Cover Story [Issue
Spooky American Fairytales
CD Anti- )
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.
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
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
"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.'
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'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.