Those of you that follow TSM already know what a huge fan I am of Holly Near, and what an inspiration she is to so many who work to make the world a better place for all. I was fortunate enough to visit with Holly about her life and about the debut of her new album, Peace Becomes You, which is available today.
Your new album, Peace Becomes You, debuts on August 21, did you approach this album differently?
I did inasmuch that I just took a two-year sabbatical. When I came back from that there was so much stored up in that, things I needed to write but also songs I wanted to use from other people. I set up four public rehearsals to hear the new material, so that I could feel their feedback, and what they were leaning into. Of course the band was a bit startled. I wanted to allow people to feel the music. Then I went straight into the studio. While my voice is still so strong, I needed to do a double CD as one album. It felt that this maybe the last time I do a project this big.
How did you decide on the title of the album?
I looked at all of the titles of the songs and Crazy just did not seem appropriate. I have the song to John Fromer who is struggling with cancer right now and he wrote the melody for Peace Becomes You. We made a bumper sticker reading “Peace Becomes You,” which you can only get at concerts.
How did you pick songs that might be considered canonical to go along with new, original songs?
Over the last five years I did a lot of camping and listened to a lot of music. For example I listened to Johnny Mathis performing 99 Miles from LA, so it was that type of process, the music kind of found me. In hindsight, one of the things I would have done differently, there was a song I worked so hard on but it did not make it to the CD and I am very sad about that. I also wish I had spent more time writing to social activists and asking them to send me their material. In the future I would like to highlight songs of social activism that are not getting the airplay they should be getting.
You work with another one of my absolute “sheroes” Dr. Bernice Johnson Reagon. How did you select a song from her catalogue?
I have sung quite a few of her songs and I’ve known Dr. Reagon since 1979; we have been friends over thirty, forty years. I always feel so grateful. I listen to her writing a lot. There are a lot of songs that I don’t feel have any right coming out of my mouth, which narrows it down quite a bit’ it is really personal what one sings. My friend Bonnie Raitt has to sing what is true to herself, which I love and appreciate. We all have to understand our own history and cultural backgrounds. Nothing is just a song or just a dance, which I’m learning more and more as I take on the role of teacher.
I love how you are dedicated to issues of social justice and civil rights. Are there some areas in which you would encourage us all to focus our energies specifically?
At one of the festivals I was just performing at, I saw this big burly man wearing a shirt that said no planet no party — I wanted that shirt. I think one of the main focuses should be sustaining the planet, which is hard to do, but just because it is hard, does not mean we can’t do it. We need some planet consciousness which is being modeled by poorer communities who are being dumped upon.
I know your upcoming tour will be your first tour in quite some time with a full band; how did you make that decision?
Every moment we are alive, we are making choices, and as humans we hold the potential to be either amazing or horrific. I can’t get into a conversation of what issue is worst and needs the most attention. We need to be vigilant and look at our choices. Some people will just scoop up what others have made for them and others will be brick layers making things possible and building the road on which we will walk. I walk on roads that people have paved all the time — there is an invisibility of “women’s music,” of women that do not get heard. There is always an invisible corridor that creates necessary bridges. A company like Lady Slipper is cellurlarly embedded in the next generation of music, even if they are just living it.
I know you are wrapping up a tour of Folk Festivals. What has the energy been like this year as opposed to years past?
It has been awhile since I have done festivals. I was invited to many of these festivals because it was on the heels of the Occupy Movement and so there was some intent to raise awareness of activism. I did overhear that people were surprised and saddened that there was so little political music performed. Now I think people really do want to hear music about what is going on. I think there is a real desire to connect while simultaneously trying to escape. It is always hard to write about torture, gay teen suicide, women being tortured, but I work very hard at it and I reflect back and think I’ve gotten better at it. There is room for music about smash the state and for songs for striking nurses and for anti-war songs.
You have become an Elder-States woman and steward of music of social protest. How does it feel to wear that mantle?
I used to joke that I was an elder in training and now I think that time is up. I have moved into that generation of elders. Odetta is gone and Belafonte is not doing concerts anymore. When I travel I am being treated as an elder and it is very nice. I learned as I was an elder in training that I can be at peace at not being the center of attention and just happy to be of use. My generation took everything out of the box and named it; it did not all get solved, but it can be talked about. The line in the song We’re Still Here — we are here and present and here to be of use.
What or how do you see the future of protest music? What advice might you have for artists that look at life through a social justice lens as you do?
I think people need to get better. I think people need to practice activism, whether they are artists, teachers, religious people — the more we practice the better we get. I encourage people to become good writers. What do people need locally to help support them to do the hard work? It is not just about picking up a guitar and playing three chords and now who will book me? There is no shortage of ideas. What I see is that there is a shortage of skills to bring those ideas together. There is a lot of great hard work involved. Invite us to make us become our better selves. Bring a friend to a concert—expose people to music about social justice—open the circle.
To my loyal TSM readers, I will confess that I truly did try to be objective during this interview, but it is exceedingly impossible not to just fall in love with Holly! The new album is tremendous (as this review will attest), and she is such an inspiration. Holly, thank you for taking the time to visit with me.