It seems almost inevitable that a woman named Holly Golightly Smith, born in 1966, would end up in a punk band. And the story of Holly Golightly the musician and singer has a sense of inevitability to it, even though each step along the way has owed as much to happenstance as intention.
Smith’s career started around 1990, when Billy Childish, leader of the British garage band Thee Headcoats, recruited his bandmates’ girlfriends to sing backup on one of the band’s couple of dozen albums. Smith was dating drummer Bruce Brand at the time.
“It was just a bunch of friends, really,” she says. “Thee Headcoats were a band already, and we were the girlfriends of Thee Headcoats, and they wanted some girls singing on one of their records. I can’t even remember which one it was. It went pretty good—none of us had had much singing practice. So Billy said, ‘Why don’t we put out a girl record, because we haven’t done that before.’ We just made our own record and it just went from there. It was a happy accident.”
The backup singers quickly picked up instruments and became Thee Headcoatees, a spin-off of Childish’s prolific group. Thee Headcoatees recorded several albums and CDs through the 1990s before officially disbanding in 1999. By then, though, Smith had already started performing and recording solo as Holly Golightly.
“That’s the book my mom was reading when she was pregnant,” Smith says. “I didn’t use it until I had cause to. I certainly didn’t use it at school. I was just Holly, and still am. It was really when we made the first Headcoatees record and everybody was like, ‘What should we call ourselves?’ I was like, ‘Well, I’ve already got a made-up name.’ And it went on. That was the legacy of it. I never realized it would be 40 records.”
Since the mid-2000s, Smith has been performing with “Lawyer” Dave Drake as Holly Golightly and the Brokeoffs; the duo has released five albums of rackety and haunting country music with the same undertones of R&B, pre-bop jazz, and loungy pop that run through Thee Headcoatees’ music.
“Dave has been playing upright bass on tour with me for probably about 10 years, on and off,” Smith says. “We had a notion—we talked about doing something before but never really had the time to do it. And it just so happened that we were in the same place long enough to get it done. And that was our first record.”
But Smith’s solo career has, almost as much by necessity as choice, leaned toward a twangier, more rustic sound than the brash ’50s and ’60s rockabilly revivalism of that band. The notable covers on the Brokeoffs’ brand-new fifth album, No Help Coming, are Wavy Gravy’s “L.S.D. (Rock ’n’ Roll Prison)” and a joyous duet interpretation of Bill Anderson’s “The Lord Knows I’m Drinkin’,” a hit for Cal Smith in 1973.
The duo configuration lends itself more easily to acoustic music than noisy electric rave-ups, though Smith and Drake do what they can to add volume and energy. Recently, Dave has added a drum kit to keep rhythms with the acoustic slide and heavily reverbed electric guitar he plays in the Brokeoffs. The effect, on songs like the shambling “Get Out of My House,” is kind of like a two-person one-man band; elsewhere, like the slow, moody ballad “The Only One,” his minimal percussion provides just enough rhythm to keep the song from floating away.
“We would have gotten bored just standing up and playing guitars,” Smith says. “We wouldn’t have been able to do that for long without falling asleep. It was to make it a bit more interesting, a bit more rhythmic.”
A few years ago, Smith and Drake settled in rural Georgia. They live on a remote spread, on what’s technically a working farm. ”We’re not there, and we’re not dedicated enough to the time that would be required to turn over a profit, but yeah, we have milking goats and I raise geese,” Smith says. “We have horses and dogs and chickens and ducks.”
But living in the South hasn’t changed the way Smith relates to the kind of music she draws inspiration from.
“Music in the South now isn’t what it was 75 years ago, and that’s the music from the South that I’m mostly interested in,” she says. “I live in a little bubble. It wouldn’t actually make a lot of difference where we were. We made the first album at my house in England, and that might be considered to be the most country album I’ve made. There isn’t really good music to be had of the type that I’m interested in, probably for a very wide radius from where I live.”