Mr. Holland's Opus
Musician makes mainstream music DIY-style
By Noel Murray
JANUARY 31, 2000: At the end of 1999, 27-year-old Joe Holland released his second album, Crackles of Light. Like his first, the CD was self-produced, self-financed, and self-released. Holland says he'd rather control his own music instead of grooming himself carefully and waiting to be signed by a record label. He doesn't want to be a product, he says, because a product has a shelf-life.
"'Here's my demo, I hope you can make a career'...that's a dangerous thing to me," Holland explains. "I look at a folk musician like David Wilcox, who has a steady following regardless of who he records for."
What's odd about Holland's attitude, though, is that he's not a folk musician like David Wilcox, or even an edgy young rock 'n' roller with a dogged DIY aesthetic. He's a slick, soul-tinged pop musician. He plays piano as much as guitar, and his music plainly reveals his decidedly mainstream influences--Bruce Hornsby, Peter Gabriel, Paul Simon, Sting.
It's also odd that Holland brings this be-your-own-boss credo into Nashville, where the pop-rock scene has always been more about getting signed than taking charge. He admits he's had a difficult time since he arrived here four years ago from college in Boston (by way of his Connecticut hometown, a virtual suburb of New York City). For one thing, Holland's had trouble finding musicians to stick it out with him. "I didn't realize how tight the market was if you're not looking for a record deal," he says.
So last year he dropped the name he had been playing under, the Holland Rhythm Band, and went with just plain Joe Holland. "It felt like false advertising otherwise," he says. Since then, he's been running the Joe Holland business like a temp agency, mixing and matching his sidemen when he gets called for gigs, making a quartet out of seven or so regular bench players.
The gigs he's been getting have mainly been at colleges--fraternities at Vanderbilt and UT, and in several other SEC states like Mississippi, Alabama, and Georgia. Holland gets these jobs through "word of mouth, or friend of a friend." As with everything Holland does, the university shows are part of a bigger plan. "I hope to play frats, then bring those guys out to the clubs," Holland says. "I do the clubs for exposure, Greek shows for the money." He does add that he likes the crowds at fraternity shows as well as the money. "There's a built-in audience, people who are generally excited to be there," he explains. "I mean, they asked you in."
Holland had initially hoped to develop an audience the usual way--through relentless touring on a circuit of local clubs. But he's found that hard to do. "I had no idea that Nashville wasn't conducive to that sort of growth," he sighs. As a result, Holland's been operating below the radar of the burgeoning Nashville rock scene. Nevertheless, he's been making enough money at it that he's got two finished CDs to his credit. He's even thinking about quitting his part-time job waiting tables.
As noted before, the CDs are no low-budget garage-band affair. They're polished, snappy, and easy on the ears. Holland doesn't see anything strange about that. "You don't get to record an album every year," he says. "The last thing I want is not to be able to say that the production is decent quality." Holland admits, though, that figuring out his way around a studio was a learning process. "I had no idea what producing was.... On my first album, I just 'started the cameras rolling.' I put the money into getting good players instead of hiring a producer." It helped that he had some time to work things out. "Doug Sarret gave me a ton of free studio time at Uno Mas," Holland acknowledges.
The biggest change between the first record and the second is the large number of songs driven by piano. "On the first album I played mostly acoustic guitar," Holland says, adding that when he brought out the piano for his sophomore effort, "it was like meeting an old friend again. I'd love to get to the point when I could bring a real piano onstage. I've always loved piano-based music."
Indeed, Holland's rhythmic pounding of the keys adds texture to a mid-tempo charmer like "Undone" and gives the complicated structure of the ballad "Free You Are" some distinctly Hornsby-like grounding. Holland would like to follow further in the footsteps of his musical heroes (to whom he now adds Stevie Wonder, whose music has been recently captivating him) by experimenting with other genres and types of instrumentation. He says when he finishes writing a new song now, he thinks, "I've got the skeleton. Where can I take this?"
To continue on the path of more elaborate recording will take money, but Holland's careful management of his own career is in his favor. "For awhile, I would pay my players and take no money for myself," Holland says, describing how he paid for his last album with profits from shows. Still, he hopes he can sell enough copies to get ahead. "I'm hoping to recoup pretty fast."
To do that, Holland sells his CDs at shows and though his Web site, http://www.hollandlive.com, which he pushes almost as hard as his music. "[The Internet] is an incredible way to relate to people who are enjoying your music," he says.
So far, there's not much on the site. Some merchandise, a few MP3s of songs, a bulletin board for fans to post messages, a list of upcoming dates, and an occasional journal by the man himself. But as Joe Holland says, the skeleton is there. And he's poised to take it as far as he can, on his own.
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