PopMatters talks with Jolie Holland about making a new album with old friends and the meaning behind that bloody-good title.
Jolie Holland may be most famous for her time in the Be Good Tanyas, but the past decade has seen her carving out a niche for herself as a solo artist. In fact, in an article for the Rumpus, Rick Moody already declared her song "Mexican Blue" (from Springtime Can Kill You) the song of the millennium, mostly for its sharp lyrics. After the success of her critically-acclaimed The Living and the Dead, Holland is back with Pint of Blood (out on Anti). The new album finds her in top form, using her distinctive lilt to wrap around full instrumentation. The lo-fi, stripped down of her solo debut Catalpa is gone.
Asked if she ever misses recording in a lo-fi fashion, Holland looks back fondly on her Catalpa era but feels it was just a different time for her: "There's some pretty lo-fi stuff that I've been doing. And it's fun to work with different instruments and I really enjoyed the guitar sounds on this record, and the sound of the drums, and all of that. On Catalpa, I was really into the big Native American drum sound we used there. I was really into the electric guitar on Catalpa."
Indeed, the sound is much different on her earlier releases, even different from that on The Living and the Dead. There is more piano on Pint of Blood, an album inspired,in part by Holland's perception of Neil Young's Zuma.
Said Holland, “For whatever reason, I get inspired by metaphors sometimes. Neil Young, I just love how he talks about working in a studio, and I wanted this record to be as live as possible, and especially the vocals to be live, which means they can't be self-conscious. Even if they're messy sometimes, you just work with the first take.
“Any time it was possible, I had to completely fuck up the vocals if I wasn't going to use them. There's only three songs on there that don't have the original vocals that were sung with the band. Some of those songs--there's almost nothing that was added afterwards. Clearly, a lot of them have something going on, like Remember has so many guitar tracks, and that's all Greg and Shahzad (Ismaily).
"But, like ‘Gold and Yellow,’ every note was captured, all of us playing together, and all at the same time. The only thing that was added afterwards was that Shahzad was the drummer on it, and he went back and played bass on it. And then, I thought of Zuma as being this live record, and then I found out that the band is live but he actually went back and re-sang all those lyrics. I was inspired by his way of working, but I didn't really know how he worked.”
Ismaily indeed played a big role on the recording of Pint of Blood. Says Holland about working with him, “It's really great to work with Shahzad. Shahzad is really interesting in that I think he understands the first job of a supportive musician is to emotionally support the bandleader. So you're just thinking about feeling. So he's really got that down. And on top of that, he's a monster musician, a super-intelligent musician, but he doesn't let music theory overwhelm the feeling of music. He's got a lot of heart. Plus, he's really fun to work with. He's warm and generous and sweet, and talented as fuck.”
The emotional heart of Pint of Blood, however, is Holland's always-sharp songwriting. The melodies are composed in perfect harmony with Holland's voice and guitar work, augmented by the record's full-band sound. Holland says that most of her songs come to her in a kind of trance-state: "That's what it is. They pretty much all come out of trance states. I think that is how it works if you wait to force the songs to make you write them. The song has to come out of you trying to tell yourself something[...] I just let the songs come to me through my life and I never tried to write anything. That's been my process since I was about 16. I used to try to write songs, and then I didn't like how it sounded when I tried to write songs."
Open about what her songs mean to her, Holland talks easily about their conception, including standout tracks "Tender Mirror" and "Honey Girl." On "Tender Mirror," Holland interprets it as a reflection of everything a friend said to her, though she admits she's not entirely sure what the song is about. Said Holland, “Well, one of my best friends is a doctor of divinity from Harvard, and I feel like 'Tender Mirror' is a distillation of everything that he's ever communicated to me. His mother was a mystic and he's been one of my best friends since I was 20. His name is Tim Freeman. He's a bartender, piano-tuner, Jack of all trades. Not even a Jack, he's good at all those things. He's an artist and he lives in Houston. That's pretty much a lot of what I learned from Tim. That song probably comes from the most trance-state experience. So I don't really know what that song is about.”
Holland states that “Honey Girl” was borne of confusion about the next direction in her life. "Oh, ‘Honey Girl’! I was going to have to leave town and it was the tail end of a breakup, and I was like 'Oh, shit, I've gotta leave town. Fuck this crap' kind of song. It's sort of about hanging out with your friends trying to process stuff. It's got a lot of little stories about that stuff in there, like not knowing where to move and all of that," Holland says.
Pint of Blood also features two special gems from Holland's oeuvre. The record features a re-recording of "Little Bird" (recorded with the Be Good Tanyas as "Little Birds"). Though the song has seen many incarnations, Holland says that the version on Pint of Blood is closest to her original vision of the song: "That's the original version of it! That's how Sam and I originally wrote it. Back when the Tanyas wrote it--well, I quit the band right in the middle of recording that album. Actually in the middle of that song, because I could tell it wasn't going to work out either artistically or in a business sense, so I left the band, and they released that version many years ago. And I finally had the band to be able to record the song I wanted to, and it was fun." It is a special song, indeed, featuring references to "the wandering blues," exceptional guitar riffs, and a chorus that affirms "the littlest birds sing the prettiest songs."
Another special song on the album is "Rex's Blues," a Townes van Zandt cover. Said Holland, “I've always loved that song, and we originally imagined the record as being a little bit longer and we were going to do a really old song on there, like a child ballad song, and that one made the test. I love that song. I'm really excited for Jeanine Van Zandt to hear that song. I'm curious to see how Townes's widow is going to feel about that.”
Yet another innovation on Pint of Blood is that this album is the first record credited to Jolie Holland and the Grand Chandeliers. Holland laughs at the conception of her band name: “The Grand Chandeliers were actually born at Carnegie Hall. I got to sing one song at Carnegie Hall, and it was an REM tribute night, and I got to do ‘Don't Go Back to Rockville.’ My backing band was Calexico, but I brought in my own backup singers. I just wanted us to have a name. The backup singers were so cute.
"It was Colin Stetson, who's now in Arcade Fire, and Kip Malone, who's in TV On the Radio, and my dear buddy Matt Bauer, who I've been playing music with for many years. It was three handsome men in suits for my backup singers. It was really fun! I just thought it was a really funny name, becuase it's also really femme-y, you know? That was the first time Jolie Holland and the Grand Chandeliers performed. Whoever is in my New York band is the Grand Chandeliers.”
Despite the sanguine sound of the album's title, Holland assures listeners that it is actually life-affirming rather than vitality-draining. “It's a misquote from William Burroughs. So William Burroughs has this line where he says 'if you hang out with a person for half an hour and you later feel as if you've lost a quart of plasma, that person is not your friend.' So, like the idea of calling the record Pint of Blood is that when you're around people who give you vitality.”
Indeed, it is an album that, although occasionally bittersweet (check the lyrics for the opening track, "All Those Girls") leaves listeners feeling like they're just received a fresh transfusion. And, to mix metaphors, that blood is a breath of fresh air.