ALL AMERICAN: Folk, rock, country, blues, bluegrass, swing, and jazz come together in Holland’s brooding ballads and noirish, Southern Gothic character sketches.
Cleaning the kitchen of her Brooklyn apartment a few weeks ago — shortly before hitting the road in support of her fourth full-length, The Living and the Dead (Anti-) — singer-songwriter Jolie Holland was struck by an idea for her fifth album: a song cycle based on The Master and Margarita, a novel by Stalin-era author Mikhail Bulgakov. In the satirical book, which is Holland’s favorite, a disguised Satan and his talking black cat arrive in Moscow, bringing havoc, hope, and passion to the city’s denizens; it’s an allegory for the struggle between freedom and repression that sometimes blurs the line between good and evil.
As an excited Holland discusses the novel over the phone from a tour stop in Portland, Oregon (she’ll play the Museum of Fine Arts this Saturday), I discover that the 33-year-old has been warding off evil — or at least the demons of her past — for much of her decade-plus career. This emerges when I ask whether she waits for musical ideas to arrive or whether she’s a disciplined artist who sets aside blocks of time to work.
“I can’t do that because my own personal sense of discipline is so violent,” she says of the latter approach. “When I try to do things, I risk engaging the monster, so I just have to let things show up. I definitely get really awful to myself sometimes, almost to the point of ridiculousness. I think it was just that I was raised with really over-the-top violent people. I learned how to do things the hard way, and my sense of discipline has this edge of violence to it.
“I don’t think I’ve ever really talked about this before. I’ve only just recently started to understand it all. I try to shut that off as much as I can because it’s really destructive.”
Was it a violent family? “Well, I dunno, I wouldn’t call them family anymore . . . ” Her voice trails off, then “Yeahhh . . . ” — a polite way of saying we won’t go down this road any farther.
That nervous exchange helps explain Holland’s reputation as a free spirit, cultural rebel, and eternal wanderer. Born in Texas, she left home early and did her share of aimless hitchhiking. She’s lived for spells in Western Canada (where she co-founded the roots-folk band the Be Good Tanyas) and San Francisco (where she started playing solo in the early ’00s) and numerous other cities and towns before relocating to New York last year.
Her music, too, has been all over the map. Elements of folk, jangly rock, and old-time country, blues, bluegrass, swing, and jazz — as well as her husky, wobbly, slightly spooky voice — come together in her brooding ballads and noirish, Southern Gothic character sketches, some of which are akin to the work of her friend (and champion) Tom Waits.
Knowing of her struggles casts The Living and the Dead in a haunting light, particularly when she sings “My little heart is a graveyard/It’s a no man’s land” in “Palmyra” or documents a devastating romantic bust-up in “The Future.” Still, she shows strength and confidence, which she credits in part to the guest players — who include M. Ward and Marc Ribot — and co-producer Shahzad Ismaily. “For every record except this one, I was just totally sick with nerves and stress, and it affects my voice really badly. It’s nobody but yourself in there, and I hear every mean thing that some asshole in the press has said about my voice. It’s awful. But with Shahzad, it’s actually functional to the point where I don’t get sick at every session.”
So maybe things are getting better?
“I guess so,” she laughs.
JOLIE HOLLAND + HERMAN DUNE | MFA, 465 Huntington Ave, Boston | November 1 at 7:30 pm | $16-$20 | 617.369.3306 or www.mfa.org