A remarkable voice tells his remarkable story
The fact that Lonnie Holley is only now, at the age of 68, truly announcing himself on the musical stage should be surprising. Honestly, though, it registers as one of the more mundane details of his life story. He was born in Birmingham, Alabama, in 1950, meaning that his tumultuous childhood played out against the backdrop of a segregated Deep South, under the long shadow of Jim Crow laws. The seventh of twenty-seven children, he was working by the age of five, by which time, he once claimed, he had already been traded by his adoptive mother to a different family for a pint of whiskey. His early life saw him working as everything from a litter-picker to a grave-digger, surviving a serious car accident, and spending time in juvenile detention. Chaos reigned through the entirety of his childhood – if you can even describe it as one – as well as most of his twenties.
At the age of 29, he became an artist, working primarily in sculpture and using any materials he could find as part of his craft. He would paint and draw and take photographs, but it was in sculpture that he found he was most able to realise the narrative arcs that were dancing in his brain, made all the more vivid by the intensity of his experiences to that point. He had seen and been subjected to brutality, and had learned first-hand the power and value of endurance. All of it began to spill out of him, and many of his early works are defined by themes of violence and redemption. By the nineties, his work was being exhibited in museums and galleries, as he was taken under the wing of Atlanta art collector William Arnett, a longstanding champion of southern African-American artists. Since then, Holley’s art has been displayed everywhere from the United Nations to the White House Rose Garden.
His story would already make one hell of a compelling biography and that’s before, at the age of sixty, it took the turn that landed him in this music magazine. He’d been making his own recordings since the 1980s, taking a similar patchwork-quilt approach to his music as he did his sculpture – anything’s an instrument with a bit of imagination applied. By 2012, Arnett’s son, Matt, who is now Holley’s manager and constant road companion, sat up and took notice of his musical expression. Now, he’s practically an evangelist for it. “I listened to his new song ten times last night before I went to bed,” he says animatedly as he picks up our call. “Just a recording of it from a few nights ago in Atlanta. I mean, it’s brilliant.”
He’s with Holley in Denver, in the thick of a run of dates supporting Animal Collective. Once Arnett found the means for Holley to make some actual studio recordings, his undefinable style – and the excitement that came with it – spread like wildfire. Deerhunter took him on the road. Bon Iver sampled him on ‘22, A Million’. He’s worked, in different capacities, with a slew of contemporary artists since – everybody from Julia Holter to the late, great Richard Swift, and the only characteristic that the long queue of would-be collaborators have in common is that they are deeply experimental in their own endeavours and would surely have been hit like a ton of bricks by Holley’s work, so utterly devoid is it of boundaries.
Now, after a drip-feed of sporadic releases, he’s putting out ‘MITH’, a third album that in many ways feels like a debut; an announcement of a genuinely singular talent to the world. He may have recorded in conventional studios with conventional instrumentation but that is where anything that might be by-the-book about ‘MITH’ ends, and just like his sculpture, he strives to put across his message by any means necessary. Genre divisions are made a mockery of as he floats amorphously between ambience, jazz, spacey electronica and funk, all of which – like his art – simmers with African-American tradition. At the centre of it all, his remarkable voice, howling impressionistic takes on everything from Black Lives Matter and the present state of America to nature and the human condition. The centrepiece is the operatically intense ‘I Snuck Off the Slave Ship’, seventeen minutes that chronicle African-American history in a manner that only somebody of Holley’s remarkable experience and wisdom could. Here, he discusses his journey in his own words.