I really appreciate you making some time to chat with me today. It really means a lot to me.
I think it’s going to mean a lot to all the humans that hear from you.
I’ve read pieces where you talk about how Malcolm X, Dr. King, Frederick Douglass, and Nat Turner find their way into your art. Are there any other influences or spiritual leaders you include?
Lonnie Holley: I have all kinds of influences. Like Sojourner Truth. Like Mother Moses. All of these women. Think about women’s efforts to make changes going back through humanity. But we never knew because they didn’t have any rights. And it is not just having the right to rights but knowing what the purpose of rights are.
All of those women across America and beyond – there are still some contemplating and sitting down and using their time to come up with a strategy for how to make it easier for humans to have better rights. The ones that haven’t even been born. Think about the women who were marching last Saturday. They’re marching for the future. I read about fifty thousand years of preservation in a book that William Arnett published. Fifty thousand years. It’s going to be all right, baby. Give them reason for dancing, and for celebrating. That’s what my music is all about.
Well we’re excited to have you come share it with us. Have you spent much time in Charlotte? What do you think of our city?
Lonnie Holley: We’ve been through Charlotte on our way up north, but we’ve performed there two times, I think.
Matt Arnett: The last time we were there was for the late show at Snug Harbor.
I missed that show but heard it was amazing. I know Armando from McColl Center was there, and that show is the reason he reached out and asked you to come back. He said that show was amazing and spiritual and everything you want from a performance.
Lonnie Holley: Thank you for that. That show was on a real rainy night. I mean, it poured down right after we got in. We just barely got in and got everything set up. I see that performance as a gift from the Spirit.
We didn’t get the chance to drive around and be inspired by the whole city, but just that little place we were in – I felt a little bit of the area, a little bit of the attitude.
Matt Arnett: The sky just opened up as we finished load in. We had planned to look around, but we didn’t get the chance because of the rain.
You made a splash last year when your song “All Rendered Truth” was sampled on the Bon Iver record. Can you tell us the story of how that came to pass?
Matt Arnett: As far as we’ve heard, Justin Vernon has been a fan of Lonnie for a while and has been listening to his music for a long time. And Brad Cook, who is old friends with Justin, is also a fan of Lonnie’s and has played with Lonnie before. So Justin has known about Lonnie’s music, and I think he’s been a fan of it.
When it first happened, that whole record was super-secret. We got an inquiry from the record label [Jagjaguwar] asking if Lonnie would be willing to sample a portion of his song. But they wouldn’t tell us who it was for. We suspected it might be for Bon Iver. We have a lot of friends in the same circles, so we heard that the band might be putting out a new record. So we suspected that they might be the artists that wanted to sample it.
A few months before the record came out, they sent us a version of the song with the sample in it. Lonnie listened to it and liked the way they used it. He felt that it was a good use of that line in the song. Lonnie wasn’t familiar with Bon Iver, but he knew Brad and we explained that Bon Iver was a great band doing important work. So it made sense. We also hoped that a lot of people who might not have been familiar with Lonnie’s music would discover it maybe because they were fans of Bon Iver.
A few months later, Bon Iver announced they were doing those shows in New York. And they asked Lonnie to open one, which was icing on the cake for that project.
I read about all of those shows. The night with Lonnie in particular sounded magical.
Lonnie Holley: It was. It was an experience just to see the mixture. It was in a space that had just recently opened. The facility was a “sharing-back-to-humanity” kind of place.
Matt Arnett: The venue was beautiful. And the performance was beautiful. Justin and Bon Iver could not have been nicer. In fact, before the show, Justin came into Lonnie’s green room and spent a long time with Lonnie telling him what a big fan he was. He certainly didn’t need to do that. It was very kind.
When the record came out, they produced a sixteen-page newspaper full of images. No text. And they used one of Lonnie’s images as a full page in that release. So that was really nice as well.
We’ve talked a little about your live performance, Lonnie, but you’ve also got some stuff on record too. Your live performance is always improvised, so how do you take it from a live setting to a studio? Do you improvise there too?
Lonnie Holley: It’s pretty well the same. I’m producing from the same attitude. There’s not that much change. There may be just a little bit of tracks laid on top, but that’s the after-effect of me hearing what I just did. Hearing what I just did and then multi-tracking onto it is really fun for me. I really love it.
Matt Arnett: The songs are always based on some idea he has, but they are not pre-written songs. When he records, the process is very similar to the live performance. But in the studio he has the added advantage to go back in and lay another keyboard track or background vocal over top.
But the genesis of the song is the same?
Lonnie Holley: Yes. That’s right.
Does that make you nervous? What if it doesn’t sound good? What if you don’t like it?
Lonnie Holley: I’m pulling from a well of thoughts. Nine times out of ten, it’s pretty different from the average songwriter or singer that’s singing off a list of what they have written down. I am processing the thoughts as I go and therefore, when it comes out, it is original. I can’t be disliking it, because it’s for a purpose. It may be for a time later in life. Somebody may hear it. Music that I’ve made already that’s put on record. Then all of the records are going to show like my works of art have shown. They’ll be collected and archived. Like Bill [Arnett] has done with some of the pieces of art he can save. It shows what I’m capable of.
Matt Arnett: When Lonnie is in the process of making music, a lot of the times, when’s finished – whether it’s in a studio or when he’s playing live – he walks out of the booth or off the stage, I say to him, “What did you think?” And he’ll often say something like, “I don’t know. You have to tell me. I wasn’t there.”
He’s in a well of thought, studio or stage. He gets so absorbed in what he’s doing and in the creative process, that until he goes back and listens to it again, it’s really like he wasn’t there. Some might say it’s shamanistic or an out-of-body experience. I don’t think Lonnie would ever say that, but from I can say it, having been able to watch almost every performance he’s done. Often times it’s my responsibility to make sure he’s on track time-wise. There have been times when he’s in the middle of performing and I need to signal to him that he’s got five minutes left. And I try to get in front of him to communicate with him. His eyes are open and he’s looking out into the audience, but he’s not looking at me. He can’t see me, even though I’m looking right at him. Waving. Signaling. But he is somewhere else, retrieving those ideas for the songs. He’s not on stage with the rest of us.
I can honestly say I don’t know any other musician doing that. Maybe a free jazz player, but as far as singers, I can’t think of any others. Lonnie – how do you feel about being one-of-a-kind?
Lonnie Holley: [Laughs.] All my life I’ve been one-of-a-kind, man.
Matt Arnett: Lonnie wouldn’t say this about himself, but I will. He’s honored and overwhelmed that his one-of-a-kind-ness is not a detriment or harmful. It’s actually something that the world appreciates and realizes that it’s special. Not something that should be condemned.
Lonnie Holley: And it’s finally being noticed.
Matt Arnett: And it’s not being made fun of or ridiculed for its uniqueness.
Lonnie Holley: I want to say thank you to the person who made that possible, William Arnett. Matt’s father. And others who have worked so hard to allow my art, my music, and me to be seen. It’s like Me Myself and I [laughs]. Matt’s going to write that one down [laughs.}
But again, if it wasn’t for those that got together to make sure this art got noticed. It took a long time for us to be noticed. I’m not the only artist. I’m speaking on the behalf of other humans who have participated in this, who are trying to do things that offer inspiration for better ways of life.
I’ll wrap this interview up with a question about your performance here next week. Will you be playing solo or with a band?
Lonnie Holley: I’m playing with a band and some solo. Jordon Ellis and Dave Eggar will be with me. Great people. Jordon has played some with me before. Dave and I went over to Europe together. We had the opportunity to have some fun together. It’s not that artists are always so busy working that we can’t have some fun. We’ve had some interesting conversations about what is needed in society. That’s what artists do. They spot what is needed.
I agree. That’s what art does for me. It explains the world to us and helps us understand and make peace with the things we don’t like. And figure out what to do about it.
Lonnie Holley: It’s more important now than ever in America. America needs to take her medicine. She is having problems with her sickness, and art is the medicine. Think about all those women who marched last Saturday and think about how many of them were artists. In their own way, they were all artists, collaborating in a way they couldn’t even see. Collaborating in a spiritual gathering that they couldn’t even see. They were like leaves on a tree. And each leaf has its own stem to be upon. But they were still all of the same tree. Can you see it?
Lonnie Holley: That’s the joyful noise. That’s the joyful noise. That’s Ezekial’s prophecy. Brought to us by satellite. [Starts singing] Ezekial saw the satellite, way up in the middle of the sky. Ezekial saw the satellite, way up in the middle of the sky. See. That’s what you write. Ezekial saw the satellite, way up in the middle of the sky.