Mojo (UK) - - What Goes On! - John Mul­vey

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.”

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