Earlier this year Holly released her latest album, 2018. Chicago’s Windy City Times calls the album “a thoughtful mirror on the craziness, worry and fear that defines the year of its namesake.”
We recently caught up with Holly via email to ask her about her new album, protest music, and more.
You have never shied away from politics in your music, what do you say to people who tell musicians to “stick to the music,” suggesting that political messages and music are separate entities?
Well I don’t know if I would really say this to them but what I would think is that they don’t know much about the history and the tradition of storytelling. Songs have always had a story and sometimes the story is “I can’t live without you baby baby,” which is a point of view, and sometimes the story is about a woman who stands in front of big equipment and protects her land from strip mining. Those are both stories, they both represent a point of view. We walk in a long tradition of songs that tell stories, so if you are conservative and you tell a story maybe it’s called religious music or country western music, and if your progressive or a leftist and you write a song that has a point of you usually get called political. So I would take the question to be naïve at best and at worst hostile.
You found your voice as a songwriter during the Vietnam era, and we find ourselves in another time of division. What would the 2018 version of you like to tell the Holly Near who wrote “It Could Have Been Me?”
Good song Holly!
I think I was learning at the time that there are songs for a variety of different reasons and occasions. Some are rally songs. Some are more like art songs. And sometimes a song has a real good anchor chorus so that versus can be added as time goes by and then the chorus keeps coming around – unifying and connecting the stories. I think with “It Could’ve Been Me” I achieve that and the process was a very good education for me.
Speaking of 2018 – that’s the name of your latest album – it’s not surprising to find you tackling difficult issues like domestic abuse, the darkness of human nature, or the current political climate to name a few. How do you face topics like that head on and still manage to infuse a sense of hope or humor?
For me it has to do with my interest in theater- again, telling a story. How to draw people in, invite curiosity. And not have some primary need to win. Refrain from rhetoric and generality. Find the details, the heart beat.
I love how you mix up your instrumentation in ways that break out of the protest or topical songwriter with an acoustic guitar mode. When you play Swallow Hill on October 12, you’ll be joined by Jan Martinelli on bass, and Tammy Hall on keys, who also appear on your latest album. How do you incorporate other musicians into your songwriting and then recording process?
I work with musicians who understand that I’m a very lyric based song writer and also that my work is very connected to activism and community. So when I bring the song to rehearsal we run through it and then they start to hear in my voice where the pain is, where the laughter is, where is the surprise and where the punchline is. Then they can instrumentally begin to support that road map. And because theatricality is such a big part of my live performances as well as my recordings I don’t have to stick to a certain musical style. I don’t have to be a folk musician or a jazz musician or a show tune musician. I can integrate different styles of music depending on how I want to tell the story. There is great freedom not having to be answerable to an external producer or record company that needs to make money off of the music. Of course I like to make a living off of the songs but it’s not the primary factor so I don’t really have to be consistent to a style or to a soundbite. And I think my audience likes it. They can always say, “Well I wonder what she’s gonna do next?”
Is there anything you’d like to add?
I think there are song writers who gets stuck inside the boundaries of their craft. So maybe they only know two or three chords so their songs are stuck with in those chords or maybe their voice only has a one octave range and so the melodies that they write in order to have it feel vocally comfortable are limited. Not that it is a bad thing as long as one is honest with one’s self. When I come to the end of my skill I turn to someone who knows how to lift me out of the bind.