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Robin Holcomb: Distinctive Mysteries

By Published: February 14, 2011
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.

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