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Cover Story [Issue # 6 ]
Jolie Holland: Spooky American Fairytales

By Lynne Bronstein

Catalpa ( CD Anti- )

In a time of many independent CDs and few outlets for independent music, Jolie Holland has beaten the odds. Her album, Catalpa, originally issued in a limited edition and sold at gigs and through the Internet, has just been reissued on Epitaph's Anti label.

She's already preparing a second album, her "proper" debut, to be released in mid-2004. And there's a buzz among the critics-they've compared her to Billie Holiday, Robert Johnson, even Bob Dylan.

Sounding at times like an aged blues singer on a scratchy 78, Jolie sings original songs that also sound like old blues, or like the folk music of early 1960s Greenwich Village clubs. Bucking the contemporary music's love of fine-tooled production values, Catalpa even boasts a couple of coughs and something that gets dropped on the floor (or so it sounds), plus such unfashionable instrumentation as a musical saw.

How did a modern young woman from Texas channel the soul of the blues and parlay a collection of basement-style tapes into one of the most unique recording debuts in recent memory? ONE WAY recently chatted with Jolie Holland and got her story:


"It's hard to say that where somebody's from has that much to do with what they really sound like," says Jolie. "I'm from suburban Houston-it's like any suburb.[But] I think I have a real strong imprint from my grandparents' generation-Louisiana and East Texas. Leadbelly's from the same part of East Texas as my grandparents. They were proud of that."
She listened to punk, citing "Screeching Weasels" as a favorite band. But when she discovered the blues: "I found I could understand what they were saying better than my friends who weren't from the south."


After high school, Jolie abandoned formal education and ran off to join the contemporary version of a traveling carnival. "The people who had a big influence on me were these really amazing people around Austin and New Orleans-puppeteers, different kinds of sideshow performers. I decided I wasn't going to go to college. I settled down in Austin-actually I sort of perched there. My friends' parents were professors at a college in Louisiana and they did a documentary about my friends and I in this art scene. It was the kind of encouragement I needed to be happy with my decision [to not go to college and to hit the road]. I think going to college would have been a big waste of time for me."

Be Good Tanyas:

Jolie's travels eventually took her to Vancouver where she met up with two like-minded folk music women, Trish Klein and Samantha Parton. They became the folk group Be Good Tanyas, a name Jolie suggested in honor of a song written by her friend Obo Martin. "He's this Irish San Franciscan guy. He wrote 'Be Good Tanya' when he was on the road at age 18.I thought it would be an irony to name the band after a song that was totally unknown. Like the way some blues bands, like the Broom Dusters, were named for obscure blues songs.

"I was the original songwriter in the band and Trish played banjo and guitar with me. Samantha Parton joined up and then Frazey Ford joined and I said 'There's too many cooks in the kitchen.' I realized that as a collective, it was going to move in a direction other than I wanted to go, so that's when I jumped ship."

Jolie's contributions to Be Good Tanyas can be heard on the band's first album Blue Horse, which contains an earlier version of "The Littlest Birds" heard on Catalpa.
The Funny Tree
The catalpa tree, which Jolie first saw on a Texas farm, is what she describes as a "tough looking tree: which nevertheless has "filmy Azalea-like bunches of flowers... as dichotomous as a tall drag queen in a frilly white dress." It was the perfect eccentric title for an offbeat recording project.

"It was really inspired by some of the CDs that Will Oldham has released. He and I have the same booking agent right now. He's one of my favorite artists ever. He wrote a song that Johnny Cash covered. He has an album, I think it's called 'Guarapero' which is really super-different recordings, from radio, live shows, etc.

"I had a bunch of scraps of recordings and I thought it would be nice to use them in a collection. I gave the songs to my friend (Chris Arnold, whom Jolie describes as a "sound scientist") and he compiled the arrangement from the disparate recordings.

"The musicians were all my friends. Samantha came down from Vancouver; she was just visiting. Chris Arnold played saw on "Catalpa" and the interesting thing is he's not even a musician! I have three great musical saw players in my circle of friends. They all played "Happy Birthday" for me on the saw, in completely different styles!" (That's not on the album).
The non-original songs included a couple of traditional blues numbers, a musical setting of the W.B. Yeats poem "Wandering Angus," and the aforementioned "The Littlest Birds" which is credited to Holland, Samantha Parton, and Syd Barrett, the reclusive songwriter and Pink Floyd founder.
"I love Syd Barrett," says Jolie. "When I was learning to play the guitar, some of the first songs I learned were Syd Barrett songs. [He] really influenced my guitar playing and songwriting. I think the first song I learned in C was his 'Jug Band Blues.' Samantha
wrote the chords for 'The Littlest Birds' and it just happened to be the same chord structure as 'Jug Band Blues' so I just added it to the end of the song."

How The Little CD Grew

Like many another indie CD, Catalpa was originally sold to friends and at Jolie's gigs. She hired some people to make reproductions and soon realized she'd need more than a few. "By the time there were 40 copies out in the world, this guy I know who used to publish a magazine was offering me $30,000 for the rights to it.

"It's so funny but I go to eBay now and people are selling the ones that I made."

She made use of online music stores, especially CDBaby, and got airplay on independent radio stations such as New Jersey's WFMU, and the SF Bay area's KALX. "I was in the top 10 on WFMU. I was most impressed to know that it was getting all this airplay on the East Coast. I've never played the East Coast so that was kind of encouraging."

And then the accolades began to come. First up was Dan Strochata in the San Francisco Weekly, who caught her in concert and noted that the man sitting next to him was "stomping on the floor and hollering" during Jolie's set. Other Bay area papers followed suit, as did Salon.com and Michael Goldberg's web site neumu.net. Goldberg called Catalpa "what could be the album of the year" and his review is reprinted on the liner notes of the reissue.

Eventually, Sub Pop Records took an interest in Jolie's work. The contract she was offered didn't evolve into a deal but one thing led to another. "In order to work with that contract, I hired a lawyer. [He's] in L.A. and he knew someone who knew the president of Epitaph. He sent the CD to them." And thus Jolie Holland was signed to Epitaph and the album reissued on their Anti imprint.

The Pendulum Swings

Jolie says Epitaph isn't planning too much promotion for Catalpa and that's fine with her. "This is being put out as sort of an 'appetizer' for the next record that I'm going to finish this month. I've recorded different versions of it but I'm planning to record a final version."

Still, the re-release of Catalpa was exciting. "My family is so hilarious-they were going around to all the different record stores in Houston, taking pictures of it. And I just found out I got reviewed in Rolling Stone. My boyfriend is in Russia and he called me and read it to me over the phone!"

"This is the second time that lightning has struck for me. It's the second time that a demo of mine has gotten radio airplay. All of the stuff I did with Be Good Tanyas was demos and they've been played all over the world.

"The way I think about it is this: if the pendulum swings too far one way, it has to swing the other way. And I think people are ready. You see evidence of this: Willie Nelson just released his demos. The really simple strong sound of-what's their name-the White Stripes. I think people's taste buds are ready for a simple sound."

And if the simple yet spicy tunes offered as appetizers by Catalpa are any indication, Jolie Holland is cooking up one hell of a main course, with many meals to come.


Spooky American Fairytales Jolie Holland Catalpa

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