Upon the Wine Dark Sea: An Interview with Jolie Holland

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From the beginning of Catalpa – emerging in 2003, with an admixture of folk and blues at once ethereal and stomping, and opening out on repeated listens to expose moments of the most intimate human connection – Jolie Holland has released six albums of outstanding worth. Her distinctive voice has been admired by artists including Tom Waits, Lou Reed, and St. Vincent, and she has collaborated with musicians from Sage France to Booker T. Jones. After 2011’s tightly wrought Pint of Blood, last year’s Wine Dark Sea was a searing work stretching out across and beyond all of the realms of American music. Leading two drummers, three fellow guitarists, and a bassist on an album which she co-produced, and which also features reeds and strings, Wine Dark Sea proved Jolie’s boldest, most confident and ambitious record to date.

Jolie Holland and her band are currently on a tour across Europe, which will see them complete eight dates in England alongside appearances at music festivals in Freiburg and Ghent. Starting out last Monday in Zürich, from Wednesday Jolie performed in Leicester and Bristol – on both occasions supported by Black Yaya, the latest project of multi-instrumentalist David Ivar – and Winchester. This evening she will headline at the week-long Zelt-Musik-Festival Freiburg.

Tomorrow she returns to England: to Norwich Arts Centre on Monday, where she will be supported by Danni Nicholls; to Brudenell Social Club in Leeds on Tuesday; The Basement in York on Wednesday; LEAF in Liverpool on Thursday; and Ramsgate Music Hall on Friday. By Saturday, she will be in Belgium for Gentse Feesten 2015, which brings together popular, classical, and world music and jazz, alongside theatre, dance, puppetry, and acts of comedy and the circus.

Wine Dark Sea was this website’s album of the year for 2014; and appears prominently too on Culturedarm’s revised ‘Albums of the Decade So Far‘. An ardent Jolie Holland fan from the time of her earliest solo releases, I was delighted to correspond with her over the course of this weekend. Jolie expounds on a wide range of topics, including her evolution as a bandleader, the Homeric title of Wine Dark Sea, and her sense of the Haitian Vodoun. She also discusses Lou Reed, Blind Willie McTell, Patsty Cline, and Albert Ayler, and some of the music inspiring the current tour.

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Culturedarm: You have spoken with regard to Wine Dark Sea about your development as a bandleader – suggesting that you really came into your own as a bandleader in the process of creating and recording the album. What has that development entailed? Has it meant a different way of hearing, of picking out and putting together instruments and parts? Has it meant a changed, refined, or more vigorous method of communication? When conveying what you want from a musician, do you tend towards musical or non-musical expression: metaphors, references to other artists, animals, shapes, colours, and so on?

Jolie Holland: My main handicap as a bandleader is that I was raised by anti-feminist fundamentalists. To lead anything other than a bake sale goes directly against my raising. It took me some years to recover from the worst of my bad animal training.

Music is such a collaborative process, so that I have been a sideman in many contexts, and every member of my band is a bandleader of their own projects. Most musicians are constantly moving between leading and being led. You learn a lot from working with bad bandleaders: you are subjected to all the sins that you never want to commit. The Great bandleaders are a little harder to learn from. Like any master, they move so seamlessly that it’s hard to identify any specific points in the flow of perfection. It just feels like magic to be in a great band. Doug Wieselman, our bandmate who was in Lou Reed’s band, said it felt like being consumed by an invisible fire to play with Lou.

In leading a band, first I use my players – I imagine what parts they can deliver easily. I want my band to sound like themselves. If they’re shy, I encourage them to really get in there and express themselves within the context of the song. Sometimes someone can’t play what you need from them, and then you have to get psychological, figure out what’s keeping them from the sound.

Culturedarm: Your band for Wine Dark Sea comprised seven core musicians: Dan Rieser and Justin Veloso on drums; Indigo Street and Adam Brisbin on electric guitar; Doug Wieselman on electric guitar, bass, and horn; Geoffrey Muller on bass; with Douglas Jenkins co-producing the album alongside you, and also contributing cello; while you sang and played rhythm guitar, piano, and violin. In contrast Pint of Blood featured just three musicians. What was the recording process like with so many musicians to accommodate?

Jolie Holland: It’s nothing but a joy to work with great musicians. Some of them were acquainted before we did the album, but most of them had never met. It was so exciting to introduce them to each other. A lot of them have gone on now to play in different projects together.

Culturedarm: With the size of the band and the depth of the sound on record, have the songs on Wine Dark Sea posed any particular challenges when transposed to a live setting? Does the setlist and the manner of performance change show by show?

Jolie Holland: Many of the songs are composed as templates. I want the performance to be of the moment. Some of the songs have tighter constraints than others. ‘I Thought It Was The Moon’ has the most expansive form, the one most likely to sound different night to night.

In terms of choosing material, you have to play what you’re most excited about. We have so much to choose from. I’ve played week-long residencies, a different band every night, and only repeated a couple songs twice.

Culturedarm: Your album revitalises the ‘wine dark sea’ of Homer, with the phrase ‘epi oinopa ponton’ – translating as ‘upon the wine-dark sea’ – appearing throughout the Odyssey. Apparently there is some debate around Homer’s use of the phrase, given that the Aegean Sea is just as blue as any other. Some see it as a poetic device, while others have sought to explain the suggested colour as the impression of a reflected red sunset. In James Joyce’s Ulysses, he offers instead the ‘snotgreen sea’ and the ‘scrotumtightening sea’. What is your perception of the sea, and do you have a favourite place by the sea?

Jolie Holland: I have nightmares about the beach: giant tsunamis, flying dreams where the winds pull me out over the sea.

The phrase ‘Wine Dark Sea’ has always been beautiful and mysterious to me. In the context of the album, I used it in tribute to one of my best friends, Stefan Jecusco, who recently became obsessed with the ancient Greeks. Stefan is an absolute genius, one of the greatest minds and characters I’ve ever encountered. Our work has often dovetailed over the years.

There are a lot of references to the epic journey on this record. There are musical references to one of my favourite Blind Willie McTell songs, where he talks about crossing the Jordan river into eternity. There are musical and lyrical references to going to hell, to underworlds, to jail for the rest of your life. To be ‘Out On The Wine Dark Sea’ is to be in the midst of your mysterious journey.

Like a lot of cultures, the ancient Greeks didn’t have a word for blue. Who knows what they were thinking? Homer said the sky was the color of bronze.

Culturedarm: Elsewhere you have related the album’s title and Greek mythology to Haitian mythology, the spirits of Lwa. How do the Haitian Lwa differ from the spirits and deities of other mythologies and esoteric religions; and to what extent are they a frequent presence in your work?

Jolie Holland: Vodoun is a fascinating flower that bloomed despite of, in the midst of brutal colonialism. African and Native American deities dance together, often under the guise of European Christian saints.

Some pre-Christian European gods have a similar history: when their worship proved too difficult to eradicate, they were given a Christian veneer, and were “grandfathered in” as saints.

In the past few years, I became fascinated with Vodoun as a beautiful testament to human culture. It is a vast, living literature preserved not in books, but in music, dance, story, art and ritual.

Two songs on Wine Dark Sea speak to archetypical principles associated with Lwa: ‘All The Love’ and ‘Out On The Wine Dark Sea’.

In the first verse of ‘All The Love’, I talk about the top hat, the wine, the things that are kept ready on the altar, if divinity is ever embodied again. On one level it’s a perfectly sincere and straightforward lovesong. But it could be seen from other perspectives. In the Vodoun peristyle, altars are maintained with the costumes and favorite foods of the Lwa. If a serviteur is possessed of the deity, they can dress in their proper attire, and refresh themselves. In principle, the altars are a testament of preparedness for vision, for love, for inspiration.

To speak about these things in a love song is an admission of destitution, like Patsy Cline’s “Little Things”.

I pointed to the universality of archetype by talking about Haitian analogues to Greek dieties, mostly, which reflects my family background in New Orleans. My grandmother from there is African, Choctaw and French. So in some ways I was exploring my roots through the themes on this album. Maya Deren and Sallie Ann Glassman’s syncretic work led me to see the archetypical nature of the Lwa, and their underlying connection to the Ancient Greek gods.

Culturedarm: By your late teens, you had left your hometown of Houston, and moved to Austin. From your earliest work, your songwriting has made tangible emotions and locales, often opening out from a keen sense of place. How important is the depiction of place in the practise of songwriting?

Jolie Holland: I wouldn’t say I moved to Austin. I was a homeless teenager there, as well as in New Orleans. I lived on the road for many years, rarely staying in one place longer than a month. Maybe it’s a habit I got into. I still live on the road quite a lot, even when I’m not touring. I don’t really refer to places in my writing very much, not as much as some songwriters. I’m more interested in portraying psychological states.

Culturedarm: Your albums have sometimes featured adaptations of other musicians’ songs: Riley Puckett on Springtime Can Kill You, Townes Van Zandt on Pint of Blood, and the cover of Joe Tex’s ‘The Love You Save’ on Wine Dark Sea. More, you have sung works or passages written by other songwriters: Carl Sigman’s ‘Enjoy Yourself’ on The Living and the Dead, and an excerpt from Syd Barrett on ‘The Littlest Birds’. With such a powerful and distinctive voice of your own, is it ever a question of rejecting or incorporating mannerisms – or do you simply do your own thing? Are such covers an intrinsic part of the thought process behind a given album, or do they demand inclusion at a later point, once an album has already come together?

Jolie Holland: Music, like theatre, is a collective action. I couldn’t be a bandleader without a band. I didn’t invent my instruments or my vocal cords. The scope of this art form is just to demonstrate how an artist handles these elements. Covers are powerful in that they demonstrate how a song can be arranged. Especially if the song is well known, then it can function as a template for presence.

Culturedarm: Wine Dark Sea is certainly your noisiest record to date. While you have sometimes been uneasily pigeonholed within the loosely defined but firmly conceptualised realm of Americana, Wine Dark Sea more clearly brings together some of the sounds of garage rock, free jazz, and soul. I’m especially interested in learning more about your relationship with jazz. I have read that you especially like Albert Ayler?

Jolie Holland: I’d argue that garage rock, free jazz and soul are Americana. That scared-sounding, bland stuff that’s called Americana is mostly unlistenable for me.

Any good music, and especially Albert Ayler’s, is a soul-saving balm. Ayler is antivenom to the painfully metronomic, robotic crap we’re subjected to.

Culturedarm: How is your non-fiction project – described as a bringing together of strange occurrences, ghost stories, and a few Sasquatch encounters – coming on?

Jolie Holland: I’m 50 chapters in. So I guess that means I’m ready for an editor.

Culturedarm: Your opening performances on this tour of England, on Wednesday and Thursday in Leicester and Bristol, were supported by Black Yaya. How did the shows go?

Jolie Holland: Black YaYa is a dream. He’s a beautiful artist and a wonderful soul. We guest starred in his set, being his backup singers and playing in his band. And he joined us for our set – he’s a kickass guitarist. I’m so confident having him in the band that I threw him a song he’d never played before: he aced it fearlessly. Our last encore came as a surprise even to us. It was a bright, clean burning flame – we brought out the Velvet Underground’s ‘I Found A Reason’

Culturedarm: Are you listening to much music while on this tour?

Jolie Holland: We listened to The Kinks from the early 70’s today. It really hit the spot. We had a Neil Young marathon on a long drive the other day – from On the Beach to The Monsanto Years.