as a ďfirst courseĒ sort of thing.

V: And you have another album that youíre recording right now?

J: Yeah. Itíll be done in November, after Catalpa gets released.

V: Are you going to record it in your friendís living room?

J: (laughs) Nope! I was thinking about that for a while, but no. I actually think Iím going to go out to this really great studio here called In The Pocket.

V: Where are you at?

J: Iím in San Francisco. Where are you at?

V: Iím in Milwaukee, Wisconsin.

J: Oh, right. Is it freezing?

V: Itís always freezing. (laughs)

J: Itís really freezing here. (laughs)

V: Whatís ďreally freezingĒ there?

J: Itís just really wet and damp out here. But today, itís also really cold.

V: (laughs) Like, what, 50 degrees?

J: Well, the difference between there-- a town where you expect it to be cold-- and San Francisco, is your houses are actually built to keep in heat, and they have heaters and things. Whereas, in San Francisco, the houses are really badly designed. (laughs)

NOTE: At this point, the fucking batteries in the recorder died. I didnít notice for a few minutes, and thus lost a bit of the interview. Once I noticed, Jolie and I chatted about magazines, while Wayne scrambled to find fresh, working batteries. Thankfully, Jolie was a good sport all around, sticking it out, even backtracking in the face of minor catastrophe.

V: I can send you out some old print issues of our magazine.

J: Okay.

V: Weíre recording now, so--

J: Good.

V: Well, shit. Letís start all over.

J: (laughing) Alright.

V: We can do a speed interview, where itís all ďyesĒ or ďnoĒ answers. I can tell everyone I had this amazing conversation with you, but they wonít get to hear it. (laughs) Crap! Where the hell do I begin? Okay-- so youíre freezing cold in San Francisco,...

J: (laughs) Yeah.

V: Because youíve never been any place--

[PHONE MYSTERIOUSLY BEEPS]

J: Because Iíve never been what?

V: Why is the phone beeping? This is terrible! I am so sorry for this!

J: (laughing)

V: This is your worst interview ever!

J: No, itís not. (laughing)

V: Well, itís slowly becoming it. Where should I start? Iím going to let you direct this, because youíve seen how itís gone so far. What part of the interview so far was really good for you, that youíd like to repeat it again for the first time? (laughs)

J: I want to plug my friend Ara Anderson.

V: Your trumpet player?

J: Yeah. The guy that plays trumpet with me. He was on the last two Tom Waits albums, along with my friend Colin Stetson, who played saxophone on the last two Tom Waits albums, too. (laughs) Yeah. I was just babbling about how if youíre playing music in the same region as somebody,.. something like that.

V: Yeah. That everybody is connected somehow. So, after the new record after Catalpa comes out, youíll be on the new Tom Waits record?

J: Yeah, whatever.

Both: (laughing)

J: I play violin, but it seems like he has really, really good violin players on his albums. So, I probably donít play good enough to be on his albums.

V: But donít you play a bunch of stuff?

J: I play piano, guitar, and violin, mostly. But I do fool around with other stuff. Iím trying to learn how to play trumpet.

V: Thatís not an easy instrument to learn, is it?

J: Itís amazing, all the spare time you have as a kid to learn how to play instruments. I started playing piano when I was six. I started playing guitar when I was 14. I started playing violin when I was 13. But learning how to play an instrument from scratch, thatís totally different. Like, the trumpet is such a big deal. Even now that I only have one job instead of three-- which Iíve worked most of my life-- itís still so fucking hard.

V: So, what is that youíre playing on the front of Catalpa? A squeezebox?

J: Yeah. I have a toy accordion.

V: But you donít play it on the album, do you?

J: No. I played it on my friend Dave Donderoís album, Shooting At The Sun With A Water Gun. Thatís a really good album. Heís on Future Farmer Records. I think theyíre international. Itís a pretty good record label.

V: So, you played all these instruments when you were younger. Did you always listen to the kind of music you make-- like jazz and old country? Or did you have Menudo fantasies?

J: I just always liked good songs. (laughs) But I remember being a kid and liking (Willie Nelsonís) ďBlue Eyes Crying In The RainĒ.

V: Yeah! My dad used to sing that to me when I was a little kid!

J: Awww,.. I got to see Willie Nelson yesterday!

V: No way!

J: It was a free show in the park. There were 40,000 people there! I was sitting in a tree listening to him, and I felt like I was getting good acupuncture treatment,.. it just felt so good. (laughs) It was amazing. And then Emmylou Harris came on after that, and I tried to get into her, but Iím not a big Emmylou Harris fan. I should've stuck it out, but I really didnít feel like it. There were 40,000 people in the park, and I just wanted to get out of there.

Both: (laughing)

V: So, what was the first--

J: Oh, yeah, the music I listened to--

V: Well, I was gonna ask you something different, if youíd prefer.

J: Oh, okay.

V: I was gonna--

J: But, I just wanna say, I never really listened to country music. Like, really never. Iíve never owned any country music. But, some country people did have a peripheral influence on me. Like, Tammy Wynette definitely had a weird peripheral influence on me. And, of course, I listened to Willie Nelson. But heís more like jazz to me than country.

V: Really? Why do you say that?

J: Thereís just so much in his music. Thereís so much Spanish and Mexican sound in his music. The chord arrangements are, harmonically, so much more sophisticated than country music.

V: See, I kinda think of him as, not so much punk rock, but like the Beat poets. Like Kerouac.

J: Wow!

V: Itís my new thing. It just kinda hit me a few months ago. I was listening to his stuff, and I listened to it a lot growing up because my dad loved him. But listening to it now, Iím like, ďHoly shit! I can totally relate to that! I agree with that! Iíve believed that for a while now because this crazy French-Canadian author pointed it out to me!Ē

J: Wow!

V: If you go back and listen to a lot of his stuff, he just speaks point-blank to or about disenfranchised youth.

J: Yeah, definitely. But the thing for me is, heís so Texan. He has this weird blend of stuff thatís so Texan. You have Western Swing, which is this really sophisticated kind of country music. You have this amazing Spanish flavor that gets in there. Then thereís this German thing, too, where the Tejano music kinda sounds like polka. Itís just party music. Itís really down to Earth, but itís really eclectic, and a little bit psychedelic. Willie has this tough guy thing going on, but itís so,.. sorry, Iím losing my train of thought.

V: Do you remember the first song you heard that you were totally in love with?

J: I really loved Mozart when I was a kid. Lemme think,.. "Do You Know What It Means (To Miss New Orleans)". That was a big one. That was Billie Holiday with, I think, Louis Armstrong playing with her. That just always struck me as a perfect song. (laughs) I still love it. Itís a great song.

V: I think a lot of people-- and believe me, a lot of people will read this, thank you very much--

Both: (laughing)

V: No. Do you think a lot of people will read this, and hear you talk about listening to all these different types of music, and be shocked by it?

J: I donít know. I think there have always been a big blend of genres in music, and itís just a real plastic external mentality that separates them. Some peopleís idea of how to sell a lot of records is to separate them. But, I mean, Jimmy Rodgers has been recorded with Louis Armstrong, you know? And Willie Nelsonís idea has always been to bring together the really straight-laced people and the hippies,.. not that Iím a hippy. Iím not a hippy.

Both: (laughing)

J: You know, I live in San Francisco, but I want everyone to know that Iím not a hippy. (laughs) But, I think music should go beyond categories.

V: Oh, I totally agree. I mean, listening to Catalpa, then hearing you talk about your influences, it makes perfect sense. But I think your record just sounds like an old record. Like someone found it up in the mountains somewhere. Honestly, if I hadnít seen a picture of you, Iíd expect you to be dead.

J: (laughs) Wow!

V: Well, just because it sounds so old. To make something like that-- where it seems timeless, rather than outdated-- thatís a pretty good accomplishment.

J: I donít know. I just hate garbage, you know? I hate to generate something thatís not really useful. So, to me, just getting really rooted makes it more valuable. And one of the best pieces of advice I ever got was from this guy in my family that I donít really get along with. Heís kind of a football star, and he owns oil companies. Heís one of my uncles, and we donít see eye to eye. But he gave me one of the best pieces of advice about music Iíve ever heard.

V: Really?

J: (laughs) Actually, yeah. I was 15, and I was writing these esoteric songs that I was interested in at the time. I was writing weird little love songs, you know? I was playing them for my grandma, this uncle, and some other people. Theyíd just gotten back from a restaurant or something, and they were a little bit tipsy. Iím playing a couple of songs, and my uncle says, ďJolie-- why donít you play something your grandma likes?Ē

Both: (laughing)

J: And I thought it was, like, a challenge, you know? But then you start looking at all that old music, and itís so great. Hank Williams is so fucking amazing. Itís so simple and strong. Itís like the good stuff in punk and country is just really direct and down to Earth and understood by so many people.

V: Yeah. I think that old music just spoke to regular people. And thatís who was making that music-- regular people with this musical talent.

J: Right. There was no way of getting away from it back then. You were either going to make music that the people around you wanted to hear, or you were gonna be socially isolated. I definitely came up with high ideals like those in country and folk music,.. and even punk music, where you play for your ďcommunityĒ. I did that for a long time. Iíd just play in this collectiveís cafe I used to work in. Iíd play a lot when I wasnít working. There was a piano there, and I played for people who came in. It was such a good education on being direct.

V: Let me ask you a question about Syd Barrett, because Iíve never listened to his music.

J: Oh! Okay.

V: Somebody told me that I should listen to it because youíll think itís folk, and then heíll start talking about ďthe blue octopus in the skyĒ.

Both: (laughing)

J: Yeah. Somebody else whoís pretty similar to him, only a better songwriter, is Michael Hurley. Michael Hurley was kind of the musical force behind The Fugs, and also the Holy Modal Rounders.

V: Iíve heard of them.

J: Heís really amazing. Cat Power has been covering some of his songs, so sheís helped put him back on the map a bit. I mean, if you like Kerouac, you have to listen to Michael Hurley, because his first album was put out in 1963. And itís definitely pre-hippy. Itís definitely Beatnik music. Oh, God, itís so good. And he just put out an album in 2001. A couple of friends of mine are friends with him, and Iím trying to get him to do a show with me, or an album or something. Heís a mystic maniac,.. his songs are so good.

V: Do you tend to gravitate toward things like that? Like fairy tales, or songs that paint pretty, surreal pictures?

J: To me, itís all about something real. But just non-material. So, like, I consider myself kind of a practical person, even though that would definitely surprise some people. You know? (laughs) But I think the romantic English poets, and Blake and Syd Barrett and Michael Hurley,.. theyíre talking about something real. Theyíre talking about a real experience that they have. And their music comes out of that. That, to me, sounds really good and honest. Itís not about making something thatís distracting. I mean, fairy tales are mostly about the truth, too, but in a metaphorical way.

V: Yeah.

J: To me, itís whatís real that I like. And thatís especially what I like about Michael Hurley.

V: Are you ever just sitting around and you have experiences like that?

J: Yeah. For me, itís like the idea of a haiku. Itís an experience that youíre able to describe with just a few words. The reason why it has that syllable count is that that syllable count is really natural in Japanese. You could probably take a different meter in English that would be appropriate for the way English speakers speak. The other night, I wrote a verse that I really liked, because it came out of a real experience. Now, my boyfriend is in Russia, and he rides a motorcycle. Iím in this tiny California town, singing in this dive bar in Grass Valley. And it was so funny; these locals were buying me tequila, and the smell of this motorcycle exhaust drifted into the bar, and it was so,.. you know, that woozy late-night feeling, and the tequila is coming out of my body, and thereís this burnt exhaust smell coming into the bar. The air is totally clean, beautiful mountain air, except for the motorcycle and the booze. And, it was just this moment beyond words. This weird little moment. I wrote this verse that I really like because it was true. It goes: ďThe smell of burnt exhaust drifts into the bar / Itís midnight in California, itís high noon where you are / Itís motorcycles and booze, dirty old perfume / Oh, itís nothing but a goddamn shame is what it is / Itís nothing but a goddamn shame.Ē

Both: (laughing)

J: I never want to force myself to write anything because I feel like Iím obligated to. I donít want the words to come out of my head. I want it to be an experimental thing.

V: Thatís the answer I wanted, but the question I couldnít figure out how to ask: capturing experiences.

J: Yeah! And I really like people that say things that donít make a linear sense, but if you listen to them, they have a real visceral sense. Like, if you read Dylan Thomas, it has its own internal, real experiences. But itís definitely abstract, according to its own rules.

V: So then, liking what may not necessarily make linear sense, is that what drew you to jazz? Just because I think jazz sometimes tells a story indirectly. They build these little environments that say things, without actually saying things.

J: Itís just so free. It has so much more language than other types of music. Thereís just so much more at its disposal. Itís not just all the pretty sounds from an instrument. Itís all the sounds from an instrument. Itís just much more colorful to me. I mean, certain players can take any genre and play it in a really electrifying way. I used to work at an Irish bar, and all the winners from the Interceltic Festival came through, and it was so amazing. It was Irish music, but it was the best Irish music in the world. It had this extra quality to it that was so beautiful. But at the same time, it was so prescribed. Itís like, thereís Bach, and then thereís Fats Waller. Itís just a different range of color. Well,.. Fats Wallerís not a good example. A better example is,.. (singing) ďYou can meet me in the alley at a half-past one / Get down and have some fun / All by myself,..Ē Who was that guy? Shit,.. James,.. James T. Booker! Thatís who I was thinking of.

V: Never listened to him.

J: Heís really cool.

V: Well, my tapeís about to run out. Man, that sucks it missed recording some of our conversation.

J: I think thereís a lot of good stuff there.

V: Well, I think it missed some of the really great stories you told at the beginning. But this will definitely go down in your history. Youíll never forget this interview.

J: (laughs)

V: Well, Iím really glad I got to talk to you.

J: Yeah. This was fun.

V: And I have no idea what in the world compelled me to stumble across your record, but Iím glad I did.

J: Iím glad you liked it.

V: I shared it with a lot of people who listen to a lot of different stuff, and everyone really dug it.

J: Wow. Cool.

V: Except this one friend I sent the MP3s from your Anti- Records site to. She said the lyrics to ďI Just Wanna DieĒ creeped her out.

J: Really? (laughs)

V: Yeah.

J: That was the first song I wrote after I got exposed to Townes Van Zandt. That was my first Townes Van Zandt-influenced song. And at the time, it was a very stressful life I was leading. (laughing) I wrote that in the back of a van barreling across south Louisiana. I needed to change my life. There was no way I could have continued going on the way I was going on. I was totally driving myself crazy. I was living the most difficult way to live, without being an addict. That was rock bottom for me. That song was what it looks like after not having a home for five years, constantly being on the road, and never staying in one place for more than two months at a time.

V: Well, if this record takes off, and youíre back on the road, forced into a lifestyle kinda like that, will you be okay with it?

J: I think during most of that time, my method of living was playing music on the street, and dumpster diving. Itís horrible. Playing music on the street is really, really hard. I hurt my hands, I hurt my voice. Itís just really hard. So, I wonít ever do that again.

V: Thatís awesome. If you donít mind my asking, how old are you?

J: I just turned 28.

V: Thatís fucking awesome.

J: (laughs)

V: No, really. The media underestimates people our age, you know? They think young people canít work hard or do anything. And Iím always like, ďYeah? Well, fuck you! We can do great stuff!Ē

J: (laughs) Are you 28?

V: No. Iím only 25. But weíre all in the same boat.

J: Alright! Yeah, I feel so old these days.

V: Well, dig this. I have one more question to ask you.

J: Okay.

V: Everyone is forced to answer this one: Do dogs have lips?

J: Do dogs have lips? Of course they have lips!

V: (disappointed) Are you sure?

J: Do dogs have lips?

V: Yeah.

J: Absolutely! Think about hound dogs.

V: Alright. Iíll take your word for it.

J: (laughs) Okay.

V: I am so in the minority--

J: (laughs) I mean, they donít have lips like people have lips. But,..

V: But they have dog lips. Thatís fine. Whatever.

J: (laughs) Did you get named after Milan Kundera?

V: No. It was my grandfatherís name.

J: Oh, cool!

V: Itís a real common Serbian name. Yesterday, at the library, the girl checking my books out told me my name means ďmeetingĒ in Hindi.

J: Wow! Like, a meeting?

V: Yeah. I think she said it was a conjugated form of the verb ďmilnaĒ.

J: Wow!

V: And a couple of years ago, a Pakistani woman told me my name is the word for the season ďSpringĒ.

J: Oh, wow!

V: Too bad no one can tell me what it means in Serbian. But my last name means ďdawnĒ, like ďsunriseĒ. There seems to be this sense of optimism in all translations of my names. (laughs)

J: Oh, so many words come from Sanskrit. Thatís probably the root. Itís amazing. Itís a really old language.

V: Yeah.

J: I have a Serbian friend. He studied magic. (laughs) He has a really fancy nose.

V: Yeah. (laughs) Thatís a Serbian trademark.

J: Itís the fanciest nose, ever!

V: Yeah. But you know what? I donít have it. If you saw me, youíd think I was in that traditional Irish band you were talking about earlier! (laughs) I am Yugoslaviaís mutt!

J: And donít you have reddish cheeks?

V: Sometimes. Not right this moment. (laughs) My poor parents. Most Serbian kids have olive skin and dark hair, and out comes me, all pasty skin and red hair!

J: (laughs) You have red hair? Thatís crazy! My trumpet player, Ara, is Armenian, and he looks so Irish!

V: He and I can start a band! (laughs)

VISIT JOLIE HERE.

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