Today’s Feature – April 15-16: Holly Long

April 16, 2008 at 11:08 pm (Today's Feature)

“The music is blaring, and it’s in me. And outside of me – it’s holding me physically captive. I’m moving my arms like a conductor – trying to be a part of what I’m hearing.” The music has always been there for Holly Long, so it’s no surprise to hear that artists such as Tori Amos and Counting Crows helped her maintain her sanity even as everything within her was failing and everything around her was changing.

In late 1996, Holly was unexpectedly rushed to the hospital with what appeared to be an intense case of the flu, but turned out to be “the beginning of a two-year, life-changing odyssey.” After falling into a coma, she was diagnosed with Endocarditis, a severe heart infection that turned her body against her will. But the music was always there, and in the end the experience helped her re-build a foundation and sharpen her musical focus; a focus that has led to a remarkable, critically acclaimed collection and the new album, “Leaving Kansas.”

The record is another step in Long’s artisan journey, having created these songs with a whole new multi-faceted approach: “a sonic environment that brings out the truth in every song” with a “warm Americana-inspired palate at the same time.” The collection is dotted with different pieces of American music, from jazz to rock to folk. Holly will tell you that while “Leaving Kansas” captures the spirit of her work, the best way to feel her sound is in person. There you’ll see that she’s capable of “singing songs like she did the day she wrote them,” absolutely giving in to every twist and turn in a performance.

“Leaving Kansas” is out right now, so check it out immediately. And look into becoming a Holly Long River Runner – once you hear the album, there’s no way you won’t be talking about it with every music lover you know. Get into the XXQ’s to learn a whole lot more.

XXQs: Holly Long

PensEyeView.com (PEV): How and when did you first get started in music?

Holly Long (HL): I remember it so clearly. I’m once again lying down on the living room floor – atop three or four couch cushions I’ve fashioned as a makeshift bed. I’m snuggled underneath my mom’s orange, rust and tan crocheted blanket (we’re deep in the heart of the ’70s, mind you) and my dad’s hi-fi stereo headphones are straddling my small four-year-old brain – perched on my ears like two enormous black beetles. I’m heavy into the soundtrack for the musical Oliver! or Carole King’s Tapestry or maybe Stevie Wonder’s Songs in the Key of Life … Anyway. The music is blaring, and it’s in me. And outside of me. It’s in the walls, and the furniture, in the orange and rust blanket. It’s drowning everything else above and below me – it’s holding me physically captive. I’m moving my arms like a conductor – trying to be a part of what I’m hearing. And I don’t know it yet, but these moments are searing into my very core. I will forever grow up wanting music. To make it – to hear it – to be surrounded by it. To be it somehow. Even if I’m no good at it.

Now – when did I get involved in the music “industry?” That’s a much less profound story. I will suffice it to say that halfway through my twenties, I fell for and started seriously dating a sound engineer. I was a struggling actress in L.A. at the time, and had been writing songs purely as a hobby and creative outlet for about six years at that point. My new boyfriend heard my music one day in my apartment during our early courtship, and asked if I wanted to come into a real studio and make a demo. Two nights later, I walked into the Record Plant here in L.A. – sometime between major label sessions – and made my first four- or five-song recording (straight to CASSETTE) on a gloriously regal, ebony baby grand Yamaha. I could have played that damn thing all night. I was hooked again. And wouldn’t you know – those familiar, friendly black beetles were again cupping my ears the whole time. I guess I felt like I’d come home.

PEV: Growing up in Chicago, who were you listening to? Do you remember the first concert you attended?

HL: I was such a schizoid listener as a child and a teen. Not having any older brothers or sisters, I turned to my friends’ older siblings’ musical taste to mark the way for me. That’s how I got introduced in the ’80s to Crowded House and Cocteau Twins and Peter Gabriel and U2. Let’s see, there were also huge doses of Pink Floyd and Zeppelin (no doubt introduced to me by guys I thought were cute in their dark and brooding ways … though my dad listened to those bands, too). I had already been steeped in the great pop bands of the ’70s, like the Eagles, CSNY, Steely Dan, Fleetwood Mac and the Police. My teen years were a strange ’80s mix. Kate Bush and Art of Noise. Hitmakers like Depeche Mode, Duran Duran and Cindy Lauper as well as Bauhaus and Dead Can Dance. (I was definitely trying to impress some hot Goth dude there – back in the days before Goth was coined as such.) And though I know my first concert, technically speaking, was watching Air Supply on Navy Pier from the vantage point of my dad’s shoulders in 1978 or ’79, the first concert I bought a ticket to willingly was for Fishbone playing at the Metro in Chicago when I was about 15 or 16. And oddly enough, I was never a big concertgoer. Maybe that’s why it took me so long to feel comfortable on stage as a musician – though I had been acting on stage since I was 9, I didn’t have a whole lot of experience witnessing bands in my youth to give me a solid sense of what a good performance looked like…

PEV: Tell us about the first time you stepped on stage, live, to perform.

HL: I can’t actually remember the very FIRST time I stepped on a stage to perform – but it wasn’t musically oriented. My first piano recital happened long after my first performance in some church play or school play or something … certainly long after the various self-penned living-room variety shows I lured my family into watching over the years. But I always found performing to be equal parts nauseating and thrilling. Sometimes that’s still how I feel … Now, my very first GIG – that was when I was 24 years old and I got booked with my friend Seana – who was also starting to write songs on her little Casio keyboard and making demos just like me. She got us a gig at a little joint called On the Rox on top of the Roxy on Sunset Blvd here in L.A. I’m not sure how she got the gig because neither of us had hardly any experience performing: me … none – her … maybe one or two previous gigs. We played for about a half hour – so that would have been 15 minutes for me on my piano. I spoke very little in between, and the whole event was a huge blur – I just wanted to get through it so that nobody had the chance to come running up on the stage and pull me off with a big cane screeching “Imposter! Who do you think you are – a MUSICIAN?”

PEV: What is the best part about performing live on stage?

HL: I actually do find performing incredibly satisfying. And most of my shows I do alone or with only one of two other musicians – and those are lovely and intimate. The times I’ve been able to play with a full band have been really exhilarating – especially because I’ve been so blessed over the years to somehow play with the best of the best. It makes it so wonderful knowing you’re in good hands up there that you’ve got the freedom to actually inhabit your material and not worry about anyone keeping up with you. But the live show is where it’s really at with me. And when I was younger, I used to think perhaps I needed to come up with some tricks or more swagger, or comedy in between songs because how could my material itself be enough to engage the audience? But I’ve found over the years of many good, terrible and in-between gigs, the shows that really land – and make me feel so satisfied at the end – are the shows where I’ve just completely surrendered to showing up in the moment. Singing my songs like I did the day I wrote them – being pleasantly surprised at all the crazy moments that come up on stage – the unexpected gems of moments. That’s where the fun is, and the joy of live music – where the audience can really be a part. Because at the end of the day, the audience is just as important as the performers … it’s a symbiotic relationship in a live show. Everyone together is creating the mutual experience. Whether there’s three people, or three thousand in the room. And that’s something that you just can’t get from a computer screen, or even an HD TV.

PEV: In 1996 fell into a coma and was diagnosed with Endocarditis, a severe heart infection that threw your body into massive trauma. What was it like to go through and ultimately recover?

HL: I’m going to try to keep this answer as brief as I can. Because this experience so changed me – shook me up and started to rebuild my foundation – certainly beyond anything that had happened previously in my life up until that point. So, I could write a book. (Should I write a book?) First of all, I had no idea I had a genetic propensity for this disease. So when I got that sick so quickly, (in three days I went from perfectly normal to a fever of 105 to passing out completely) it felt like madness and mayhem. Like I was the sole losing side in some crazy war that was taking place inside of my body. And before I was admitted into the ICU at Cedars Sinai hospital in West Hollywood, I broke down almost completely – lost consciousness somewhere in my mother’s house – and had to be carried to a wheelchair before I was strapped to a gurney and the doctors struggled against time to find out what was wrong with me. It took them about 36 hours to diagnose my condition, which was luckily bacterial in nature – meaning it could be fought with antibiotics. And once they discovered that the strain was susceptible to regular old penicillin and amoxicillin, they poured liquid bags of it into my body through a tube going from my arm straight to my heart – which was where the infection had begun, and was the reason my entire body was now – inside and out – dotted with scabs of infection. I had an amazing team of doctors – the best of the best in LA – infectious disease, cardiologist, neurologist – no one had seen this condition in someone my age so dramatically. And of course, because I was placed in a teaching hospital, in addition to the torture of many routine procedures related to my disease and recovery, I was made to endure medical students entering my room at regular intervals poking and prodding me, naming lesions on my hands and feet, picking up my almost useless legs and making notes in their books. It was oddly interesting to be such an interesting subject to them.

The time passed slowly in the hospital. My stay was only just shy of four weeks in all, but it felt like a vacuous sticky eternity to me. After two weeks when the critical moments had past, I had physical therapists come to visit my room to teach me how to walk, write, move again. I had visitors – thank god – who saved me from my dull monotony of endless TV shows I had never watched before, hanging out with my mom (who was so loving and vigilant, but who by now was starting to annoy me) and sitting darkly feeling sorry for myself. I didn’t know when it all would end. I didn’t know what would happen when I got back out of the hospital – I missed my life dreadfully. I just wanted to walk down the street where I lived again. I missed my physical freedom – and I have never ever taken it for granted ever since. Well, among many things.

I’ve only scratched the surface. I’ve forgotten to talk about how listening to Tori Amos and Counting Crows repeatedly saved me from my horrific mood-swings during the day and gave me something to look forward to getting out for. I’ve forgotten to describe the amazing Haitian night nurse who frequently would change my sheets for me in the middle of the night when I’d wake from some watery nightmare literally in a pool of my own water. (Eew. Maybe you’re saying to yourself.) But her spunk and life force became something I craved at the end of every day just to keep myself from feeling as though this strange cellblock I inhabited would never unlock itself.

When I eventually got out of the hospital – there was so much more to face. So many more months of slow recovery to become again the vibrant healthy 26-year-old I had been before the disease. Bouts of severe iron deficiency that left me, again, in bed all day long – new, unbearable migraines while my brain healed its scars – weeks and weeks of administering my own bags of medicine at all hours of the day. Odd memory loss. Panic attacks in the middle of the night. In fact, my collective memory of that whole year is so steeped in sweaty damp fear. Panic that I might never regain all I was. Panic that I might get sick again. Panic that I was doomed and that the best of my life had passed me by and I had been too young and stupid to appreciate every glorious god-given moment.

Oh – and then there was god. And not God in some Judeo-Christian fashion – no. Though at 26 I was still barely on my spiritual journey – this sickness surely cemented my new relationship with the Glorious Everything – the unknown power of Love. God, some call it. I seriously was saved. By God – by Me – by Us – by the eternal force that lives and breathes in all things. And there is no simpler way to suddenly understand it than to almost die. There was no white light – no tunnel – no rising out of my body. All those early near-death moments are so murky for me – sick fever dreams and blackouts. And most moments during my recovery were spent feeling abandoned and so angry at God. Not questioning why this should happen to me, but realizing how inevitable pain is for every one of us, and that the human body is transitory – all of life is transitory. This left me feeling empty and rage-full toward a God who would create a group of beings who were forced to deal with the reality of this torture, one way or another. But at the end of the whole process, after some amazing moments of falling on the floor and getting myself up again in a matter of twenty minutes, of looking in the mirror with compassion at the wasted thing I had become and finding a beautiful white light of love in my own eyes, and of waking up many mornings just grateful to have woken up at all, there just lived and breathed in me a new faith that I had never had. A connection – a knowing that I am special. That we all are special – and it wasn’t my time to go yet. I still had things to do on this plane of existence. And so here I am.

PEV: What can fans expect from a live Holly Long performance?

HL: Ha! I wish they could expect some really profound life-altering experience like the one I’ve just described. Well – let’s see – the last really great solo show I had a few weeks back – my fans witnessed me deliver a cover of a Billy Squires tune that I had half-memorized and la-la-lahed through half of (I got a standing ovation afterwards) … they saw one of my capos fall off my guitar during a touching two-capo-trick ballad and splash elegantly into the glass of wine at my feet (and I finished the song! I asked everyone if they wanted to hear the end of it and sure enough they did – so I finished!). If they’re lucky – they’ll witness me having to deal with some of those silly fabulous serendipitous moments that make up a great relationship between audience and performer. But even if the show goes smoothly – they should expect a real, intimate performance out of me. I’m all about trying to show up as much as I can in the moment and giving the audience a real shot as seeing the inside of my heart.

PEV: Tell us about your latest project, “Leaving Kansas”. 

HL: This latest CD is a new foray into more organic music for me. The production was carefully designed and poured over by myself and my producer Anthony JW Benson. We really wanted to create a sonic environment that would bring out the truth in every song, and paint a warm Americana-inspired palate at the same time. I’m very proud of this record – and grateful for all the artists and engineering that went into making this, my latest baby.

PEV: How is “Leaving Kansas” different from other albums out today?

HL: I know for sure how this album resonates quite a bit with other Americana-inspired singer/songwriters out there! I hear a little of my latest influences like Patty Griffin and Ryan Adams in there … but I do think Leaving Kansas is different in the way that we chose to incorporate a number of divergent American music influences and wrap them up in the same package. For example, “Sunday Redemption” is basically a white girl’s gospel song … “Cindy” is an Americana – rock song replete with smoking violin solo instead of the more typical electric guitar. “Homeward Bound” has a lot of blues/rock influence. “Softer Now” is held down with this beautiful rich jazz backbone. And “He and I,” “Broke Down” and “Too Much Mountain” are influenced by the whole ’70s folkie songwriter sound. So there are many pieces in here of what I call true “American” music – jazz, blues, rock, gospel, folk … a little smattering of everything for the palate under the “singer/songwriter” umbrella.

PEV: How is “Leaving Kansas” different from your previous works such as “Every Little Seam” – released in 2004? How have you grown from your earlier works to where you are now?

HL: My previous albums were a whole different ball of wax, I think. And my previous producer, Chris Horvath, is just stellar at creating the kind of sound we were after with City Girl and then Every Little Seam. In the studio with him we would mention artists like Jonatha Brooke, Paula Cole, Aimee Mann and Sarah McLachlan. I was really steeped at that point in my development as a writer in the whole “Lilith Fair” sound. (In fact – I was sad that my career wasn’t yet at the point where I could have actually participated in that huge musical movement spearheaded by the great McLachlan.) And I think those two albums echoed my attempt to root my own piano-based music in those familiar and emotive sounds that I was hearing on the radio back in the ’90s. My music has a much more pop/rock feel on my first albums – though the songs are no less straight-from-the-heart. They are simply my younger voice … certainly my voice before motherhood (City Girl primarily) which was a huge turning point in my writing.

PEV: How have all your friends and family reacted to your success?

HL: My friends and family have been so supportive and loving over the years. My mom was in fact my biggest fan for all of my twenties (is that even necessary to say?) And it’s been really lovely to hear how those who’ve heard my music over the years can hear – and relate to me – how much stronger and more authentic they think my voice as both a writer and singer has become over the years. My life as a musician has been filled with moments both successful and less-than. As a result, it’s always been comforting to fall back on the loving words of friends and family when you need them the most, as much as it’s comforting to pick out of the crowd the beaming proud faces when you’re feeling on top of the world. I don’t think I’ve yet become successful enough for it to have affected my friends – my family – my neighbors! (Having been a neighbor of Julia Roberts and others for over three years I can tell you from vicarious experience – that’s a whole different way of living). Hopefully, one day I’ll be able to learn the joys as well as need to shoulder the burdens of increased visibility and success.

PEV: With all your touring and traveling, which city, International or US, do you think offers the best appreciation for music? As well which has been your favorite to perform?

HL: I have yet to tour outside the US, so I can’t really answer that question. Though intuitively I think the UK specifically will be a friendly environment for me to share my music … time will tell!

PEV: Who is in your CD player right now?

HL: Amos Lee. Cat Stevens (old stand-by). Craig Lyons (friend and local L.A. writer/producer/talent) Ryan Adams – pretty much never leaves my CD player. Iron and Wine – hearing for the first time. PEV: Is there an up and coming artist you think we should all be looking into today?

HL: That’s hard to choose. I know so many fabulous people here on the west coast – some bands, some singer/songwriters. Let me just give you a short list of a few people or bands I think for one reason or another deserves to have their fan base grow: Amy Cook, Sam Shaber, Shannon Moore, Craig Lyons, The Youngs, Paul Chesne, Matt Ellis, Christie McCarthy, Adrianne, Gregory Page.

PEV: On the day of a show are there any special rituals you have to do or superstitions you have for a good show?

HL: I used to worry that I didn’t have that ritual. In fact – I think a big part of my ritual was actually WORRYING about the show! In the last few years though, I’ve mostly been able to let that kind of stuff go. Usually – if I’m able to meditate and/or do some yoga sometime before a gig – I will be more in the flow – and it will go better. Other than that – drinking lots of water, eating a green apple to chase away the seemingly ever-present phlegm in my throat and being sure to eat enough are just the basics I need to do on the day of any show – small or large.

PEV: How has life on the road been for you? Best and worst parts?

HL: Well – I’ll answer this and the next simultaneously. Perhaps it might surprise my audience, new and old, to hear that I’ve hardly been on the road at all! Sure – I’ve done my fair share of gigs in Minneapolis, performed regularly in the Chicago area, had a long weekend in San Diego awhile back which was glorious, have driven up to the Santa Barbara area a few times to play … but mostly – I’ve played and played the Los Angeles area. From mid-size clubs where I do my full-band shows, to smaller clubs where I perform solo or with a small band, to tiny intimate coffeehouses, to house concerts, large and small, to live broadcasts, webcasts, outdoor festivals down the street from my house … school benefits, charity events, art galleries – you name it in L.A., and unless it’s the Hollywood Bowl, the Greek or the Forum, chances are I’ve probably played it. So – I don’t really know what the “road” is like for long periods of time. (I can only use my past experience as an actor in runs of plays for extended periods of time and knowing how fun and challenging that was to be a part of an extended family like that.) But – I would like to find out! Problem is – I’ve got a real family now. So if I were to go on the road for weeks at a time – there’d need to be a nanny – teachers – personal masseuse for me and my husband – only the red M&M’s…

PEV: What’s one thing we’d be surprised to hear about Holly Long.?

HL: See above!

PEV: When you are not traveling or performing, what can we find you doing in your down time?

HL: I honestly don’t have a whole heck of a lot of downtime because whenever I’m not parenting or attending to my husband and family/friends, I’m attending to my career, or playing music. However, I am lucky to have help (we have a full time nanny – thank goodness, or I wouldn’t be able to do any music at all). I’m able to do yoga, meditate, occasionally read books (I’m an avid reader … mostly populist best sellers. I feel like I read more impressive things in college, so I get to cheat now and just read what I wanna). I love movies, and luckily because my husband is in the industry, we get a bunch of currently running films sent to us as screeners around award times. So, I get to watch great movies, hot off the presses, despite the fact that I can’t make it out to the theater very often anymore. I still run and work out regularly. We spend a lot of time as a family with friends and neighbors. I try to get a little time each week to do NOTHING. (Though that doesn’t always happen.) It’s really important to maintaining my sanity. Most of the time I feel like I’m just barely balancing a lot of plates and wondering which one is going to fall and when.

PEV: In one word, describe Holly Long.

HL: Heart.

PEV: So far, what has been the most memorable part of your career?

HL: That’s the hardest question here so far. Honestly – I can’t say. I just can’t say. So I’ll throw out a few (that’s me – wordy to the end!) I suppose singing “Purple Rain” in 2005 on stage with St. Paul (who was a member of The Time and in the film Purple Rain) was pretty mind-blowing. I suppose witnessing the recording of and having Tracy Chapman’s rhythm tracks for New Beginning available for me back in ’95 to record my demo songs to was pretty singular. Getting supremely high with Hootie and the Blowfish in their producer’s backyard and then chatting about songwriting was kind of fun, as was almost kicking Jason Falkner’s ass at pool in the mixing studio … opening for David Crosby at a political fundraiser at the Troubadour in 2001 was excellent. But then really – the most poignant moments have been much deeper. Like when, during a fundraising performance, I caught a glimpse of the face of the concert’s recipient – a wonderful woman and mother battling so hard with her second bout of cancer. And while I was singing my song “Now It’s Time” for which the whole show was named, she smiled at me through weary, grateful tears and I could barely make it through the song for the beauty and sad tenderness of the moment.

PEV: What is next for Holly Long?

HL: I have already lead a really rich, full life and I hope to do more and more with my music. I want it to grow. I want to be challenged out of my comfort zone more and more. I want to headline at Red Rocks. I want to develop a traveling charity event like “Lilith Fair.” I want to play Carnegie Hall with a full orchestra. I want to know what it’s like to have throngs of people singing my words – knowing that I have touched them in some way. Knowing that all this struggle and doubt and fear has somehow been worth something. That my humanity is big enough to enfold others and ring true deep at the core. I want to meet my idols (list too large here to go into). I want to co-write with them. I want to make a difference. What’s next? Well – whatever steps lead me there. Or wherever it is I’m supposed to be doing to lead me wherever I’m supposed to be going – because god knows, I’m certainly not in charge of that.

For more information on Holly Long, check out www.HollyLong.com

 

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