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Singer's style inspired by folk and jazz music.

Friday, July 23, 2004 | 12:00 a.m. CDT; updated 5:57 a.m. CDT, Thursday, July 10, 2008

Jolie Holland's voice is an anachronism. Possessing a melancholic strain common in Appalachia and traditional American folk music prone to dirges and murder ballads, her voice lolls gorgeously in a cadence tinged with jazz rhythms.

At times, it seems steeped in the very opiate of which she sings in the narcotically dark, bluesy "Old Fashion Morphine" on her latest release, "Escondida" - issuing repeated invocations to two infamous junkies, nomadic '30s writer Isabelle Eberhardt and beat writer William S. Burroughs.

In the liner notes, Holland - who will perform Tuesday in Columbia - offers a disclaimer demythologizing the glamour of drugs that the song may seem to convey.

"I have a lot of friends who are junkies or recovering junkies, but I'm just not into that kind of energy," she explained in a phone interview from San Francisco. "I think a lot of music has glorified drug use, and while it might have been OK for Lou Reed to write 'Heroin' while he was an addict, it's just not OK for me.

"It seems kind of silly, but I wanted to make that clear," she said. "I think of it as an apocalyptic folk song, because morphine is what they give you at the end of your life, when you're on your last legs."

On several songs, Holland, 28, uses a sort of posthumous collaborative songwriting technique, conjuring the specters of blues guitarist Willie Johnson and acid-psych folk artist Syd Barrett and giving them co-songwriting credits.

With her often mournful voice, Holland garners comparisons to Billie Holiday, to whom she is likened in recent reviews published by Time Out London, Esquire and the San Francisco Bay Guardian. She said feels honored by these comparisons but doesn't necessarily identify with them.

"I identify more with Willie Nelson, but since I'm a girl I guess it's easier to compare me to Billie Holiday," Holland said. "I love Billie, but I listen more to the things that probably inspired Billie, like old blues, gospel and traditional American music - the music that jazz came from.

"'Appalachia' as a label is really kind of useless, like a term that people use when they don't really know what they're talking about," she said. "The supposed founder of bluegrass, Ralph Stanley, said he doesn't really even know what bluegrass is. I don't know what labels are, exactly."

With her stylistic eclecticism, Holland often evades labeling. In the sprawling and ironically up-tempo country tune "I Wanna Die," from her first release, "Catalpa," her voice suggests resignation. She wrote the song when she had been listening to a lot of music by the dismally woebegone country troubadour Townes Van Zandt. She was also still playing with the Be Good Tanyas, a folk-country group based in Vancouver, British Columbia.

"I was like, I just have to get out of this band!" Holland said laughingly. "That's more what the song was about. I think everyone has felt that way at some point, and while some people might have gone out and gotten really drunk, I just wrote that song."

There is a drawl to her voice, but one more indicative of attitude than geography - Holland, though a Texas native, resides in San Francisco after years of transience with a ragtag assemblage of musicians and artists.

"It just didn't make sense to me to settle down anywhere for a while," said Holland. "I have some friends who live on the Missouri River, and I lived in the Mark Twain forest for a couple of weeks in '96."

Holland fell into her recent fame almost by accident. Her first recordings were a collection of basement tapes, which she intended to release only to families and friends. However, iconoclastic singer Tom Waits heard the tapes, which Holland titled "Catalpa".

"I've always admired (Waits') independence and originality. I love everything he's done - even 'The Black Rider,' which was his first theater music album, and an album that's really discordant and a lot of people think is unlistenable," she said. "But I love that kind of stuff."

According to an article about Holland published last January in The Independent, both Waits and gothic bard Nick Cave became fans after hearing "Catalpa," when the album still didn't have a distributor and was being sold at Holland's shows and through her Web site. Waits persuaded his label, Anti-, to sign Holland, the article said.

Pete McDevitt, who booked Holland's show at Mojo's, said that although he had never heard her before her agent approached him, once he heard her voice, he was floored.

"I was a little bit familiar with her in the past - people around town had told me about her," he said. "She's got an amazing voice."

Holland is touring alone, with only her backing band, all of whom have what she called "a jazz aesthetic" that's more improvisational than prescribed.

"That's just more interesting to me," she said.

Holland has toured extensively in Europe and has found audiences there to be extremely welcoming, particularly in the United Kingdom. But she said that almost all her shows across the United States have been well received, too. "It's been surprising - shows have been selling out in a lot of places, and the audiences have been great.

"I do get a little tired of all the touring," Holland added with a chuckle. "This isn't my first rodeo."


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