JOLIE HOLLAND with DAVID DONDERO at the Horseshoe (370 Queen West), Friday (October 13). $15. 416-598-4753. Rating: NNNNN
A rundown motel in a strip mall on the remote outskirts of L.A. isn't the type of place you imagine giving birth to great country songs.
But there, sprawled on a bed at a roadside inn that reeks of cheap cleaning products and while she's talking to me on the phone Jolie Holland is belting out a farewell letter to the shithole she's about to leave behind.
Filtered through the distorted vowels and drawn-out consonants of Holland's near-holy wail, the urban wasteland becomes transformed by images of redemption, departure and thwarted hope.
The Texas-born-and-bred wanderer can find beauty in the ugliest places as easily as she makes her home anywhere she happens to land.
"I've only been hanging out here a week," she sighs over the phone after setting down her guitar, "but it feels too much like home already. My "home,' for lack of a better word, is in the people around me. There's a beautiful Vietnamese way of saying things where the term for spouse is the same as the expression for your home, so if someone comes to talk to your wife and she's not there, you say, "My home's not home.'
"But with all the stuff I'm doing lately, I think I'm more comfortable being in one place. Paradoxically," she adds, "I'm living on the road."
Her itinerant nature's something that's defined both the girl and her music since before she started performing. The 30-year-old's rolled with circus freaks, jammed with members of mega-fan Tom Waits's band (and a good chunk of the San Francisco roots and jazz scene) and bounced from Texas to New Orleans to California since she was a teenager.
Holland originally connected with the girls who'd become the Be Good Tanyas (she was a founding member and co-penned their breakout hit, The Littlest Birds) while drifting through the BC mountains planting trees. Restlessness and "artistic differences" inspired her to move on, surviving as a waitress when she couldn't raise cash as a travelling musician.
You hear the effects of constant motion in everything Holland does. Her adaptability lends her an effortless openness that allows her to play a song penned the night before and recite a poem she wrote at age six to a stranger over the phone. The songs on her new Springtime Can Kill You (Anti-) are a magnolia-heady blend of Louisiana zydeco, Baptist church gospel, Appalachian folk, San Francisco jazz and pure Texas country.
And then there's the weird gothic magic of the indefinable languid, cat-stretch accent of her vocals. Holland rolls words around in her mouth like she's savouring a penny-candy sour ball, drawling out the syllables like each is its own mini-story.
"Southerners have these ghosts who come up in their voices when they speak," she offers in a voice that's more Fast Times At Ridgemont High than the voodoo child that comes out when she sings. "Nina Simone rocks my world with her crazy Alabama accent. I love the bloodiness of it. Most people are all influenced by the TV and some shit; they think you're supposed to sound a certain way if you're from the South, but it's not like that at all.
"The first time I heard emotionally sophisticated music sung by someone with a Southern accent was Uncle Tupelo. I must've been 17 or something, and it was beautiful enough to make a major impression. Before that, I'd been listening to a lot of jazz and punk rock and British pop, but Uncle Tupelo made me realize I could sing in my natural speaking voice and people would pay attention.
"Melodically, one of my biggest influences is Thelonious Monk," Holland continues. "He throws in all these melodic imprints of his personality to make an artistic statement that says, "Hey, we're alive! We don't have to do things in a prescribed manner!' And all I wanna do is grab your attention and make you listen to the meaning of what I'm saying."
Holland first got noticed as a solo artist on the basis of Catalpa, a collection of rough demos in the vein of Will Oldham's cult Guaropero recordings, rickety folk songs about dying and wandering set on street corners and alleyways. Anti- (home to like-minded neo-trad troubadours like Tom Waits, Neko Case and Nick Cave) paid attention and gave the demo a proper release.
She followed it with 2004's Escondida, a proper studio recording jammed with blues-country wailers like Old-Fashion Morphine written after she swiped hardcore painkillers from her dying grandpa and star-crossed love songs.
But it's this year's Springtime Can Kill You, written in the middle of an emotional breakdown, that shows Holland at the top of her game. A near-narrative song cycle that moves through heartbreak, closeted skeletons and personal salvation, the album is a marvel of reinventing tradition from the pseudo-suicidal ragtime of the title track to the glockenspiel-accented roots of epic album closer Mexican Blue.
It's a record spattered with emotional blood and guts, coming from a much darker and autobiographically transparent place than Escondida. Holland says the downer tone was calculated.
"I may be an entertainer, but I chose to make the third record bitter medicine. I was really freaked out by the way Escondida was received. It was just"." she trails off. "Okay. It was, like, at number two at Amazon.com for two days. Number one was Velvet Revolver even Norah Jones was lower! That's fuckin' freaky coming from the background I come from.
"Getting my picture taken, having writers write my life story in magazines" all that shit horrified me. I was working as a waitress, used to being the undiscovered genius.
"As a girl, there's this really painful paradigm that being an entertainer pulls you into. You have these macroculture burlesque artists, like Christina Aguilera and all them, and all of a sudden I was being included in that group. I know burlesque artists, and what they do is really fun, but that's not what I do."
Hollering about her demons on Springtime Can Kill You in a pieced-together form that's less instantly accessible than the smoothed-down gothic roots of Escondida was one way for Holland to dismiss any residual burlesque expectations.
On a more immediate level, she's also been negotiating how to be a confident female performer without having to sexualize herself in a demeaning way. Over the past year, Holland says, that's been tough, especially after a freak incident with a boiled-over car battery caused liver problems that caused her to drop a bunch of weight.
"I could barely eat, which made me lose, like, 30 pounds. All my life I've been hit on by either total sleazeballs or people in my cultural niche, like punk rockers and arty weirdos. But now that I have a more traditionally "hot' thing going on, normal yahoos are hitting on me. At shows now, I have to work on altering the symbol of being a girl pop singer.
"I was wearing a low-cut shirt at one of my shows recently, and some asshole in the second row was making these construction worker noises at me. My response was to fuck with him by playing the most disturbing, serious songs I could think of and totally alter the dynamic. So I launched into a song set in a mental hospital and segued into another one about losing my mind.
"I'm not up there to show you my tits," Holland says. You can hear the smile in her voice. "Everybody may be able to see my tits, but I wanna see everyone's tits. I like cleavage! Everybody should wear low-cut shit."