CULT LEGEND LONNIE HOLLEY EVOKES VAN THE MAN, TRIES TO HEAL HUMANITY ON VISIONARY NEW ALBUM
IT CAN BE hard making sense of Lonnie Holley’s life. The seventh child of 27, he was born in Birmingham, Alabama in 1950. “I came out of my mother’s womb in a time right after war,” he says. “There were a lot of tears, a lot of suffering. I came out of her womb in a fucked-up America.” At one and a half, his story goes, he was stolen by a burlesque dancer-cum-wet nurse, who took him around carnivals and state fairs, trading him for a bottle of whiskey by the time he was four. He was, he says, “always listening to music. Up until around 10 I was sleeping right next to a Rockola jukebox.” This cumulative trauma, along with a spell in a brutal juvenile detention centre called the Alabama Industrial School For Negro Children, feeds into the visionary art that Holley – a father of 15 himself – has been making since 1979. His sculptures of found junk and twisted wire have found their way into the Metropolitan Museum Of Art and the White House, while this past decade has seen him expand into equally radical and surprising music. “My two careers are running like Siamese twins,” he explains, “and to separate them would be like killing one.” Holley’s levitational third album, MITH, comes out this month and showcases a stream-of-consciousness approach to words and music that recalls Arthur Russell, Sun Ra and Van Morrison at his most spiritually unfettered. “It’s as if he has to make art and sing to stop thinking about the things he witnessed,” says Matt Arnett, Holley’s co-producer, tour manager and general facilitator. There’s a risk of patronising Holley as an outsider artist, fetishising his untutored technique, harrowing back-story and indestructible sense of wonder. That would, though, underestimate the potency of his work, in whatever context it appears. “I’m considering the life yet to come, that’s what the arts are for,” he explains down the line from Austin, where he’s on tour with Animal Collective. “People disregarded me as an artist, they just thought I was an outsider; because of the colour of my skin I wasn’t worthy to be who I am. It made me cry a lot of times.” “Everyone always assumes that Lonnie must be weird or strange or difficult to work with,” says Arnett, who makes a note of the “100 ideas a day” that Holley will incorporate into his spontaneous live performances. “Lonnie is the most normal person I know and it’s all of us who are fucked up. He’s rational but confounded by how messed up mankind is. He’s spent his whole life planting seeds that he hopes grow into a world that’s better. I hope he succeeds.” In conversation, Holley tends towards elaborate cosmic homilies, that begin with a request to “Think about…”, end with a “Thumbs up for Mother Universe,” and roll on as lengthily and unpredictably as his songs. One involves climate change; another the nature of sand; a third pivots compellingly from Dylan’s Gotta Serve Somebody to Holley’s 2013 magnum opus, Six Space Shuttles And 144,000 Elephants, written as a birthday gift for Queen Elizabeth II. “I see myself as a living human, concerned like my grandmama and my granddaddy, who were doing pretty much the same thing I was doing without being called artists,” says Holley, referencing the birth family that he rediscovered when he was 14. “I care so much about the mothership that we’re all on, and the whole universe. If it’s fucked up, let’s fix it.”
MITH is released on September 21 on Jagjaguwar.
“The life yet to come, that’s what the arts are for.” LONNIE HOLLEY
Lonnie Holley, fixing the mothership we’re all on; (inset) “Thumbs up for Mother Universe.”