Holly Golightly seemed older than her years from the moment she rolled into our listening lives in the early 90s with Thee Headcoatees. Her reach extended back to the wild, unruly rock of the 1950s and even further back to its roots in country blues, church music and unpolished country. Dappled with the pure pop confectionary pleasure of great 60s radio fare as well, Golightly’s music never for a moment seemed to give a damn about what was hip or selling or anything of that ilk. It’s music for the unbridled joy of it, songs scratching to the surface of her soul – she has that in abundance, too – often expressed in a most intoxicating way, an immediate reminder of how 2-3 minutes can be one’s whole sweet, intense world.
Not much has changed with Golightly in the intervening decades. The music and the woman behind it remain steadfastly original – a sound both instantly appealing and original as all get out. In recent years she’s been making music as a duo with longtime partner Lawyer Dave as Holly Golightly and The Brokeoffs, which shows off even more unvarnished rootsiness, though old 78s don’t have a just-rough-enough, smoked honey voice like hers – if she’d been a young woman in the heyday of Phil Spector there’s no telling what that loon might have done to get a hold of her. The latest Brokeoffs album is entitled No Help Coming (released April 26 on Transdreamer), and it’s predictably a thigh slappin’ corker. Seriously, if you don’t amble around and reach for a mason jar of something strong, well, we worry for your health.
Dirty Impound puts Holly in the same line as Joan Jett, Poly Styrene and Wanda Jackson – take charge gals who cut their own musical swath – and we were tickled many shades of pink to get a slice of her time to discuss the nature of the music consumption, living on a farm and much more. Smart lady and a damn fine artist, so even if you’re not up to speed we think you’ll learn a few things from this chat (and subsequently dive into her back catalogue with undisguised gusto, we trust).
You’re a veteran in the music world and yet I get the sense that a lot of people don’t know how long you’ve been doing this.
Well, it depends on how you present it, I think. If every record seems like the first one you’ve made, if that’s how it’s presented, then people aren’t going to be any the wiser. I think perhaps a large plump of what I’ve done has gone completely under the radar. I haven’t done anything that monumental in my own right. I think a lot of people know I did The White Stripes song [“It’s True That We Love One Another” on Elephant] and some people might know I did some stuff on the Broken Flowers soundtrack, but for the most part, that’s about as mainstream as it’s got; everything else has been pretty underground. It’s not surprising really, but sometimes I read something that says, “This is the third album by Holly Golightly and the Brokeoffs,” with no mention of anything that came before. And sometimes it says it’s the 20th album by Holly Golightly!
Sadly, there’s a lot of general ignorance amongst people who write about music, which is especially annoying with someone like you who has a rich depth of musical history in your work.
I wouldn’t go so far as to say that, but I do think a lot of people who write about music’s main reference point is something that happened in maybe the early 90s, so we’re speaking at extreme cross-purposes because I can’t make any comment on a band they ask me if I like since it’s a small miracle if I’ve heard of them. So, the chances are one in a hundred I’ll have any idea what they sound like. What can you do but laugh?
You throw your roots back a lot further, especially with the recent work with the Brokeoffs, where you seem to be going back to the music that inspired rock ‘n’ roll – early country records and raw blues sides that lead into rock.
That’s how my progress or regression rather has happened. I grew up in a time where the first records I bought were the first Buzzcocks records. That was what was current and happening and what I spent my pocket money on. Then, when I got to be 14 or 15 I went to see bands play. I remember going to see the The Rezillos, and I didn’t really know what they were all about but they looked great. And they did “Hippy Hippy Shake” or something like that and I didn’t realize it wasn’t their song and would search out the original song. This was the days before the internet so it was a tenuous process, but you’d find the original and realize even they weren’t credited with writing it. And often I’d find out that many of these tunes were just a rip-off of a church song! And that’s how I got to the realization that all decent music came from church.
There’s a quality and malleability to that music that can be changed into vastly different shapes decades down the line.
Rock ‘n’ roll is hymns, whichever way you pick it apart. That’s where the formula is from, that’s the parent of the formula.
Rock is as close to a church as many of us have anymore. Turning up our stereo or stepping into a rock show isn’t far off from Sunday service for certain folks, myself included.
It’s a form of human rejoicing, but we don’t have a single deity at the top of it all. Anybody truly interested in music will see a common thread. There’s always an element in all types of music that will connect with people. If music is an important part of your life, you’ll eventually hone it down to something that reaches you, and I guess I did that at a very early age and that’s what everything has come from. I did the research after growing up listening to punk rock music. It’s all so subjective – talking about music or writing about music or even making it. It’s only good to your ears isn’t it? I started out collecting records and dancing long before I thought making music, so I came from a different place. I wasn’t an aspiring rock ‘n’ roller, but I did find a formula I can relate to. I gravitated towards what literally moved me because I was a dancer.
Music begins with people dancing and chanting to a drum around the fire.
I’m not a music nerd by any stretch but as I get older I’m more interested in music before records were made, when one person on one side of the mountain didn’t know what people on the other side of the mountain sounded like. Everyone had their own interpretation. Today, people are just swamped with choices. There’s ALL this stuff available and nobody knows where to start. If they’re just getting into something then the internet makes it easier, but also harder in a way. Before musicians would go from town to town and play and all people had to go on was what they remembered from the live performance. And then they’d rip them off and produce a million different versions. That’s what really interests me, though that’s more a sociological aspect than a sonic one.
That social aspect is important and it gets downplayed a lot in the era of recorded music.
People don’t listen to music the same way they used to. The way they can carry a whole record collection around in their pocket and the way they flip through songs today is different. They don’t have to listen to a whole album straight through or even a whole 45 single on both sides. People’s attention span is getting shorter and shorter. So, I stick with the format that works for me, and three minutes is enough of any song. That’s what I know and I’m going to stick with it [laughs].
There’s a purity of form that comes from drawing inspiration from these older, original sources of music and bringing them into the modern era. I hear a lot of this in the Brokeoffs records, where that church connection is more readily apparent in your work.
That’s because it’s a collaboration with somebody who had a hideously oppressive religious upbringing. I didn’t fortunately, so that element has probably been brought in by the other half. I don’t have church to rail against. It doesn’t really exist in my tunnel vision. It’s not a world I know anything about and it wasn’t enforced on me as a child, so I don’t have problems with it. But since this is a true collaboration, this is how it manifests itself [laughs].
The cover shot on the new album has this Dust Bowl Depression imagery that plays into this element, too.
The first record we did together had a photograph on it and subsequent records had a painting and a little piece of artwork a friend had made for us. I was trying to get away from just having photographs on record sleeves because that’s what I’d generally done for my own records. It seems to be important to everybody but me that a photograph was to be had. But for this lastest Brokedowns record, we used this photograph. And what you say about it is totally accurate but to me it’s like a photo of my nan and granddad. I think it’s my grandmother’s apron I’m wearing. So, it works as a collaboration between us. We couldn’t be from two more different worlds the two of us. There’s something quite nice about the two of us glued together.
The back story spotlights the difference between reality and perception.
It was just something that represented both of us, and I was under quite a lot of pressure to come up with a photograph.
Sadly, that’s our culture – driven by image.
It’s bollocks really, and I don’t like music videos either. I don’t think music is for looking at. It matters to a lot of people – what somebody looks like – they need to feel some attachment to fashion or a fad, and I think that’s really juvenile. When I was 15 it really mattered to me, but some people don’t get beyond that and think it matters what clothes you wear.
Most real musicians make that journey away from surface impressions, like The Beatles, who were very conscious of image and dress when they began and eventually became a studio bound, disheveled bunch by the end.
It became very secondary. It was no longer THE thing they were being sold on. If you’re fresh faced and you want to capture people’s attention, it’s the only way to do it now. They put up billboards of the latest, greatest boy band or young girl and it’s so much a part of the package that the music is only small bit of it. That commerciality and pressure for people to look good has always existed but The Beatles were the first time everyone really cared about what musicians looked like, and it hasn’t gone anywhere since. But the photograph on [No Help Coming] is just a snapshot and I thought it was quite nice. I like that it’s anti-rock ‘n’ roll. It’s like, “Here’s what we look like,” and it is. We kinda dressed up and I picked one of the chickens up and that’s it.
You’re actually set up on a farm.
It’s something I did in the U.K. as well but it’s made more possible here by having more space. It was Georgia by fluke. We were looking in Kentucky and Tennessee for more acreage but this was what we settled with because I couldn’t bear to be more than a day’s drive away from an international airport. We’re northeast of Athens in the foothills. Everyone says it’s such a music town but we’ve played Athens once since we lived there, and I go into Athens once a month, if that. If someone is coming to visit I’ll show them Athens.
Does it change the kind of music you make living away from the big city?
Well, I never really have. I was born and bred in London but I’ve always strived very hard not to live in London [laughs]. But it’s a lot more expensive to live outside of London in the country. It’s the opposite of America. It hasn’t really changed how I do everything. I just uproot everything and put it in a 40-foot container and set up shop somewhere. Aside from being in a different place geographically, I’m in the same place musically. I’ve always worked in isolation, and I haven’t really regularly gone to see bands for 15-20 years. It’s not something I’m hankering for; I just miss my friends really. I’m not a bar person and never have been. So, when I play that’s my interaction with the world of live music.
Do you have any urge to go back to the garage rock stuff you’re associated with earlier in your career?
The Brokeoffs was a side project. Dave’s been my bandmate for about 13 years or so in the U.S. touring lineup. We’d talked about doing something with just the two of us for years, and the first album was done purely for fun. I used to live in a barn in the U.K. and we did it there. We did a tour afterwards that was really fun and easy, and we can travel really light and it’s cheap to do. So, we saw where we could maybe do another tour, make another record, and so it went on. But I still play with the full band on occasion. So, it’s not really a willful decision to do things differently. It’s just circumstantial and it’s gained its own momentum. I will, invariably, make another record when we’re all in the same place at the same time.
There’s a direct line in your solo records that travels back to the music that inspired rock ‘n’ roll, the stuff that inspired Chuck Berry and Wanda Jackson, the people who made this music what it is and put it on the radar of people around the world through sheer force of will. I feel like you have the same stuff in you.
That’s very flattering. It’s funny you should mention Chuck Berry because someone once said that the way I trod the boards and pick up musicians around the world – “This is 12-bar in G. Okay, go!” – reminded them of him. It’s a really old fashioned way of touring, just you and your guitar and whoever’s in town and has some gear can be your backing band. I’ve done plenty of traveling around like that. I’d usually take Bruce [Brand] with me because as long as your drummer is good most things can be covered up. I’m still playing with the same people who played on my first record, sort of on rotation and as they’re interested in doing it [laughs]. If I go back to England now, the three people I’d go to first are the three people who played on my first album, and that energy you talk about comes from that. It’s playing music with a bunch of friends primarily. There’s no bickering about how something should go or ego problems generally. This is just what we do and we do it really good and we enjoy doing it.
I’ve seen you many times over the years and your joy in what you do is infectious.
That’s quite good isn’t it? If I’m doing it 20 years later and I’m still enjoying it then I must be doing something right. That’s the way I look at it. It’s not a drag to me to get up and play. I do think if I was under any sort of pressure to sell records it might be a whole different story. If I’d jumped on the commercial bus, I don’t think I’d still be doing it. I’m doing it because I do what I please.