Deborah Holland is one of my favorite singer/songwriters. Her lyrics — even when she’s being metaphorical — are impactful and straight-forward. Those words are augmented by one of the more powerful singing voices I’ve heard in my five decades of music exploration. She is a power not to be ignored.
Like most of my favorite musical discoveries, I became aware of Holland by accident. In the late 1980’s, two of my all-time favorite musicians — legendary jazz/fusion bassist Stanley Clarke and Stewart Copeland, the equally legendary drummer from The Police — decided to form a band. While searching for a lead vocalist, they pulled a cassette demo from Holland off a very large pile, and were blown away by what they heard. Just like that, Holland was in the band. The demo songs became the first tunes created by the band they called Animal Logic.
Together, the band released Animal Logic in ’89 and Animal Logic II two years later. The albums received wide-ranging critical acclaim, despite not being chart-toppers. Nevertheless, they remain two of my favorite examples of intelligent pop music.
If not for Clarke’s demanding schedule and film score work, the trio may very well have spent a couple of years trekking across the world, mostly in a van, which Holland and Copeland were keen to do. Alas, it wasn’t meant to be.
Nevertheless, Holland’s musical world is a study in perpetual motion. She has released five solo albums between ’94 and 2013, and was one third of a trio called The Refugees with Cidny Bullens and Wendy Waldman, who released two albums of their own. These albums were also well-received, despite gender politics doing its best to halt the band before they could really get going.
Which brings us to today, and the forthcoming release of Holland’s latest album, called Fine, Thank You! Like so much of what she does, the album title has multiple meanings.
As an added bonus, fans of Animal Logic will be happy to know the band has periodically reunited, and the basic tracks of some new songs have been recorded. They continue to move gradually toward completion.
Holland is my second repeat interview (after author/journalist Sid Smith). She was kind enough to talk to me for my book, for which I am forever grateful. At first, I remember that chat being one of the more challenging I conducted. After all, we didn’t know each other from Adam. If not for an endorsement from a mutual friend, I think she would have declined. Even as we spoke, I could feel her waiting for the other, creepier shoe to drop. I have no doubt this is something she’s had to deal with her entire career. Once she realized my interests were strictly musical, I could sense her relaxation and things got much easier.
Holland taught me a valuable lesson about musicians, and my own snobbish tendencies toward the music I enjoy. I nearly recoiled with horror when she mentioned being hooked on a Black Eyes Peas song. But the more I thought on it, the more it made sense. Musicians, I realized, love music, period. Genre is completely irrelevant, and totally unnecessary. Steven Wilson finished driving the point home when I caught him on tour, but it was Holland who made me start to re-evaluate. I needed to get over myself. It is a valuable lesson I have never forgotten. And it couldn’t have come from a nicer person.
From her home in Vancouver, British Columbia, Deborah Holland took a little time to answer Seven Questions from CirdecSongs.
CirdecSongs: What was the inspiration behind the new songs?
Deborah Holland: The inspiration for the new songs is no different from any other songs I’ve written. They are my observations about life and people, and primarily my own experiences (either drawn on wholly or in part). Except for the song “Fine, Thank You!” all were written in the summer of 2018.
“Fine, Thank You!” was a “gift.” I was digitizing all my old cassettes of songs and “frags” (fragments of songs), and I found a bit of a song my pal Richard Goldman and I were fooling around with in the early to mid 80’s! I thought the guitar riff was too cool not to use, so we worked on the lyrics and came up with a song that totally fit the overall theme of the record (being OK with your life), even though it’s also a bit tongue-in-cheek and goofy.
“The Sun Is Out” would not have been written if I still lived in Los Angeles. It’s pretty straight ahead. “Will I Ever Be loved” is maybe the most painfully honest song I’ve ever written (along with “Messed Up Valentine” from my last record, Vancouver). I had the line “Hitler was a baby once, Charlie Manson too” written in a little notebook that I keep song ideas and titles in. It finally morphed into “Hard To Understand,” probably the most serious of the songs. The working title WAS “Hitler Was a Baby Once” but it was too depressing to keep calling it that.
“Next Year Maybe (Happy Birthday)” is the second birthday song I’ve written and recorded. The first was “Happy Birthday, You’re Turning 40” on The Book of Survival. Obviously the record needed some comic relief! I don’t know why I keep returning to the topic, except that it represents aging in its most basic form, and I find my own birthdays to be something to contend with. But there’s not one bit of personal truth in this song, which is highly unusual for me.
“The Pity Party” is the song that best represents the theme of the album and probably where I’m at in my life. Even though the song is sort of celebratory, the music is not. Being OK has been, and I suspect will be, something I will always have to grapple with.
How would you describe the dominant theme behind the album?
Accepting your life as it is.
How would you say your songwriting has evolved over the years?
I think I get better and better! Especially lyrically. I don’t write as often as I used to, but I go through periods where I write a batch of songs. That’s what happened with this record.
Tell me about the musicians working with you on this record.
Well first and foremost I’ve got Stewart Copeland playing drums on four of the tracks, and one by Stewart’s main assistant since The Police, Jeff Seitz, (who is) a fine drummer in his own right. All of the songs have a string quartet arranged and played by Adrian Dolan, a brilliant musician who lives on Vancouver Island. The title song, “Fine, Thank You!” is only strings. The pedal steel was played by Patterson Barrett (Austin-based, Nashville-based, Florida-based). Patterson was my high school boyfriend! My first band was with him (called Next of Kin), and we’ve remained friends and collaborators since. He’s one of those musicians who plays everything. I love the work he did on this record. I played acoustic guitar and piano and my co-producer, Winston Hauschild, played everything else. The background vocals were done by me and Shari Ulrich, a wonderful Canadian singer-songwriter, and a few by Winston.
I’m sure fans will be happy to see an Animal Logic reunion. What were some of the challenges in bringing this event to pass?
That is actually a different project than Fine, Thank You! The Animal Logic project is five different songs the three of us began last January at Stewart’s place in Los Angeles. The challenges? The busy schedules of Stewart and Stanley!
Stewart’s drums are all tracked, but the bulk of overdubbing is left to Stanley. He’s gradually chipping away at them, and they’ll of course be brilliant. The commonalities between the two projects are my songs and voice. The differences are more in arrangement and production. My own record was produced around the way I played the songs on either piano or guitar when they were written. The overdubs were built around my basic rhythm parts. With Animal Logic, my parts typically get removed, so more space is opened up for Stewart and especially Stanley. I struggled a bit with splitting up the 10 songs because to me they all go together, but that’s just the way it worked out.
Given the state of the music industry — from both sexist and financial standpoints — how had being largely independent helped or hindered your growth?
Every single songwriter I know has been wiped out by streaming. I don’t expect to make any money from Fine, Thank You! As a matter of fact, I will lose a lot. Being independent just means you pay for everything yourself! I’m less affected by sexism and more by ageism at this point. [Holland is 65, ed.] I’ve been lucky that for my entire recording career, I’ve been able to write what I want. So I can’t say being independent has helped or hindered my growth. It’s just a ton more “busy” work and cost.
What are you eager to do musically that you haven’t done yet?
This might sound weird, but I’d love to write the songs for a Broadway musical. I’d love for the Animal Logic record to be completed and released, and it will be … eventually!
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