Lonnie Holley :: The Aquarium Drunkard Interview

Lonnie Holley is lucky to be alive, much less an acclaimed artist, freestyle poet and visionary bluesman. Separated from his mother and family in infancy, adopted by a burlesque dancer who travelled from carnival to carnival, struck down by a speeding car, enrolled in the hellish Alabama Industrial School for Negro Children, his early life was a nightmarish picaresque. 

In his latest album, Oh Me Oh My unearths these surreal experiences in hallucinatory, stream of consciousness poetry, backed by feverish, impressionistic jazz, funk and gospel music. Jacknife Lee, the acclaimed Irish producer, assembled the musical backing and incorporated contributions from guest artists, giving Holley’s music a shimmering dreamlike depth. A diverse group of collaborators, including Moor Mother, Michael Stipe, Justin Vernon, Sharon Van Etten and Rokia Koné added their voices to these revelatory songs. 

This album’s collaborative process was largely shaped by pandemic, so it’s somewhat ironic that I spoke with Holley in late March, a day after he had contracted COVID. He’d been travelling from an Atlanta art gallery where his paintings were on exhibit to a concert with Moor Mother in Cleveland when he caught it. His frustration was evident, and he was clearly not feeling his best, but even so, his interview had the same poetic, incantatory quality of his lyrics. And, like his songs, it was one of a kind. He will never perform a song or answer a question in the same way twice. 

After our interview, Holley’s manager Matt Arnett explained in more detail how the project had gotten started. Two artists that Jacknife Lee had been working with asked him to invite Holley to provide vocals for a track. Holley came into Lee’s studio and sang for this project, then found he enjoyed working with Jacknife so much that he wanted to continue. “After we finished it, we didn’t have anywhere to go immediately and Lonnie was like, can we just keep doing this? That’s how the record started. They spent the day together and then Lonnie said to Jacknife, tomorrow’s Sunday, but what are you doing tomorrow? If you want to do more, I’ll be here,” says Arnett. “And so, Lonnie went back for another day and then basically every time after that Lonnie was in LA, he would schedule something with Jacknife and Jacknife would open his schedule and they would just go and record.”

Moor Mother’s Camae Ayewa visited Holley in Los Angeles while he was recording, and he invited her to come in and collaborate with him. Next they connected with Justin Vernon of Bon Iver, who had long talked about recording with Holley, and he recorded vocals for “Kindness Will Follow Your Tears” remotely in Wisconsin. Other artists who admired Holley’s work, including Michael Stipe, Sharon Van Etten and Rokia Koné contributed from their respective home studios. Moor Mother was the only other artist to record live with Holley. 

“It just sort of grew organically,” said Arnett. “Lonnie never blocks off two weeks and books a studio. He just doesn’t think or create that way. This record is in a way different because it all came out of one place. It makes it very different from the record Mith, which was recorded over a number of years in different countries and different parts of the United States. This record was basically all recorded at Jacknife’s studio except for the contributors who had to record remotely because of COVID.”  | j kelly

Aquarium Drunkard: Can you tell me about your met Jacknife Lee and how did you decide to work with him?

Lonnie Holley: He was one of my fans for one thing. [Matt] Arnett and he was friends. So, they sat down together. Jacknife wanted me to do some work in his studio. That went on for a couple of years before I got a chance to do it. We were out in California. I have a new art studio out there. And while I was out there doing some different things and visiting some friends, we went to his studio. 

AD: How was it different from what you had done before?

Lonnie Holley: It was so much different. He kept allowing me to hear what had been orchestrated, and it was just another beautiful level of making music. 

AD: What’s the process for you for making these songs? I understand you improvise everything on the spot. 

LONNIE HOLLEY: Yes. It comes straight out of the well of thought, the ocean of thought, for me. It’s almost like being a preacher or something. I have to go deep within myself in order to pull out this information that I want to put together. Because a lot of the information is bits and pieces of things that have occurred in my life.

AD: You’re really delving into your past on this album.

Lonnie Holley: Like “Mount Meigs.” That was really deep into my past. Because I had to carry my collaborators back in a historical manner to what my life had been like, for them to sing over it or back me up. It was almost like you’ve got this opportunity to hear the background singers and then you also have time to do an overlayer of the activities. We did our first layer and then I did an overlayer. What Jacknife did, he took that first layer, lay down some tracks from the other collaborators and then round that out with my final layer.

AD: The last thing was the words?

Lonnie Holley: The last thing is always words. The words are what allowed the instrumentals to be filling. Whether it be my words or the singers’ words.

AD: Did the singers and the players know what the song would be about when they did their part of it?

Lonnie Holley: Really it was all different ways. That’s the reason that it was so new to me. That it was made up of all different ways. Many of the artists wouldn’t know until we got the thing finalized how it was going to be. 

AD: Did you know what all the songs were going to be about before you started doing them or did they just come to you as you were singing?

Lonnie Holley: No, I didn’t know how they was going to turn out. But I knew in my mind what it felt like for me. So I’m sure whatever it felt like for me, my collaborators got a feeling of that and laid in their voices, their vocals.

AD: It must be somewhat difficult to think about things like “Mount Meigs.” 

Lonnie Holley: That was very difficult.

AD: Is it painful? Because you’re going to be doing shows where you revisit that, aren’t you? 

Lonnie Holley: What I do not do, I don’t go on stage repeating, because they are all originals. I don’t go on stage repeating. 

AD: So, none of these songs, if somebody goes to see you live, the songs will all be different?

Lonnie Holley: Yes, they’re going to be…what we do, we make a song list of what I’m going to be doing each night. 

AD: But will the music always be the same?

Lonnie Holley: No, everything is different. Everything is…I think they use the term “freelance” or “freestyle”? When you do music and each one of them have a different appearance about it, then that’s what my music is like.

AD: What does it feel like to do that?

Lonnie Holley: Again, going into that well of thought. I tell everybody I put my brain and my heart into the music. It’s coming from that same ocean of thought and then what I do is I just go dive in and all of that information is in my brain. I just try to come up with something, and each piece is original.

AD: Does it ever not work? Do you ever get stuck?

Lonnie Holley: Do I ever get writers’ block? No.

AD: “Mount Meigs” is probably the most brutal and violent of these songs. But it also has a lot of really hopeful beautiful stuff. Like “Oh Me Oh My” and the one that Bon Iver was on. How do you come from this really raw background of suffering and turn that into art and music? How were you able to turn the corner on that?

Lonnie Holley: To me, it’s a spiritual act, one that even allows me to be in life. The only thing that I’m doing is telling people my story about life and my adventures and how I made it. A lot of times the hardships and everything, they’re part of it. As an African American singing to the world, I’m singing to them about my life experiences and if they want to hear them or they don’t want to hear them, it’s there for them to hear if they choose to do so. So, it’s almost like I am what my grandmother wanted me to be and that was a minister. And what my mama wanted me to be. A preacher. 

AD: Tell me about those early figures. Your grandmother and your mother. You got separated from them somehow?

Lonnie Holley: My mother was named Dorothy Mae Holley Crawford. Her last name was Crawford, but during the time that I was missing from her life, she was always Dorothy Holley. Around one and a half for me, this woman took me away from mama, literally took me, but told mama that she was going to help. She was almost like a babysitter that told your mother, I’ll watch this child. I got a breast full of milk. I’ll feed him. You know what I’m saying? Something like that. And I didn’t actually get back into my mother’s life until I was turning 15. 

AD: Wow. And this other woman was no relation?

Lonnie Holley: No. I think she might have been, at the time, affiliated with one of my mother’s Eastern Star Circles. They were more like sisters in the neighborhood that did different things for each other. They came together. They’d sit around and they cooked for each other. They sat around and they laughed and talked and had their little tea parties and whatever. 

Because my mother was a military child. Grandpop, my mother’s father, was in World War I. And mama were to me a military child. My daddy’s mother were the one that gave me the…Well both of them. My granddaddy on my mama’s side was a great example to me. And my father’s mother was a great example to me. Because of what she not only found but what she took out of it, what she obtained in her knowledge were experiences of being in Birmingham and all of those other things.

AD: Was it a religious upbringing? Did you go to church?

Lonnie Holley: Yes, we did. I went to church. I’m AME. African American Episcopal Church. That’s what I was baptized under, and that’s what I…I don’t go to church very much now because I do a lot of traveling, but I still pay homage to that in my personal life.

AD: Was the music of the church an influence on you as well?

Lonnie Holley: Very much so, because of how the church was always an example of togetherness. Humans got together. You saw them in their Sunday best. You saw them, even going to Sunday School, they was dressed up in their best. You saw them really, after the fields or whatever you had an opportunity to see them in, for me growing up, it was mostly in a whiskey house after the state fair ground when I was one and a half until I turned four years old. I was going from carnival to carnival or fairground to fairground. With this woman, who was a burlesque dancer. 

AD: What a way to grow up.

Lonnie Holley: The experiences were…especially in the carnivals and the fairgrounds, there was so much to see. It was so much to see and hear. And that’s what I …I think I kind of sung “Earth will be there no matter where you go/Earth will be there.” The songs come from somewhere, but no matter where you go, whether you do it in your imagination or you do it openly and physically. So openly and physically I was doing a lot. And that became my example.

AD: Did you go to school while this was happening?

Lonnie Holley: I didn’t go to school that much. I think I went to school, you gotta remember, I didn’t have but a couple of years I was really, really serious going to school. I don’t think I got no further than the seventh grade, but what I’m saying about serious study. I wasn’t able to study that much. Because at seven years old, I got hit by a car. Got drug up under the car for about two and a half blocks. Stayed unconscious for three and a half months. And I don’t know what my recovery period was. How much of a recovery period it took for me to get from there to where I am now.

AD: It’s amazing that you’re still alive, let alone making art and music. 

Lonnie Holley: Well, I think it’s …I like the song [he sings], “Go and tell it on the mountain…over the hills and everywhere.” See my life is like that song. That what I have adventured through were a chance for me to go and tell others of my life experiences. And how I have been treated. Because other men have been treated the same way. Not just me. There’s so many others. There are many that are still being treated even worse than I have. In the 1950s and the 1960s, what I’m talking about. So, it really matters. It really matters about each and every one of our stories.

For some reason, mine is a more quicker self-rising. A yeasty story that’s got to come out of you. And once it’s come out of you, it’s out. Once it’s recorded. Once the artist records it. Now that someone came into your life that understood you. That could appreciate what you were doing to the level of a universal messenger. 

William Arnett knew that the works was not just for individual art. It’s not just for individual museums. He knew that it needed to go, where it was headed, was that it would be for all the humans on earth to hear or see. I’m sure that he had adventures too in his life until he was in his 80s. And he also got to see the building of technology. Digitally getting global. That was going to be the quickness. And also, he also knew that our art had stories and our music had stories. So, everything musical that we can hear, it doesn’t matter if it’s instrumental or vocal, it’s still a story. It’s how you listen to it, and how you learn to appreciate it. 

AD: When did you start performing?

Lonnie Holley: I started…when did I start (he asked Matt, his manager). I think it was Gee’s Bend. 

Matt Arnett: That was the first time you recorded professionally. 2006. 

AD: Oh, wow so it came relatively late in your life.

Lonnie Holley: Well, I’ve been singing pretty much all my life, but that was what really kept me going. My mother and my grandma and my grandpa, we sung, pretty well all of us. All of us grew up with the songs that we liked. I grew up with more of them.

Matt Arnett: 2010 was the first time you played in front of people. 

Lonnie Holley: 2010 was the first time I had an audience in front of me. 

AD: Are you doing a show with Moor Mother tonight?

Lonnie Holley: They’re doing it but I’m not because I have COVID. Hopefully if I can get that down to negative, we can…I just really want to do it. 

AD: I love the songs where you’re both doing the spoken word. Is her band involved in the two songs that she’s on “I’m Part of the Wonder” And “Earth Will Be There.” 

Lonnie Holley: No, the band that you’re listening to was put together by Jacknife.

AD: The band is great. I was wondering if you felt an affinity for what she does. She’s got this very prophetic, poetic approach to making music, as you do, and is engaged with some of the same ideas and issues that you are.

Lonnie Holley: That’s the reason why I really wanted her to be on my record because the both of us are on a similar path together. We are trying to help to make people aware of who they are, what they are and what they can accomplish. 

AD: You also have Rokia Koné on your album. Do you get inspiration from African music and African art?

Lonnie Holley: Over the years, I’ve listened to music from around the world, but I never did look forward to collaborating with any of them. But when she did the piece with me, it was like, okay. I know where this is going. It was an opportunity to hear mentally and experience with a home grown African grown woman and an African American grown male, man. Which is me. So, I think that’s what you hear.

AD: It’s a beautiful song. 

AD: How’s your art going? Do you have any shows coming up?

Lonnie Holley: The art is going wonderfully. We did a show just before I left to come here to Cleveland, the day before yesterday in Atlanta at an organization called UTA. They opened a new gallery in Atlanta and they wanted some of my art to be on exhibit for the first opening show. 

AD: Neat. What kinds of art? Paintings? Sculptures?

Lonnie Holley: There was paintings on canvas, on quilts and on paper. 

AD: Are they the same stories in your visual art as in your music? Does it all draw on the same stories?

Lonnie Holley: It all draws on the same concepts. Yes. 

AD: Given your really unique life journey and your art and your music and all the things you’ve done, what would be your number one message to people who are listening to your music? What would you like them to take from what you’re doing?

Lonnie Holley: What I would like for people to have been to continue to be looking forward to having what I’m doing. Is to learn from it. Number one, first. First of all, be willing to spend the time with the music that I do. And I know that music, time on the digital, is almost having to be kept to a limit of how much you can do. So that’s the reason why we’re trying to go a different way of presenting me as an artist, doing art with my music. I’m doing art. 

You could almost say, you’re giving me a bare wall. And you say, Lonnie Holley, do this piece of music and here’s all your colors and we’re going to see how it’s going to look instead of seeing how it’s going to sound. So, I’m picking out all these different colors. I’m laying out all these different grids. I’m doing whatever it is that it’s going to take to fill this wall. You’re giving me a wall. It’s not just a small wall. It’s a good-sized wall. I probably don’t have any piece as big as this whole wall, but we’re getting there. 

But the thing which you asked me, what do I want people to take from that is that, while this guy is doing something unique and different. Uniquely different, I like that. 

AD: Do you want them to be able to express themselves the way you do, or is it enough that you do it? 

Lonnie Holley: I want them to express themselves. I’ve been an artist since 1979 and when I was doing workshops with children when I first started off in Birmingham, Alabama, I was always requesting them to watch me demonstrate. And that means, watch me use this tool. Watch me use this sandpaper. Watch me use this knife and fork and spoon. And then I’m going to give you all a chance to use the saw blade. Use the sandpaper and do your thing. Not so much of mine. I want to open up that freedom tunnel where they can crawl out of it. 

AD: That’s beautiful.

Lonnie Holley: I’m very thankful that my friends pushed me to the point of taking care of myself better. And that’s Matt, Arnett, they’re good cats, and they was really worried about me yesterday with this COVID thing. They really rushed me into the emergency room here in Cleveland Ohio. Also I think I mentioned this, I’m thankful to William Arnett for taking under his wings all the art and keeping it safe until the stories got out from artists such as me, and all the other artist are doing in Souls Grow Deep. One of the major artists is Thornton Dial and another major artist is Joe Minter. From them, you understand what I’m saying, we can actually see what is needed to appreciate our African heritage and move that farther into generations to come with examples of art. 

For heads, by heads. Aquarium Drunkard is powered by our patrons. Keep the servers humming and help us continue doing it by pledging your support via our Patreon page. .