Old Soul, New Slang 

SF Americana darling Jolie Holland can talk blue and sing the blues, too.

It ain't easy to spot Jolie Holland in a Haight Street cafe. As the San Francisco singer-songwriter isn't an instantly recognizable figure on the local scene, you have only her pictures to go on, but the blurred cover photo of her new album, Escondida, doesn't help, and her publicist's vague description -- "reddish hair, cat-eye glasses" -- could apply to a half-dozen young women hovering in and around Rockin' Java on this breezy spring day. Ultimately, however, it doesn't matter, as after fifteen minutes or so, she sneaks up on me with a tentative "Hi."

If you knew Holland only from the stunning alchemy of jazz, blues, pop, and hillbilly music that graces Escondida, you'd be forgiven for expecting an archetypal world-weary jazz singer from a mythical American past, rather than an unassuming 29-year-old in thrift-store duds. Talking with Holland uncovers other curious disparities: On Escondida, she is a rural poet with a keen grasp of Southern vernacular. The woman across from me, although Texas-bred, sounds like a native Californian, her speech frequently punctuated with "totally" and "ohmigod." She drops a lot of four-letter words, too, especially when she has trouble articulating a point or remembering an event, something that happens a lot today, thanks to lingering jetlag from a European press tour.

But Holland's pedigree reveals an intimate connection with the South and its music. Her family's roots in Texas go back eight generations, and her father's kin hails from Louisiana. More importantly, her two great-uncles, both now eighty years old, were musicians who played with country pioneer Bob Wills. That gave Holland a crucial support system for exploring her own musical interests. "Other families want to put musicians down because they think you'll be a bum or whatever," she says. "But my great-uncles were professionals and regionally famous, and they had a club in the '50s in Houston. So music was respected a little bit more in my family."

Since her teenage years, Holland has been attracted to Gothic styles, though not always of the Southern variety -- early on, she embraced the dark clothes and dour moods of the Cure and Siouxsie and the Banshees. It wasn't until 1996, right around the time she moved to San Francisco, when she first heard the Anthology of American Folk Music and became enamored of the sounds of the Delta and artists like Blind Willie McTell and Mississippi John Hurt. But a more contemporary outfit ultimately gave her the courage to dive into those sounds herself.

"Uncle Tupelo affected me a lot," she says. "It was the first time I heard people singing in a Southern accent and they didn't sound stupid. I hated country music when I was growing up. But I've always experimented with the way I sing, and I was trying to go for a real unique sound. All that music sounded really honest. It made a big impression on me."

Holland first took a stab at rustic folk and country in the Canadian quartet the Be Good Tanyas, though she left the group shortly after its debut album. She continued experimenting on her own, recording tracks informally at home and at friends' houses. She compiled twelve songs for Catalpa and sold it at her shows, but when word spread and Holland couldn't meet the growing demand anymore, the record was picked up by the Anti label, home to one of Holland's idols, Tom Waits. He quickly became a fan and nominated Catalpa for the 2003 Shortlist Prize, a newish American award for up-and-coming talent. (Damien Rice won instead.)

"That was sick," she says of Waits' high compliment. "I knew he had the album, but I didn't know what he thought about it for a week, so I couldn't sleep or eat. I finally found out he liked it, and I was so emotionally exhausted I couldn't even respond. Then he put it on his Shortlist, and I cried. He's like my fairy godfather."

When it came time to record the follow-up, Holland faced the daunting task of translating her homespun approach in a potentially sterile studio setting. In contrast to the largely solo approach of Catalpa, this time the guitarist and fiddler brought along her live band, guitarist Brian Miller and drummer Dave Mihaly. Escondida is a bit more polished than its predecessor, but the essence of Holland's ethereal story-songs -- she calls them "spooky American fairy tales" -- survives intact.

If Catalpa introduced people to Holland the songwriter, then its sequel fleshes out Holland the performer. "Escondida sounds more like a live show," she says. "It's how I sound with a band more than how I sound hanging out in my friend's attic at four o'clock in the morning. It's not a progression or anything. I felt like I was up to the challenge of getting in the studio. I produced it because I knew how I wanted it to sound, and it pretty much does."

What it sounds like is old. Tracks like "Sascha" and "Old Fashion Morphine" conjure images of an older America so convincingly that listeners would be forgiven for mistaking them for archeological finds from a half-century past. It's not just the haunted imagery in her songs, but also her penchant for Southern dialects that give the album its old-timey feel.

"Part of it, I think, is being from the South, so I can listen to old blues music, and I can tell exactly what the singers are saying because my grandpas speak like that," she says. "I was hanging out with some Canadian friends, and they would listen to blues, but they couldn't understand what the singers were saying. I would comment on it when they would play it in their car, like, 'Man, that's such a powerful line.' And they were, like, 'Really? You can understand this shit?'"

If Holland's performances draw on the ghosts of Ma Rainey and Billie Holiday, the songs themselves come purely from her own experiences. The deep feelings of loss and being uprooted can be traced to her own nomadic habits since leaving Texas -- she rarely stays in one place for too long.

"It really influences the storytelling in my songs," she says. "That's such a classic theme from the blues -- the idea of moving on and all that romantic shit. It's easy to draw from; when you're constantly ripping your life apart, it's easy to write songs about it."

It would be easy for casual listeners jaded by the likes of other Dixie chicks to write off Escondida as revivalist hokum. But Holland isn't just mimicking her heroes -- she is using traditional American styles as the model through which she explores her own muse, and that's what sets her apart from the crowded arena of "Americana" artists.

"It was always important to me to make something unique," she says. "I want to draw on traditions, but I'm trying to move forward a little bit."


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