Imagine you could experience emotion like those with synesthesia, who perceive sounds as having color or shape. Would you witness love emanating from strangers like exquisite rose blooms, or depression trailing behind in a wake of dark clouds?
This idea approaches the aesthetic of Jolie Holland, whose wavering alto comes out of her with such supple intensity, the emotions animating her songs almost assume a shape and expression all their own, with Holland but the medium.
Her quivering vocals recall blues icons Bessie Smith or Billie Holiday, sometimes drifting casually like smoke across the footlights; at other times twinkling with the pulsing insistence of a sparkler. Born in Houston, Holland helped start the neo-traditional Americana act The Be Good Tanyas before launching her solo career.
Her first demos were so stark and powerful that the buzz forced their release in 2003 as her unofficial debut. She followed it a year later with her studio debut, “Escondida,” driven by a laconic, oft-jazzy blend of swing, country, folk and blues. It so keenly captured the spirit of a sepia-tinged past that she got branded with the “old-timey music” label, a characterization that rather chafes her and has driven her in a new direction.
“All the records are about trying to capture the spirit of the moment,” Holland said. “And for the last two records, I’ve been playing with more rock musicians, and writing more rock songs. In order to perform the songs I was writing, I needed to change bands. And I needed to stop working with somebody that’s a beautiful jazz drummer to really change the feel.”
This endeavor to change her sound and people’s perception of her eventually resulted in this year’s “Pint of Blood.” While informed by the past and American roots music, the album mixes in many other elements with deftness that defies pigeonholing. It simply sounds like Holland.
“(The title) relates to a quote by William Burroughs, which goes something like, if you hang out with a person for an hour and later feel like you’ve lost a quart of plasma, that person is not your friend,” she said. “The idea of ‘Pint of Blood’ is like the inverse of that. It’s the sensation of feeling built up by good people and real inspiration.”
For her, the idea is to re-create the magic of the moment with a purity that brings it back to life.
“I love it when people are really un-self-conscious in music,” Holland said. “It’s my job to disappear and help other people disappear, to become unself-conscious and moved.”