Holland's staying at a Comfort Inn on Sunset Boulevard in Los Angeles, across the street from her label, the Epitaph imprint Anti-. That she calls the motel "home" says a load about her nomadic lifestyle. Like the torn and shaken characters who inhabit her songs, Holland's always been the loose piece that settles to the bottom of the game box, eventually to be misplaced. For a while she was homeless, which may be why she's always felt constricted inside four walls.
"The first time I started to realize why I couldn't live in a house, I was working under the table for a health-foods café," she says. "The owner was such a fucking hippie, he offered to get me stoned before I started washing the dishes. It's like that extra help of being in another headspace helps you see stuff. I was like 'Oh my God, I'm totally waiting to get yelled at or hit. Doing something domestic -- like the housework -- reminds me of my freak of a dad.
"Being in a house brings back all these horrible memories I've been running to avoid. Now I understand the demons better than ever, and I should fucking hope so -- I'm 31."
Indeed, Holland seems to have left her demons behind. Co-founder of a Vancouver folk group called the Be Good Tanyas back in the late '90s, she first caught the ear of critics with a stunning set of demos that were deemed too good not to be released; eventually they formed her 2003 solo debut, Catalpa. Holland's first studio effort, Escondida, followed a year later, continuing her exploration into lurching Americana suffused with gothic imagery and enveloped in sultry, languid desperation.
Yet despite the praise -- and despite playing before the largest crowds of her career -- Holland was miserable late last year. Her thoughts were consumed with a love dying on the vine in California. The fact that everyone was so happy for her and her career was taking off only made her more despondent about her failing love. The experience led to her most recent album, the haunted, weary, yet resolute Springtime Can Kill You.
Released in May, Springtime ranges from aching jazz and blues ("You're Not Satisfied") to breathy folk shuffle ("Nothing to Do but Dream"); wherever the songs go, the ghostly atmosphere persists. As though closing a chapter, Holland ended the album with a dusty, upbeat cover of "Adieu False Heart" followed by "Mexican Blue," a breathtaking elegy to a lost love, in which she clings to a memory from another day. A month after Springtime's release, the relationship ended.
But for Holland, months of pain and longing led to eventual relief -- and a sort of anticlimax, perhaps, in light of the soul she had just laid bare. "All of a sudden, I was alive again," she says.
A die-hard romantic, Holland has already bounced back strong: She's got a crush on a fellow musician. "Yeah, it's time to fall in love, so I can be miserable about something." The new beau has inspired a love song, from which Holland offers up a portion of the refrain: "It's plain to see that you're as crazy as me/It only seems to set my mind at ease." It's hardly an odd sentiment for Holland, for whom love and madness are hand in glove.
"All my friends are crazy," she says. "I mean, some of my closest friends are literally insane. Whenever anything gets too hard, I call them, because they're the ones who have real therapists and stuff. They always have really good advice."
They also provide needed perspective. In concert, Holland tells the story about her friend Sascha DuBrul (Leftover Crack, Choking Victim), who once wound up in the drunk tank of a jail, where he had a revelatory, hour-long conversation with the late Jim Morrison.
"It was very comforting for me to hear his story, because it convinced me once and for all that I wasn't crazy," Holland says. "Once you realize what a real psychotic break is, it's like 'Okay, cool, I'm not crazy.' We need to remind ourselves sometimes."
Holland declines to talk much about her childhood, other than to say that she was "raised by wild monkeys." Her unstable home life, coupled with a lot of self-doubt, left her emotionally isolated much of her life. Rather than play with friends, she would hole up in her room -- first with a toy piano, then a real one. She would ponder what made artists great instead of merely good, and it was then she discovered Thelonious Monk. The way he recast the traditional into something entirely his own made a profound impression.
"I was such a lonely, freakish kid," Holland says. "I was so sincere and totally isolated artistically. I thought everybody wanted to be innovative. So from the very beginning, I was really into music using strange intervals and doing things that were not cliché. And then I started listening to David Garza."
Garza plays a theatrical pop-savvy hybrid of TexMex that ranges from acoustic folk to rootsy AC rock, a sound that opened Holland's ears to the power of populist music. Rather than pursue pure invention, she felt impelled to make music "to touch people here and now." Equally influential was blues guitarist-pianist Blind Willie McTell, whose music fueled Holland's obsession with black country-roots music.
"Blind Willie McTell has a voice like pure sex, it's so beautiful," she says. "He has so much humor and passion in his voice. I fell in love with him. He's dead, and I fell in love with him."
She's even sewed McTell's picture on the back of her hoodie -- when Jolie Holland falls in love, it's no joke. Her passion and honesty elevate her music above that of legions of recent dabblers into old-time roots music. It's a sensibility derived from her insecurities and hardscrabble background.
"I wasn't able to hang with people I liked until very recently, because I had such a fucked-up self-image," she says. "Put in the light of other people's experiences, maybe I'm not so fucked up."
Holland strums her guitar on the other end of the phone, revealing a couple verses of her unfinished love missive.
"It's a great idea -- to fall in love -- it might be perfect," she sings. "Besides, if you're not going to fall in love, just what the fuck are you going to do with your life?"