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Songbird

Even though Jolie Holland pads her nest with jazz, folk and blues, she can't be pigeonholed. Sometimes the 29-year-old singer-songwriter hunts for a new morning worm in the form of gospel, swing, lounge music or the occasional Civil War anthem. You might say she's a weird bird.

Then again, Holland has studied the peculiarities of feathered creatures for most of her life. She could probably tell you why swans are monogamous, why hummingbirds fly upside down, or how a blue-footed booby dances in order to woo its mate. Once, in the park, Holland found a cockatiel that she admits was "like a little dog; it had this amazing personality and liked to get its head scratched." And though she grew up in Texas surrounded by mockingbirds, the former animal-shelter employee can imitate the call of a whippoorwill like nobody's business.

Then there's Holland's remarkable singing voice: serene, twangy, and as pure as well water. With a multi-octave range developed through unschooled methods ("I didn't learn it," she insists. "I created it from years of trying to make something different"), Holland sounds more old-timey than contemporary -- more like the product of a tarpaper shack in Virginia than of a Houston suburb. Her unique vocal abilities also draw frequent comparisons to Billie Holiday.

"I'm a way bigger fan of Memphis Minnie than Billie Holiday," Holland admits. "She wasn't a pretty singer, but Memphis Minnie was actually one of the best guitar-pickers around and really better than a lot of the guys. I'm not really influenced by that many women. In terms of singers, it's Blind Willie McTell, Willie Nelson and Davíd Garza. They're always completely sincere, and sincerity comes first. Another singer whom I could probably say had a big influence on me is Shane MacGowan. He's so direct and forceful.

"I've never seen him live," she adds, with a laugh. "I kind of know better than that."

Holland also knows better than to mess with ghosts. "I saw one when I was thirteen," she recalls. "I was in my mom's house. Me and my friend were playing Scrabble, and the ghost was there, outside the window the whole time -- for like 45 minutes. It looked like a person you could see through, all white and as real as anything else. And the weird thing is, it wasn't scary at all. It wasn't there in the sense that we were there. It was kind of like when you're walking down the street and you see some crazy homeless person zeroing in on you, and you don't want them to talk to you. I have no idea who the ghost was, but I'm glad it was outside."

Along with freeloading spirits, there were enough normal childhood memories to keep things in check. Horse-crazy and with a weakness for English Romantic poetry, Holland cut her teeth on a toy piano at age six and played first-chair viola in the junior-high orchestra. Self-taught as a musician, she gravitated toward anything stringed: piano, guitar, banjo and especially a little red ukulele. Music seems bred in her bones. In fact, two of Holland's great uncles, known as Bud & Bud -- Hooper Twins, were Western-swing musicians who warmed up for Elvis on several occasions. Now in their eighties, they still get together to pick and grin with some of Bob Wills's surviving Texas Playboys.

A traveling minstrel in her own right, Holland heard the highway's call at an early age. Although underwhelmed by the writing of Jack Kerouac -- "I always feel like I'm reading a zine," she notes, "but I like his haikus" -- Holland shared the beatnik's sense of adventure. Between the ages of seventeen and 22, she roamed America, living out of a backpack, free of a permanent address.

"I was always on the road," Holland says. "It was more from compulsion. I just wanted to see the country before I settled on a place. It wasn't always fun."

After graduating from high school in 1994, Holland passed on an invitation to attend the School of the Museum of Fine Arts in Boston. She made her way to New Orleans by way of Austin, met some circus performers, paid a few dues as a street busker, then headed west. She lived for several months in a tepee outside Aspen, where she and a former boyfriend sold purebred vizsla puppies for gas money and provisions. After following a troupe of puppeteers to Canada in 1997, Holland spent a year and a half in Vancouver playing in a folksy outfit called the Be Good Tanyas, with Samantha Parton, Trish Klein and Frazey Ford. But on the eve of that act's debut, 2001's Blue Horse, Holland parted ways with the others, frustrated by a band with so many songwriters.

She ended up in San Francisco, wandering Robert Crumb's old stamping grounds in the northern Haight, seeking out records by obscure bluesmen. Sharing quarters at the Panhandle apartments (a hospital during the great 1906 earthquake and later a convent), Holland discovered new ghosts. They were mischiev-ous buggers, too, the kind who didn't just spy through a window, but barged in, misplaced shoes and locked doors for no reason. At least the building had great acoustics.

Following a waitressing shift one summer evening, Holland decided to put together a work tape of her songs with some friends; they pulled an all-nighter. The resulting eight-track document was a stark piece of primitive-sounding audio history that Holland eventually released as Catalpa (a strong, maple-like tree with white, bell-shaped flowers; it's also an anglicized Greek word, meaning "head with wings"). Full of allegory and mystery, not to mention background hiss and the sounds of coughing, footsteps and things being dropped, the lo-fi tapes retain all the charm of an Alan Lomax field recording. Never intended for release -- a former magazine publisher offered Holland $25,000 for it, but she declined -- Catalpa quickly garnered critical raves. Even Tom Waits, who described Holland's music as "creek-dipping at Birdland," nominated the album for a Shortlist Prize. That was enough for Epitaph's Anti- imprint, home of Waits, Nick Cave and Merle Haggard, to sign a relative unknown.

"It was the second time I did a demo that got international attention," Holland points out. "Everything with the Tanyas was demo, too. So it's hard for me to appreciate how strange it is, because it's just so out of the blue. There's really no way to get your head around it. But it is obviously like a home-cooked meal. It's the good stuff, you know? It's not like I was trying to impress anybody except myself. So I think that's part of its appeal."

Populated by Cajun ladies and demon lovers, Catalpa features a stellar cover of Hattie Hudson's "Black Hand Blues" and a song called "Wandering Angus," an interpretation of a W.B. Yeats poem. Other standout cuts include the Indian drum-and-gypsy-bell-driven "Alley Flowers" -- in which Holland manages to rhyme "psychedelic presence" with "bioluminescence" -- plus "I Wanna Die," a tune that evokes grim shades of the Carter Family. Holland also resurrects one of the Tanyas' best-known tunes, "The Littlest Birds," which borrows a few lines from Syd Barrett's "Jugband Blues." (NPR still plays the track from time to time.)

After self-releasing limited copies of Quiet Orchestra Live in late 2002 with the same circle of friends (including her current touring guitarist Brian Miller and veteran jazz drummer Dave Mihaly), Holland set her sights on a proper studio release. And like Holland's accidental debut, the album, Escondida, didn't materialize without paranormal incident.

"The morning before I went in to record," Holland recalls, "I had this kind of anxiety dream where I was the only person in the world who cared that red-winged blackbirds had gone extinct. I was trying to prove to the world that it was a great loss, but nobody cared about nature or anything. I had to start from zero. Anyway I got out of bed -- we were cooking out at the studio, so I went shopping -- and I'm standing on this street corner with all these bags of groceries, and this red-winged blackbird comes flying right at me! It sat in the tree right next to me for a while, then flew away right over my head. So it was a really weird piece of synchronicity. It felt like the governing omen for the record."

Though the marshland migrant tops Holland's list of thank-yous, she owes as much credit to engineer Lemon DeGeorge, who blended horns, marimba, musical saw, brush drums and a turn-of-the-century Washburn parlor guitar into an exceptionally tasteful backdrop for Holland's timeless vocals. Escondida draws inspiration from lilting torch songs ("Sascha"), archaic British traditionals ("Mad Tom of Bedlam") and even the history of medicine ("Old-Fashioned Morphine").

"The song's not about recreational use," Holland insists. "That was the painkiller back then. I only tried it once, and I hated it. So it's used more as a metaphor."

Stronger than any knockout drops, however, is the exhaustion that accompanies extensive touring. With six international swings under her belt, Holland has seen more highway lines than a murder of crows. But like the old hobo in "The Littlest Birds," she seems to stay buzzed on wanderlust, old haunts and heartache: "I was fair as a summer's day/Now the summer days are through/You pass through places/And places pass through you/But you carry them with you on the soles of your travelling shoes."

The rest is for the birds.

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John La Briola

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