A veteran visual artist from Alabama fashioning cosmic protest songs
Lonnie Holley was a celebrated visual artist before he ever thought of making a record. By the mid-’80s, the Birmingham, Alabama, native’s self-taught sandstone carvings, foundobject sculptures and paintings were shown in museums from new York to Atlanta. it wasn’t until 2012, at age 62, that he emerged as a musician.
Holley had been creating homespun recordings of his improvised vocals and elemental keyboard playing for three decades, but hadn’t thought to air them beyond the confines of his apartment. At the encouragement of his biggest patron, Bill Arnett, he released Just Before Music (2012) and
Keeping A Record Of It (2013) on Dust To Digital. “My music and my art are like Siamese twins, they’re coming from the same brain production,” he says. in both mediums, Holley relies on his intuition. Whether it’s fastening scraps of found metal for a sculpture or ruminating on the ills he sees in society, each project is the result of an archaeological dig of his memories mixed with his modern concerns.
The resulting pieces of music are wholly improvised, gorgeous ruminations that dance over ambient synthesiser, piano and instrumental contributions by the likes of Laraaji and the late Richard Swift. in conversation, Holley’s thoughts, drenched in a molasses-thick Alabama drawl, twist and turn before reaching a conclusion. He explains the basis of his newest album, Mith, his debut for the Jagjaguwar label. “The things that are happening on earth that are causing greater hardship. i mean, we have enough mobility to build a space centre, and we can learn to cooperate and live out in space, from other nations coming together to do these different space programmes… but when it comes to community we don’t have the outlet.”
Whereas his first two records were heavily concerned with the connection and disconnection of the physical body and cosmic consciousness, his third record relays tangible protest. “i Woke Up in A Fucked-Up America” leaves little room for interpretation, Holley’s impassioned, gravelled voice repeating the lyrical hook over a doomed symphony of horns and drums by the improvisational jazz duo nelson Patton.
“All of my work and all of my life has dealt with protestable imagery,” he says. He cites his upbringing in the Jim Crow era of the segregated South, where he witnessed racist police forces turn attack dogs and fire hoses on black citizens. At one point Holley was also forced into a notoriously abusive institution called the Alabama industrial School For negro Children. “Mith is a protestable piece of music. it’s my mind moving through all of these incidences and occurrences.”
His aim is to highlight the struggle of his people and of the earth, which he calls “the mothership”. The garbage produced by modern consumerist society is of particular concern. “in America we are blind to waste,” he notes.
The immediacy of such truths, and the palpable beauty with which Holley transmits them, often results in a sobbing audience. He considers that the approach is intense, but necessary. “i’m trying to reduce things to their lowest terms, for us humans to think about,” he says. “We need to hear it – not only hear it, but do something about it, and quick.” While he might not be able to clear landfills, he can open hearts and minds.
“Lonnie is the improvisational poet of our time…” DANIEL LANOIS