In this edition of ‘Whatever Happened To….’, serial contributor, Tim Martin, takes a look at the career of a fine musician who quit The Be Good Tanyas just as their star started to ascend.
In 2003 Jolie Holland self-released an album of quiet, gentle songs under the name ‘Catalpa‘, sounding like it was just a few songs being played in someone’s front room, which is exactly what it was. Despite the presence of several other players, not always clearly audible, the focus was on simple melodies supporting Holland’s distinctive voice. Comparisons were immediately made with her former band The Be Good Tanyas. Their first album ‘Blue Horse’ shared a song with ‘Catalpa’ in ‘The Littlest Birds’ The stark stripped back quality of Holland’s version made the ‘Blue Horse’ recording sound positively over arranged. She had in fact featured extensively on the Be Good Tanyas’ album but had left by the time it was released in 2001.
Her second solo album ‘Escondida’ was originally billed as being a “proper” debut as it was recorded in a real studio. Fortunately, there was little noticeable difference in her approach to the songs. The homespun feel was intact despite the presence of piano, and brass. If anything she seemed to have retreated to an earlier musical time. This album could have easily been recorded in 1934, with songs like ‘Old Fashioned Morphine’ sounding more like Billie Holiday playing with Louis Armstrong and Sidney Bechet than anything else. The Holiday comparison has followed her despite her music reconnecting with more recent styles on her later albums. Her Texas accent gives her a distinctive sound and her measured delivery of a lyric certainly recalls the early Jazz and Blues singers like Ida Cox or Bessie Smith as much as singers like Nina Simone. Her music has evolved towards a sound that includes Indie Rock and Soul. She has covered Joe Tex as well as traditional Appalachian songs.
Since her sixth solo record, she has released an album with former Be Good Tanyas’ bandmate Samantha Parton, who has been a constant throughout her career, in 2017. Since then has played live shows around the West Coast and Texas and started a Patron page where she has been releasing new songs and videos to her subscribers recently. She also has a Podcast called Ghost Story Salon, which she describes as “a talk show about some of our more inexplicable experiences”.
Jolie Holland pulls influences from across the whole spectrum of American music, Folk, Blues, Jazz, and Soul. Live she can be a very different prospect from her more restrained albums, with multiple electric guitars producing atonal sheets of sound closer to Coltrane than country. Her words could often come from an American Gothic novel, and she claims influences from “William Blake to Sylvia Plath to Patti Smith”. Tom Waits is a fan and you can see why. Holland is an Americana artist from the same mold as Waits, constantly shifting as she finds new sounds and songs to explore but remaining rooted in the traditions of American music and writing from the last hundred years.
If you want to hear a genuinely unique Americana talent finding her voice and then experimenting with where it can taker her start with ‘Catalpa’, then try ‘Springtime Can Kill You’ and her album with Samantha Parton, ‘Wildflower Blues’. Once you have dug that deep, however, you will want to hear the rest of her albums.