"The power of ignorance is really special in terms of songwriting," says singer/songwriter and multi-instrumentalist Jolie Holland from her new Brooklyn digs. (She says she moves about once a year, but for the last four years has stayed within the Prospect Park neighborhood.) "There's something really awesome about not knowing what you're doing at all. What's wrong about that is that there are so many terrible ways that people try to teach each other things. Schooling is so awful lots of the time, and musical education can be so destructive.
"I really try to hold on to my ignorance. So the things that interested me 10 years ago, I'm only now able to incorporate into my songwriting after having loved them for 10 years. I really try to keep it all as gut level as I can. It's art. It's medicine. I'm not really attracted to intellectual music."
Here's hoping that Holland never learns how to make music the way everybody else does. Her lyrics tend toward peripatetic optimism and rhetorical, occasionally romantic, philosophy. She plays familiar instruments—banjo, accordion, guitars, violin, ukulele, pianos (both toy and the other kind)—in unfamiliar ways that are almost always pretty. She sings as if she has not heard others sing, almost as if she's French-inhaling her words in a way that allows her to harmonize with or question herself in real time. All factors combined, Holland's music is exceptional. It's not by chance that she shares a label (Anti–) with two of her biggest fans, fellow iconoclasts Tom Waits and Nick Cave. And though she's clearly immersed in the history of music and poetry, any references to peers or forebears come and go as coincidence or ricochet rather than emulation.
"That ‘Coat of Blue' song, I heard that through Uncle Dave Macon," Holland says when an example presents itself. "But before that, my friend Stefan Jecusco used that melody or parts of it in a lot of his songs. It's all so timeless. It's all just people making noises and communicating with each other. I just go for what I'm interested in; I don't think about time frame and I'm not trying to be old-timey."
Several songs from Holland's four albums make direct reference to the Beats, William S. Burroughs in particular. "Mexico City," from The Living and the Dead, her most recent recording, is a song in which she imagines the ruminations of Burroughs' wife Joan, before he famously accidentally killed her there. Yet one would be misled to attribute those references to anything like interest on the part of the songwriter.
"I only do that because I had some weird dreams about them," Holland says. "A lot of my friends were friends with them, and that happened in a normal, casual way. I'm kind of in the next generation of the exact same scene—or whatever, a couple generations. It's just the network of artists I know all over America. But I'm not all that attracted to the work of the Beats. It's just kind of around."
Over the course of a 25-minute conversation, Holland stresses no less than four times that she is not old-timey. But a listener could be forgiven for first impressions. Her plucky stringwork has more in common with the sounds of Alan Lomax field recordings than anything else recorded during the past decade and a half. And Holland's striking originality evokes American music at the turn of the 20th century, before radio, records, and television homogenized the lot of us.
Holland has some appealing theories about the attractions of history and its trappings.
"There is something very comforting about referencing stuff that's old," she says. "And I think it's really a disease of people who feel unrooted."
As evidence, she digresses, giggling, into the anthropological study of a village founded 1,400 years ago on Nova Scotia, supposedly one of the oldest continuously populated places in North America.
"When the scientists got there to study the place, there wasn't any old-time shit around," she says. "It was all brand-spanking new. These people were so rooted that they didn't need any of that stuff.
"But me, my shit, even if it's brand new it looks old. This asshole who was helping me move, that I had to fire—he banged up my piano so bad—this really annoying, really normal person, told me, ‘All your shit looks like it came off the Titanic.' Then he looks at me and he goes, ‘You look like you came off the Titanic, too.'
Holland laughs in a warble, the way she might laugh scales while singing a Jolie Holland song about a woman who survives the sinking of the Titanic just to fire her piano mover.
"I'm not an old-timey person," Holland says again. "But being a person who is kind of rootless, there is something comforting about it."