"I might have to go all of a sudden," Holly Golightly says by way of introduction. "I've got food in the oven."
Golightly has cooked from a musical perspective since at least 1991, when she made her first impact on the global garage-rock scene. Still, it's difficult to reconcile the black-clad-boho look she effects on the cover of Truly She Is None Other, the latest in her series of first-rate solo recordings, with the picture of domestic tranquility she paints from her home in England. "I'm making chicken," she notes in a working-class Sussex accent. "I've done it with honey and lemon and garlic. And I'm also making potatoes and a spinach salad."
Then again, the simplicity of this meal seems perfectly in tune with Golightly's personality, which remains thoroughly uncomplicated despite the hype that's come her way of late. The White Stripes' Jack White has emerged as her most energetic patron; he put her at the center of "It's True That We Love One Another," which concludes the Stripes' platinum-selling CD Elephant, and penned a gushy appreciation for Truly's liner notes. ("Miss Holly Golightly comes to my house sometimes on Sunday, beautiful as the wind that blew her in," he writes.) Nonetheless, Golightly appears not to have noticed any uptick in the amount of attention being paid her as a result of White's boosterism. "I don't know what it'll be like in the States, because I haven't been there yet, have I?" she says -- and while she's gotten more bookings than usual lately in her home country and elsewhere in Europe, she hasn't seen "a massive amount of change. I put on shows and people come and dance, so I suppose it must be going all right."
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These comments are typical of Golightly's conversational concision. She prefers Hemingway-esque declarations to rambling narratives and is rather stingy with biographical information, as White points out in "It's True That We Love One Another." After she sings "I love Jack White like a little brother," he counters with "Well, Holly, I love you, too. But there's just so much that I don't know about you." She even plays coy with her legal identity. "Holly" and "Golightly" are her given first and middle names, she says; her mother was reading the Truman Capote novel Breakfast at Tiffany's during her pregnancy and fell in love with the like-monikered protagonist, portrayed in the 1961 film version by Audrey Hepburn. However, Golightly keeps her last name to herself. "There's absolutely no mystery about a lot of people," she allows. "I wouldn't know what it would be like if people knew everything about me. I'm not sure I would like it very much."
After a bit of prodding, though, Golightly provides a few snippets about her background. A London native, she was essentially raised as an only child -- she has two half-brothers much younger than she is -- and grew up listening to a mix of pop and rock. (Her mother liked the Beach Boys and the Pointer Sisters; her dad preferred the Rolling Stones.) Early on, she learned the basics of guitar and piano but was initially more interested in watching others perform than in doing so herself. She regularly attended gigs by underground garage-rock acts that never got within shooting distance of the commercial mainstream, including the likes of Turkey Bones & the Wild Dog. But her favorite combo was the Milkshakes, which featured drummer Bruce Brand, who became her main squeeze, and starred vocalist Billy Childish.
A writer, painter and published poet in addition to his accomplishments as a musician, Childish has been characterized by some observers as Golightly's Svengali. This characterization severely underestimates Golightly, who more than holds her own with Childish on In Blood, a bang-up duet disc put out by Massachusetts's Wabana Records in 1999. Childish wrote all the material for Blood, which certainly reflects his rough-hewn musical ethic; its subtitle proclaims "One chord! One song! One sound!" Even so, their vocals on "Demolition Girl," "Upside Mine" and ten other tracks are effective because neither singer trumps the other.
Not that Golightly is shy about giving Childish the credit he's owed. "I can't think of another person who would have been a bigger influence on me," she says. "I've known him since I was fifteen. I wouldn't be doing what I'm doing if it wasn't for being around Billy all these years, and I have absolutely no problem saying that at all. It's the truth."
Over time, the hyper-prolific Childish has led or worked with a dizzying array of musical acts. In the '80s he decided to pair one of these ensembles, dubbed Thee Mighty Caesars, with an all-female outfit he called the Delmonas; shortly thereafter, in typically restless fashion, he rechristened the former group Thee Headcoats and the latter Thee Headcoatees. At one Headcoatees performance, Golightly went from being an audience member to a bandmate in a matter of moments, starting her on a road she'd given no thought to taking.
"When I was younger, I could have thought of a thousand things I'd have wanted to be, and none of them would have been a musician," she says. "I could have been a truck driver; I could have worked outdoors if I'd have wanted to. I went about becoming a musician haphazardly, with no particular strategy. It just happened."
Thee Headcoatees made their recorded debut with 1991's Girlsville and followed up with several more platters made for indie imprints -- Vinyl Japan and Sympathy for the Record Industry among them. Along the way, Golightly began coming up with her own material. Whereas many musicians make this process seem either complex or sacred, she coolly demystifies it. "I started writing songs because we needed songs to record," she says. "That's all it was, really. We needed some songs, so I wrote some."
Several of the ditties Golightly conceived were issued as singles prior to the arrival of her solo bow, 1995's accurately titled The Good Things. As one would expect from a Headcoatees alum, the album is unpolished, spare and willfully primitive, but it's seldom as wild and hysterical as most discs to emerge from the Childish universe. Instead, Golightly keeps things low-key on "Virtually Happy," the gloriously echoey "Wherever You Were," "Hold On" and many of the other cuts on hand, giving a relaxed, postmodern twist to the rock rudiments that inspire her.
"I wanted to play more R&B-sounding stuff," she maintains. "For one thing, I like the sound of a standup bass, a double bass, over the electric bass, and that wasn't really what we were doing in Thee Headcoatees. I just wanted to try something different."
On the other hand, Golightly knows what she likes and sees no need to make arbitrary alterations. Subsequent solo efforts such as 1998's Serial Girlfriend and 2000's God Don't Like It aren't interchangeable clones, but neither are they extremely dissimilar. Golightly offers no apologies for her consistency, nor should she: Unlike those performers who fear they'll sound dated if they don't make concessions to current styles, she does what she damn well pleases. "It's not hard to ignore trends if you're oblivious to them," she says, laughing. "It takes me no time or trouble at all. I just ignore the fact that it's happening. You only have in your life what you want in it, right? You don't have to listen to shitty radio -- so I don't."
The prospect of being tagged as retro in retaliation for this attitude doesn't bother her in the slightest. "If that's what people want to call it, that's fine; I don't care. I suppose people think, 'Oh, yeah, she does sort of old rock-and-roll songs and some of her own songs.' And that's pretty accurate, as far as I'm concerned."
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It is in the case of Truly, available on the Damaged Goods label. With assistance from longtime collaborator Brand and associates such as guitarist/double-bassist Sir Bald Diddley (wonder what book his mom was reading when she was pregnant), Golightly contributes nine originals that drip with wit and charm. "Walk a Mile" juxtaposes an insouciant lope of a melody with the lyrical lament "You think I got it easy?/Try being me." Later, "Without You Here" turns Golightly into a one-woman girl group; "One Neck" offers up rockabilly of the creepiest sort; and the ultra-catchy "You Have Yet to Win" sets up shop at the intersection of Sassiness and Irony.
Also present are a couple of entries from the catalogue of the Kinks' Ray Davies. But rather than drag warhorses like "You Really Got Me" around the track one more time, Golightly and Brand, whom she refers to as "the oracle next door," unearthed some genuine obscurities. The dirty-toned "Time Will Tell" and "Tell Me Now So I Know" both hail from the same 1965 studio session and are known only to the most dedicated Kinks spelunkers. "I wanted to record them because I thought they were great songs," Golightly says. "I pick songs for different reasons. Sometimes I might choose something because it has a good guitar riff or a line I like. But it has to be something I can sing with conviction, something I can have a good go at. If I've been singing along with something for twenty years, I figure I can get away with singing along with it for three minutes."
Her approach to performing is just as casual. When she first became a frontwoman, she concedes, "I didn't like playing live, because I didn't like playing and singing at the same time. I had to practice, and I didn't like that much. The whole thing required a little more thought and concentration. But it came pretty easily, and now I have great fun doing it. I think it's great to look out and see people smiling and dancing at the same time.
"I'm quite happy with what I'm doing -- or else I wouldn't be doing it," she adds. And then she sits down to eat.