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Where most of us see garbage, Lonnie Holley sees raw material for a sculpture. While all of us have thousands of fleeting thoughts a day, here and gone in an instant, never to be recalled again, Holley turns his into song.
Born in Alabama in 1950, Holley first came to public attention in the 1980s for his sculptures, which incorporate found objects and refuse, often salvaged from junkyards. His work was on exhibit at the 1996 Summer Olympics in Atlanta, and he's had work shown at the Smithsonian and the White House. But, despite these high-profile venues, he seems to be getting more attention than ever for his music.
It's not a stretch to say he approaches his music in a similar way to how he builds his sculptures—not by assembling Harry Partch-esque instruments from objects he finds, but through his impressionistic storytelling and ruminations. Seated behind a Nord Electro keyboard, each performance Holley gives consists of music and lyrics improvised on the spot. He gives equal weight to seemingly stray and deep thoughts, his lyrics referencing everything from conversations he was having just before the show, a description of the venue in which he is playing, the cosmos, or a lengthy autobiographical tale. He says he's been playing music for many years, but it wasn't until Lance Ledbetter, the head of the Atlanta label Dust-to-Digital, saw Holley perform in 2010 that he recorded an album. Live performances around the United States followed, along with gushing accolades and lengthy profiles by outlets such as The New York Times, NPR, and Pitchfork.
"We're living in a very technical time, so it's important there's some ways to have an output to other humans," Holley says during a phone conversation from Atlanta, where he recently moved from his native Alabama. "Right now, audio and video are the simplest ways to get to the multitude. You got churches and you got other places where humans meet, congregate, and get information, but more people now are getting their information through the technical manner, computers or iPhones or whatever. So I think my music came along at just the right time for me to reach people."
This interest in technology is apparent throughout Holley's recorded output, which, in addition to two albums, can be heard via a handful of live performances available to stream or download online. Though praise of nature and Mother Earth make frequent appearances in his half-sung, half-spoken lyrics, he is just as apt to mention satellites, Facebook, and text messages. In conversation and song, he's tuned in to how technology is continually changing and continually affecting us. "For me, it's all a part of the for-real," he says. "It is all a part of the rendered truth."
Holley has made no secret in interviews or on record about his troubled life. As a child, he was in a coma for more than three months after being hit by a car. He spent most of his teenage years in the Alabama Industrial School for Negro Children, where conditions were deplorable and the residents were routinely beaten and otherwise abused. A period of odd jobs, wandering, and depression followed, culminating in a suicide attempt following a house fire that took the lives of a niece and nephew. Surviving this, at the age of 29, he began creating art, as well as a new life, for himself.
"For me, as an artist, I'm singing about what we're involved with, and what we have to prepare ourselves for," he says. "I'm not trying to sing to make anybody dance, to get up, get funky, get loose. Instead, I'm trying to sing so people can get an understanding of life. I'm trying to be a human that has discovered something about himself, and what that self has to deal with no matter what.
"And what I try to get across to everybody is, as long as we are living, we have to say, ‘Okay, the storm came along, it took and tore everything up around us, but by us being who we are, that means we have to get back out like ants do and attack it and rebuild it.' Any creature, if you tear down their nest, they're going to get angry at the time. But when they calm down, that creature is going to go back into rebuilding for the betterment of itself."
>Lonnie Holly performs at Scruffy City Hall on Sunday, March 30, at 4 p.m. He's also hosting an interactive found-art workshop at the Knoxville Museum of Art on Saturday, March 29, at 3 p.m. Visit bigearsfestival.com for more info and a complete schedule.