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Robin Holcomb: Distinctive Mysteries

Robin Holcomb: Distinctive Mysteries
By Published: February 14, 2011

But I don't set out to 'genre mash,' it just kind of comes up because it's what's in the air.

Robin Holcomb's songs are knotty like tumbleweeds, braided like roads on maps along which tumbleweeds roll. She lays her songs down like baskets that have the rustic grace of birds' nests, always on the verge of promising a truth, but brimming with natural mysteries. Mysteries accrue, creating a keen urge to get at the kernel of their solution, but the singer, poet and pianist keeps pushing it back, shuttling her audience back and forth between the search for that meaning, and a deferral of its gratification. Do the mysteries, then, the very plethora of them, become the thing that matters? The interplay, the shuffling of questions in the audience's mind that somehow recapitulate the roiling interplay of lines and themes in the music and songs themselves...

Holcomb sheds a floodlight on the deep veins of glory hidden in the plains of Americana. A cosmopolitan exposure complements an American life that includes work among the people, for example, the tobacco croppers of Asheville, N.C. With every new discovery involving the human condition, she has learned, new mysteries crop up, mysteries which we can only solve through the labor of the hands and body, as if curing the tobacco leaves of the Carolina plantations in the sun. But again, certainty curls up like burning smoke, piling up in the air in more clouds of mystery, leaving us as if lost and singing to ourselves in deep wilderness, until paths bring us back to human comforts. It is work such as Holcomb's that blazes those paths.

Holcomb's own paths have brought her from a childhood in Georgia and California, to budding success in New York City, where she started with her husband Wayne Horvitz
Wayne Horvitz
Wayne Horvitz
, the legendary basement club Studio Henry, the precursor to The Knitting Factory. At the root of many of the innovations and ambitions of the '80s Downtown Scene, she was, so to speak, the salt of its earth, never losing the humility and earthiness gleaned from her often rural past, and infusing that quality into her own work and that of others. Holcomb is best known for her cryptic and romantic singer-songwriting, but her musical skills are multifarious, and she has worked in jazz and in classical composition, as well as many other types of projects.

All About Jazz: You've been working on some silent film projects...

Robin Holcomb: I am, yes. I just finished three scores for films by Mikio Naruse. He's a Japanese film director from the '30s, and I'm mixing another score by Yasujiro Ozu.

AAJ: Is he a more recent director?

RH: He made films for many years. The film I did is from the '40s, but he did films in color and films in sound as well. And these are all for Criterion Eclipse.

AAJ: Now, there's a certain quiet, almost silent quality to your music, and it would seem that when you put together sound and image there would be a process similar to when you put sound to words in your songs. Is that the case?

RH: Yes, I think that's true. I tend to go for minimalism without being a minimalist, so to speak. And when I write poetry, I go for the fewest number of words that evoke a lot or let the readers connect the dots, or relate it to their own experience, and the same with music... These films, in the silent film tradition, require continuous scores rather than music that comes and goes as in talking films. So that was a bit of a challenge, not to overpower the screen with what was going on with the music, but at the same time extend the emotional content rather than overwhelming it with, say, a stride piano.

AAJ: Did you have any models?

RH: The only film I had written an earlier score for was more improvised. For this I ended up writing it and turning it into a through-composed piece for a chamber ensemble. I'd worked in the past with my husband, Wayne Horvitz
Wayne Horvitz
Wayne Horvitz
. He wrote a score for a Charlie Chaplin film called The Circus, and I thought he had a really great approach to it and I think that was really inspiring to me. The music was very bittersweet, and the film was extremely bittersweet and it had a score that felt liked a lot of taped-together music from romantic and classical eras, but also some of Chaplin's music as well. That was the original score. But Wayne had a very different approach to it that I think was really appropriate to the film—but of course the Chaplin Estate didn't see it that way...

AAJ: They didn't appreciate it?

RH: No, they basically forbade that it ever be performed after the first time...

AAJ: What were the Japanese films like?

RH: They were sort of like, in a weird way, comic-tragic soap operas. It seemed as if in every film there was a man with a hole in his shoe. He's always sort of a clown—not always... And then there's always a dripping faucet and a ticking clock. Often a woman who's a single mother who's a geisha, because she can't figure out how to make a living otherwise.

AAJ: They sound very poetic, like poems themselves. How about you as a poet? Let's start with early lyrics, say, from your self-titled 1990 album (Elektra). They almost seem to have a European quality to them, despite your being an an Americana connoisseur. "The American Rhine"—there doesn't seem to be any Rhine in America...

RH: No, and that was more of a metaphor, and that line in that song, "Needle full of miracles," everybody has different interpretations of that. It ended up being a prefiguration: I ended up becoming diabetic. So maybe it had to do with this...

AAJ: When did you start writing poetry? Was it before you became a musician? Did you publish anything?

RH: Just in some very small presses. I've actually started writing again recently, lyrics for a couple of projects with Wayne. We did a big project a couple of years ago called The Heartsong of Charging Elk, based on a novel by James Welch. It's a beautiful novel about a guy who's riding in a Buffalo Bill Wild West show, and they're on tour in Europe, and they're in Marseille, France, and he gets thrown from a horse during one of his shows and gets sent to the hospital—and the whole company moves on and just leaves him there. So here he is, without the language, unable to communicate with anybody.

AAJ: When does this take place?

RH: Maybe the '30s or '40s... And so we wrote an oratorio, and I wrote lyrics for a number of the songs, and also Rinde Eckert. He's a really talented musician, performance artist, actor, writer... We're working on a new project called Smokestack Arias, which is about the Everett Massacre in Everett, Wash., in 1916, which was a shootout on the docks of Everett between the members of the IWW and other local activists, and the sheriff and his men of Everett, over a strike.

I started writing poems when I was pretty young, and had a few published. And when I started trying to be a songwriter my first efforts were really unsuccessful, but setting other people's words to music and then setting my own poems to music led me somewhere.

AAJ: What poets do you like to read? Now, there's a very American quality to your works, but you're working with Japanese films, and then there's the Heartsong story that takes place in Europe—I almost see a French surrealist influence in your work, maybe even the German poet Paul Celan.

RH: I'm a big fan of his, yeah. But I also like Gary Snyder; I like W.S. Merwin, I like Paul Eluard.

AAJ: The one American poet whose work is similar to yours is Paul Haines. Carla Bley
Carla Bley
Carla Bley
used him for Escalator Over the Hill (ECM/WATT, 1971)/ Carla Bley comes to mind on another issue, too: she once said about her music, in the late '70s, "You don't have to come to it, it comes to you." Now, your work seems in many ways to be the converse of that. It's very quiet music and very difficult on the surface, but it draws the audience in somehow, in the end.

When you're writing, how do you expect that audience to arrive at a grasp of what you do? Do you think there is something that will ultimately pull them in, despite its difficult surface, or are you not directly concerned about your audience, and more concerned with, say, digging deep into your own soul?

RH: I don't think I have the audience particularly in mind when I create. I do try to create something that to my mind has a balance of elements, whether it be words versus music, or in the music, or silence and sound—I try to get it right, in my mind, with the hope or trust that it will stand on its own, and whether someone likes it or not is up to them.

I have heard that from other people, that it takes repeated listening to get drawn in, some people it reaches right away, some it never does. So it's kind of a combination there. Some of my music seems really simple on the surface but there's odd things—it's laced with odd turns, which isn't intentional, I don't set out to do that, I just set out to write the melody, that unravels as I start writing. So it's really just following whatever comes up and then going through and balancing and making it feel like it could stand on its own.

AAJ: It almost has a helical quality, this magnificently complex balance of all these fragmentary sources. Tell us about "A Lazy Farmer Boy," from The Big Time (Nonesuch, 2002). It's got this electro-pop, Irish jig quality that is at a total disconnect with the music. When you combine something like that, do you have something in mind, or is it caprice that makes you bring these contradictory styles together in one song?

RH: "A Lazy Farmer Boy" is a song from the American Anthology of Folk Music (Folkways, 1952), the collection that Harry Smith gathered for the Smithsonian. It came out on Folkways, and then it was reissued about five years ago. At that time I was invited by Hal Willner, as were many musicians, to perform songs from the Anthology. For that, I took a couple of songs from the Anthology and engaged with them or refracted them... It's just what came up, and I tend to prefer to do that, rather than play cover songs in a straightforward manner. I did that with "Froggy Went A' Courtin,'" too.

AAJ: Same thing with your music itself, there's all these fragments of American folksongs, you have a "Blue Monk" fragment somewhere—is this a conscious melding of sources where you want to create a picture that says something, or is it, again, something more unconscious, involving play?

RH: It's a little bit of both. Basically, it's whatever comes up, and I don't set out with an agenda to create a certain kind of music, or series—a "Blue Period," say. I have done some rearrangements, or engagements, of other composed work. I've been working on a bunch of Stephen Foster songs. I take the original song, and the melody's in there somewhere, and the words as he wrote them. The accompaniment is in there: it's quoted. But otherwise I reset the accompaniment. And he has a song in there called "Old Dog Trey," which is a very sad song about his dog who's died, and friends who've died, and he has this very upbeat, major accompaniment and I made something a little darker and then I quoted his but it was a quotation.

But I don't set out to "genre mash," it just kind of comes up because it's what's in the air. I am drawn repeatedly to hymn-type harmonies. I was fascinated by Civil-War songs when I was a kid. I come back to those things.

AAJ: You do a very post-modern treatment of American Heritage material, and that works really well... Which comes first, the words or the music, or is it an interactive process when you're composing?

RH: It works all different ways. It's sort of easiest when words and music come at the same time. But I often write instrumental music and I have boxes of scraps of themes that might be something someday, and poems that I've started, and then sometimes a project will come up and I'll just sift through it and see what might be appropriate and mash them together and find a way to make them work, and sometimes I start from scratch. Rarely is there an idea ahead of time.

AAJ: Where do you draw your subject matter: from literature or life?

RH: Not exactly personal experience, but sometimes about a person I've met. I wrote a whole song cycle many years ago called Angels of the Four Corners, where I speculate on the future of some people I met when I sharecropped tobacco in North Carolina. And I speculated on the life of one of these people I met if she were to move to a city, and how she might take her experience with her. She had a father and a brother, and they would scavenge in the woods, literally, for moss to sell to funeral parlors for floral arrangements, and ginseng. And that's just how they'd always lived. It's not like they'd returned to the land. They lived in a log house. And people still had stills there, at that time, and it was pretty wild.

The song I wrote [about her] in that cycle was called "Deliver Me" (Robin Holcomb) and I wrote that after reading The Doll Maker by Harriet Arnow, and that was inspired by a similar scene. The song is not about that, but it was "supported" by reading it. I have a song called "Iowa Land" inspired by photographs. So sometimes it's my experience, but not my life experience, but sometimes it is.

AAJ: You're not a confessionalist.

RH: No.

AAJ: What are your roots?

RH: My father was stationed for four years in the Air Force as a trombonist. He was a musician, he had different combos and he was also an actor and had a theater company for a while. He wrote a kind of a Western musical at one point.

AAJ: So you owe a lot to him?

RH: In a way, yeah. There were musicians in the house when I was a kid, and that was kind of fun.

AAJ: What would you say the cultural heritage that your parents bestowed on you was?

RH: Well, my mother's a craftsperson, she's always making things. And so, I was encouraged to be an artist. Not a big legacy of musicians or artists, but they both were.

AAJ: The sharecropping: what led to that?

RH: I moved to North Carolina for love, at that time. I was in love with a guy who had moved there from California, and that's the only work there was there. It was a very impoverished community. He was helping out some people with the crops and he was approached by a farmer to help him with his crops, so we were kind of official partners and we worked sunup to sundown, six days-a-week. Tobacco is a very long crop, you plant it in January and you sell it in December. We raised Burley tobacco which is a very beautiful leaf that cigars are wrapped in, so it's very hand-labor intensive because you don't chop it up and you have to try to preserve the leaves. We also grew a ton of tomatoes.

It was a really different life, I have to say. There wasn't a lot of local music there, I have to say, which was surprising. There was music nearby, but not many of the people played music.

AAJ: How did it end?

RH: We finished our crops and moved back to California and continued my studies at U.C. Santa Cruz. I got very involved with Javanese Gamelan music, which is how I met Wayne. I got very into free jazz, and we started composing.

AAJ: Was it Wayne who persuaded you to move to New York? Was that your next step?

RH: We talked about that. He moved a little ahead of me and then I joined him. We actually had a band back then called White Noise, which was all instrumental, with a lot of exuberant improvisation along the lines of The Art Ensemble Of Chicago
Art Ensemble Of Chicago
Art Ensemble Of Chicago


AAJ: Who else was in that?

RH: Dave Sewelson
Dave Sewelson
Dave Sewelson

sax, baritone
, and Carol Lonberg was the saxophonist. She passed away last year. Mark Miller
Mark Miller

was the drummer. Dave and I have an ensemble from those early days that we recently revived called The 25 O'Clock Band, and that's a completely instrumental group and we both write for that, and that's been a lot of fun to play that music again.

AAJ: Can you tell us some more about New York? Do you see yourself as part of the "downtown scene"?

RH: I was involved, not at the forefront like Wayne and some others, though. When we moved to New York, together as a band, we rented a rehearsal space, which was the basement of a building on Morton Street and Bleeker, which we called Studio Henry and we put a stage in there and a piano, and it had been a speakeasy during prohibition, but it was underneath a pet store. It was sort of like a precursor to The Knitting Factory. Lots of people played there—John Zorn
John Zorn
John Zorn
sax, alto
, Elliott Sharp
Elliott Sharp
Elliott Sharp
, Eugene Chadbourne
Eugene Chadbourne
Eugene Chadbourne
, some of the European improvisers played there. I did my first big band project there; I had poetry readings, all sorts of things. It was eventually shut down because too many people started coming and one of our members liked to do performances that involved fire...

I do have roots in that period of time. I was a prompter for John Zorn
John Zorn
John Zorn
sax, alto
's game pieces.

AAJ: I imagine that's an art in itself.

RH: I think so, and I felt like I was the brunt of...

AAJ: You weren't appreciated?

RH: You try to be fair and you try to be musical but people don't always agree with your choices.

AAJ: Now, there's some relation between Butch Morris' conduction and that prompting.

RH: I think they are probably quite interrelated. Morris has more extended language and gestures, and he's more about composing the music in a way, than John's pieces which are about the interaction of the players, and the moves are communicated to the ensemble through the prompter, but the prompter is more of a conduit.

AAJ: Now, was it about 1988 that you left New York for Seattle?

RH: Yes.

AAJ: That was really when what you're known for, your singer-songwriter work, took off.

RH: I had made a demo in New York before leaving. The day after recording a record for Sound Aspects called Larks, They Crazy (1988), I made a demo of five or six songs and that got passed around, and ended up at Nonesuch, and so we recorded that album in Seattle after we had moved. And so it's music I'd started there but recorded here.

When I was on Nonesuch the first records they really promoted were singer-songwriter records at the exclusion of other things I did. I put other kinds of projects on hold, during that period and started doing a wider range of things I was interested in after a few records. So, the most recent record, The Point of It All (Songlines, 2010), has the widest range of types of music that I'm intrigued by.

AAJ: For a number of reasons your move to Seattle brings to mind Kurt Cobain. His lyrics sort of have the fragmentary quality of yours. Did you feel you were in competition with the Grunge movement during that early period, or was there friendship?

RH: No, not necessarily. I am a big fan of his, but it was just happening at the same time. I wouldn't say that the similarities were the result of being in the same place at the same time, they were more cumulative.

AAJ: Anything else you'd like to say about Seattle?

RH: There are a lot of great musicians here, there's a lot of cross-pollination between various scenes which is great, like the jazz players are very interested in other stuff and it's not all one music camp, there's a jazz camp, a grunge camp. And that's nice.

The proximity to Vancouver is wonderful. There's a very strong improvised music scene there, as there is here but some of my favorite players live in Vancouver and it's great to be so close to them. I have several duo projects with cellist Peggy Lee
Peggy Lee
Peggy Lee
1920 - 2002
and she's an incredible artist, a great accompanist for songs.

The Talking Pictures that's on this recording; they have a long history together and are all very strong improvisers, so that was really fun to put together. The record has a few songs of mine on it, it has an arrangement of Neil Young
Neil Young
Neil Young
's "After the Gold Rush," it has a number of pieces that are instrumental, with a lot of improvising, and it has a song that Peggy wrote with a poet from Vancouver, and it has a song that our guitarist Ron Samworth wrote. It really has combined the two loves of mine, the instrumental and the songs. It's good living here, though I like to get back to New York as often as I can.

AAJ: One final question, which may be premature as you are still young, but you have defined an artistic career for yourself: what kind of cultural legacy do you see yourself bestowing on your times?

RH: That's a tough question.

AAJ: Well, you're not didactic but you try to teach your audience to appreciate their culture while at the same time being critical of it. Being aware of what's going on, on a microscopic level, of people suffering, and toiling...

RH: The bittersweet qualities of life that we all feel. I've been asked to play at a number of funerals, that song "Deliver Me." It's interesting to me that people have come up to me after hearing that and said, "That song helped me make peace with the fact that a significant person had died." I thought that if this song could do that, it's pretty remarkable and I'm humbled and really happy to do that... It's sort of bringing up a lot of details that are evocative, and details are what make life distinctive, but we all experience pretty much the same details so there's a universality in there somewhere.

Selected discography

Robin Holcomb/Talking Pictures/Wayne Horvitz, The Point of it All (Songlines, 2010)

Wayne Horvitz, Joe Hill: 16 Actions for Orchestra, Voices, and Soloist (New World, 2008)

Varmint, Mr Man in the Moon (SnowGhost, 2006)

Robin Holcomb, John Brown's Body (Tzadik, 2006)

Robin Holcomb/Wayne Horvitz, Solos (Songlines, 2004)

Robin Holcomb, The Big Time (Nonesuch, 2002)

Robin Holcomb, Little Three (Nonesuch, 1996)

Robin Holcomb, Rockabye (Elektra, 1992)

Robin Holcomb, Robin Holcomb (Elektra, 1990)

Photo credits:

Page 1, 4: Daniel Sheehan/

Page 2, 3: Robin Lanaanen

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