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Wildflower Blues, the gorgeous new album by Jolie Holland and Samantha Parton, began with a phone call between two friends. The two hadn’t played together in years, but still shared a strong musical and personal connection. “I just called her out of the blue,” says Holland, who asked if Parton wanted to make some music together. “We hadn’t been in touch, but the timing was right and she said yes.”
Scheduled for release in September on the duo’s own label, Cinquefoil Records, the album wanders from rural blues to folk and ragtime, from smoky jazz to emotive R&B and fearless rock & roll. “I really like going at things from a lot of diverse angles,” says Holland. “The idea of genre is really unattractive to me.” She and Parton cover Townes Van Zandt’s “You Are Not Needed Now” and Michael Hurley’s “Jocko’s Lament,” and Holland rewrites Dylan’s “Minstrel Boy,” adding verses about two poets—William Blake and Steven Jesse Bernstein—whose work “helped me crystallize my view of the world.”
Each has exerted a strong musical influence on the other. When they first met nearly twenty years ago on an East Vancouver street corner, the conversation inevitably turned to music. Very soon they co-founded The Be Good Tanyas, the groundbreaking roots act that used traditional folk, country, and blues music to explore a range of different styles and sounds. Holland departed the group after only one album, but remained hopeful that she and Parton would collaborate in the future. “When I left,” Holland says, “I didn’t feel like I was done making music with Sam.”
That “out of the blue” phone call turned out to be well timed for both musicians. Touring for Holland’s sixth solo album, 2014’s Wine Dark Sea, had wound down, and although she had songs for a follow-up, she was hesitant to re-embark on that promotional cycle. Parton, on the other hand, was still recovering from two serious car accidents that left her unable to play music and struggling to connect with her creativity. “I was in this wilderness of health problems,” she says, “and I hadn’t been able to do anything musically for three years. When Jolie called me up, I was so sick of lying on my back staring at the ceiling in a doctor’s office, that I was ready to say yes to anything, whether I could do it or not.I knew I could trust her to be supportive and understanding, even if I wasn’t at full capacity. She was an outstretched hand to me at a moment when I really needed that.”
The two began by writing a few songs together at Parton’s home in Vancouver. “I had a bunch of unfinished material,” says Holland, “and Sam had some half-written songs she wanted to work on. She would come and sit with me and work on stuff, and then she would go about her business and I’d stay home making demos. I’ve never written songs with anyone the way Sam and I work together. It’s a super vulnerable thing to show somebody your stuff and trust them to tinker around with your unformed ideas.”
When Parton felt stronger, they embarked on a low-key tour, as much to road test their new songs (and a handful of Townes Van Zandt and Velvet Underground covers) as to ease Parton back into the grind of sound checks, long drives, and late nights. “She pushes herself and that’s not always good,” says Holland. “We have to look out for her, because she wants to help out. She wants to haul amps and stuff like that. No! Go sit in the van and take care of yourself! But she’s so tough and resilient.”
“It was really hard, but also spiritually invigorating,” says Parton. “I was in such a weird place, trying to adjust to a new normal, feeling so alienated from my life. Getting back into music, I felt defiant. Let’s just throw shit at the wall and see what sticks.”
Emboldened by a successful tour together, they decamped to the Portland, Oregon, home studio of Mike Coykendall (Old Joe Clarks, M. Ward), and Holland assembled a small band of musicians to back them, including Stevie Weinstein-Foner (guitar), Jared Samuel, (piano, bass, guitar), and Justin Veloso (drums). “I wanted to set up a recording session that would be really chill and homey and not super strenuous, so I convinced Mike that we could do it at his home studio. It was a little ambitious and crazy to make it happen in such a small space, but I had been there before and understood the space, so I knew it would be good for Sam.”
During that time they listened a lot to Nashville Skyline, Bob Dylan’s 1969 album, enjoying the looseness of that music, the sense of freedom and possibility. It became a kind of guide for Wildflower Blues, in spirit if not necessarily in sound. “One of the things about Nashville Skyline that feels so exciting to me is that it is a moment in time,” says Parton. “That’s what this new album feels like, too. It doesn’t feel be-labored. It’s more like: Let’s just get in there and see what happens. ‘Is this thing on?’ It feels like a special moment in time. There’s color to it. And dirt, and rocks, and this beautiful earth that we put into the album.”
As they worked, the songs took on lives of their own, and both Holland and Parton determined to follow them wherever they led. The title track began as an acoustic blues tune that gradually transformed into a swampy psych jam, anchored to a portentous bassline yet attuned to something larger, something spiritual, something defiant. “I’m a wildflower standing in the sun,” Sam sings, her voice hanging in the air like humidity. “I bust through the cracks when the springtime comes.”
“Honestly,” says Parton, “after the car accidents, I thought if I ever make an album again, it’ll have to be about recovery. But this album, aside from the title track, actually has very little to do thematically with any of that stuff. It’s like, just stepping back into the stream of music and seeing where it takes you.”
The stream will take them all over the world. In late 2017 and into 2018 the duo will tour throughout North America and Europe, performing songs that attest to the creative spirit that survives such physical setbacks and the friendship that thrives within the song and without. “The spirit of it is all about collaboration and friendship,” says Parton. “To me, more than even the songs themselves, it’s all about what went into this record—the history and the friendships and all the different roads that Jolie and I have traveled to end up making music together again. I think we know that is the beginning of more collaboration between us. I feel like this is our first album.”