Innerviews, music without borders

Deborah Holland
All the world's a page
by Anil Prasad
Copyright © 1999 Anil Prasad. This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution, No Derivatives license.

Deborah Holland

The book is A Woman of Independent Means by Elizabeth Forsythe Hailey. It sits beaming off a shelf behind singer-songwriter Deborah Holland during a solo, in-store performance at Mockingbird Books in Aptos Village, California.

The title is equally applicable to Holland and her self-paved path over the weeds and infertile soil of the music biz. Her latest CD, the appropriately-titled Book of Survival, tackles those experiences, as well as many of life’s other foibles. Its sparse, largely acoustic, contemporary folk arrangements and sophisticated subject matter are a far cry from her days as the lead singer of Animal Logic. During its brief career from 1988 to 1992, the trio focused on fusing sleek pop fare with funk and jazz rhythms, courtesy of renowned bassist Stanley Clarke and ex-Police drummer Stewart Copeland. But The Book of Survival, her third solo release, isn’t about glossy sheens. It’s about rough-hewn reality seen through a forty-something tint.

"I was originally going to call the album My Middle Ages," said Holland, looking far younger than her years as she relaxed with a glass of red wine at the nearby Seacliff Inn lounge. "The songs focus on adult themes about coping with life as not being a kid anymore. The topics address being middle aged, there’s no other way to say it. I would not have written these songs in my 20s or early 30s. The things that affect me now are being married, being a mother and being someone who thinks about mortality and politics."

For Holland, The Book of Survival is a metaphor for coping, maintaining balance and locating peace of mind on one’s own brainmap.

"It’s about how each individual figures out how they’re going to live and not be miserably depressed," said the New Jersey native who now resides in Los Angeles. "Some people have AA, some people have shrinks. Most people have some type of religion and others just wing it by the seat of their pants. I include myself in the latter category. I just kind of figure it out in terms of how to live and get along. This is an insane world and insane times in which we live. We have wars, poverty, the threat of terrorist attacks, guys bursting into Jewish community centers and shooting people, freeway car-jackers and freeway shooters. It’s gone over the top. It’s hard to figure out how to deal with all of that. So, that’s what the Book of Survival is. You have to come up with a meaning for your life. No-one can tell you what you need to be happy."

Holland is quick to add that the album has a positive underpinning too.

"I think in all my songs—even the ones that are negative—there is the message that even though it always seems the water is coming in, you have to try and bail out," said the redhead, clad in a dark green sweater, grey pants and black boots. "I got the philosophy from my father. I know it sounds so politically correct and naïve. But it doesn’t mean you have to give up your life and become Mother Theresa. It means you have to do something to try and improve the world."

"Kids with guns," one of Book of Survival’s highlights, puts that philosophy center stage. The song explores humanity’s predisposition towards violence, as well as the frustration and futility of determining how to deal with it. Its chorus looks at how those tendencies are filtering further and further down the age ladder: "Kids with guns shootin’ down kids/No explanation for what they did/Bombs went down while singin’ this song/Nation against nation/Well they all seem wrong."

"It’s hard to know the good guys from the bad—and in this case it’s the kids," said Holland. "I wrote that song before the Columbine shootings, but during Columbine, Kosovo was going on. So, bombs were actually being dropped while the Columbine shooting happened. To me, there’s a correlation. Clinton made a speech saying kids need to learn to deal with problems without resorting to violence. Well, duh, look who's talking. We’re a gun-happy, war-happy culture and I feel that has something to do with why these things are happening. Guns should not be so readily available—‘Take away the guns’ as Cheryl Wheeler says. I’m not going to blame the situation on videos and television, but it has to have something to do with it too—the accessibility to that kind of mindset and how immune people are to seeing violence."

Despite the serious nature of the song’s lyrics, it features an intriguingly humorous dig at one of 1997’s biggest hit singles. "Paula Cole posed this question in a more commercial song/But John Wayne’s not the hero I would need" sings Holland of how individuals need to ask themselves how to proceed in society’s volatile climate. The line refers to Cole’s "Where have all the cowboys gone?"

"I don’t mean to put her down, but that song really did irritate me," said Holland. "The last thing men need to become is more like John Wayne. She seems to be pining for a certain kind of masculinity or machoness that’s not around anymore. To me, it’s kind of a weird, anti-feminist song. Maybe she didn’t mean it that way. Maybe women that age are looking for that. Certainly, I’m not. Women like bad boys—I did for many years. But then they wise up."

The rest of the album’s material explores other dark clouds in humanity’s sky. There’s a dissection of Y2K hysteria in "The end of the world" and a look at the political agendas that allow world leaders to literally get away with murder in "Pinochet and Margaret Thatcher." There’s also "Everything but a soul" that looks at the Machiavellian mentality that lets some individuals rationalize material gain at any cost.

Although silver linings aren’t always forthcoming in Holland's lyrics, there’s often a good dose of wit to offset the songs’ earnest leanings. The album’s emotional spectrum is mirrored in the ebb and flow of her warm, crystalline vocals. She delivers them with well-tempered passion—something she discovered after Animal Logic’s break-up.

Animal Logic

"I don’t belt or push anymore when I sing," said Holland. "I got blood blisters on my vocal chords after touring with Animal Logic. Before making the band’s second album, I had to have surgery because I was pushing so much all the time. But I even sang that way in the studio. I don’t anymore. I feel I have more nuance now in my singing. I discovered that, particularly in a live context, I can sing more quietly."

Holland’s choice of instrumentation further reflects her inclination towards nuance. Unlike the very electric, dense and groove-oriented sound of Animal Logic, The Book of Survival is a rootsy effort built around acoustic guitar, bass and percussion. Several pieces are also colored by piano, fiddle, mandolin and dobro. Holland expertly handles most of the record’s guitar and piano duties herself. The simple and spacious approach is one she first adopted for her last solo album, 1997’s The Panic Is On.

"With Animal Logic, everything was produced, overdubbed and layered," recalled Holland. "I did a million vocal takes. I punched in words and syllables. I would punch in an ‘uh’ or any little thing that sounded slightly flat or sharp. I can’t make a record like that anymore. The Panic Is On is almost 99 percent live. I really enjoyed that and wanted to stick to it. The new album is mostly live too. I enjoyed not using drums for the past two records. It’s kind of neat having percussion as your rhythmic element. I think it’s also a reaction to it being so hard to sing over drums and bass in Animal Logic."

The Panic Is On is comprised of covers of songs written during the 1930s in the wake of the Great Depression such as "Brother, can you spare a dime?" and "How can a poor man stand such times and live?" Before making the album, Holland went through a depression of her own resulting from the machinery of the music business crushing her promising first solo album, 1994’s Freudian Slip. Although its sound wasn’t entirely dissimilar from Animal Logic, the record found Holland reestablishing control of her own vision and direction.

"I thought it was a damn good record and so did everyone else," she said. "It was doing well. Several tracks were getting lots of AAA airplay and it was charting in Gavin [radio charts]. But two months after it came out, Miles Copeland [Stewart Copeland’s brother and her manager at the time] pulled the plug and it died. He was going through some financial situation in which his accountant advised him to drop many things. I was heartbroken. I went into a year-long depression. By him dropping me, I literally had nothing—absolutely nothing. He was my manager, my publisher and my record company. I just gave up and caved in. I didn’t know what the hell to do with my life. I also had a newborn baby at the time. So,I decided to get out of the music business. I wasn’t going to write songs anymore and I chose to get my masters degree in Commercial Music at Cal State University [in Los Angeles]."

Fortunately, the move into the halls of academia helped foster a creative rebirth for Holland. It also created an unlikely incubator for what would turn out to be her second solo album.

"When it came time to do my thesis, I was thinking about how much I loved the song ‘Brother, can you spare a dime?’" said Holland of the seeds that grew into The Panic Is On. "I wondered if there were other songs written in the 1930s that were as good as that one. So, I started to do some research. At first, I was going to write a regular masters thesis, but I thought the songs were so cool that it might be neat to record them. So, the whole point of my thesis was that there were songs from various genres that have nothing to do with each other—from blues, tin pan alley, country and folk. But lyrically, they were all talking about the same thing. They were saying ‘It’s really hard during the Depression. Times are tough. This sucks.’ At the same time, most of the songs that were popular during the 1930s were also saying ‘Hey, keep on the sunny side of the street’ and ‘Smile, darn ya! Smile.’"

Holland chose to highlight the lyrical symmetry and linkages between the songs through some very creative arrangements.

"I recorded them with just bass, percussion and vocals to show that they can sound similar and to bring together the different genres," she said. "I felt that if I put a guitar on ‘How can a poor man stand such times and live?’ that it would sound more folk or country. I thought if I put a piano on ‘Brother, can you spare a dime?’ that it was going to sound more like a jazz tune. So, I thought by stripping them down this way and really exposing the songs, I could show how common the commonality was between them."

The songs also tie together in another way.

"One of the points of making the record is that it’s all still going on—a severe depression could happen again," said Holland. "We’ve all heard the whole thing about everyone being affluent and the economy doing great, but all you have to do is go to any city and look around. There’s still a million homeless people [in the USA] and lots of kids who don’t have health insurance and are living below the poverty level. There are lots of people working for minimum wage or less. So, the songs on The Panic Is On are very timeless."

Richard Goldman, a friend of Holland’s who also sings background vocals on Book of Survival, told Gadfly Records about the project. Mitch Cantor, the Vermont-based label’s president, was fascinated by the record’s unique concept and chose to take a chance on it. "The Panic Is On might be the first masters thesis that was released as a commercial recording," said Holland, chuckling.

The Panic Is On provided an escape from the pop leanings of Animal Logic and her first solo album. But that wasn’t the original intention.

"It turned out that way when it was done, but in the beginning it was purely a project," said Holland. "There were a lot of economic considerations. It was my first completely self-produced record. I paid for it myself. I couldn’t do anything extravagant and don’t know that I would have wanted to. It was very liberating to make a record this way. It stays truer to what music should be about."

Folk radio agreed. The unconventional instrumentation and arrangements proved to be a non-issue as stations across the USA embraced the record.

"It’s a very experimental record to me in that there’s no guitar or piano and the production is more modern than on my new record," she said. "But that’s what I like about the folk world. They don’t care about that stuff. They just care about the song which is why I got into music in the first place."

The topics and themes of The Panic Is On ended up playing a large role in the direction of her own material—something evidenced all over The Book of Survival.

Book of Surival

"Digging down and rediscovering political songs for The Panic Is On had an influence on my own writing," said Holland. "I don’t think I could have written ‘Pinochet and Margaret Thatcher’ and ‘Kids with guns’ without making that record. In the past, my music’s been more personal and not political. So, it’s been a really positive influence on me."

In fact, it was so positive that she may revisit songs of eras long past on future projects.

"When I made The Panic Is On, I was at a place where I wasn’t going to write anything," said Holland. "Nothing was coming out. Turning to other music when that happened was a worthwhile thing. I would consider doing that again. I think it would be great to make a whole record of union or work songs. So, The Panic Is On opened up other avenues which I wouldn’t have thought of before."

 

Animal Logic opened many avenues for Holland too. The group broke up because Clarke and Copeland were more interested in pursuing the lucrative world of film scoring, rather than face the long-term rigors of touring and trying to break the band wide open. Despite the band’s short lifespan, the experience paid dividends to Holland. "Animal Logic was the most wonderful thing that ever happened to me," she said. "It gave me a career. It gave me a life. Everything good that’s happened in my life since Animal Logic is a result of Animal Logic. In fact, The Panic Is On probably wouldn’t have been released had I not been known as the ‘ex-singer-songwriter of Animal Logic.’"

Holland admits her time with Animal Logic had downsides too.

"Critics and fans of Stanley and Stewart thought the music was going to be different than it was," she said. "When they saw the names Stewart Copeland and Stanley Clarke, they weren’t expecting it to be mainstream pop and it was. They thought it would be more wild and experimental. The initial negative reaction was difficult to get over. I also wasn’t the happiest I had ever been in my life in Animal Logic because I lost complete control over my music and because people weren’t interested in seeing me when they came to see the band. They were forced to deal with me. I remember a guy at a show in Brazil who tried to wave me aside to get a better look at Stewart. In Holland, someone threw a beer can on stage next to me. I was miserably depressed after that, but it made me much stronger and I got cockier on stage. I had to develop a tough stage persona. For those fans, the songs were vehicles for Stewart and Stanley to have drum and bass solos. If Stewart and Stanley were unknown and there were no expectations regarding what the band was going to sound like, I think Animal Logic would have done better than it did."

Record sales waned during Animal Logic’s latter days, but Holland’s stage presence and confidence continued to improve. Her experience with the group also helped her realize who she really was as a performer.

"Towards the very end of touring, I came into my own a little more as a frontperson," she said. "It definitely took awhile. But the kind of leader I was becoming with Animal Logic was not who I really am as a performer. Saying ‘Put your hands together! Everyone say yeah!’ is not who I am. It was a little bit forced. It was like acting. I was playing a role. I’m not a lead singer. I’m uncomfortable just standing out front with a microphone in my hand. I’m way more comfortable now playing an instrument and singing."

Like her former bandmates, Holland is also comfortable in the film scoring realm. She’s contributed music to movies including Circuitry Man, December, Genuine Risk, Out There and Venus Rising. Copeland also occasionally calls on Holland to sing on his soundtracks such as Highlander II and Wall Street.

"It's very exciting to see your music make a scene come alive, but there are many negative aspects to film scoring also," explained Holland. "For instance, the music is not the most important thing. There are also the difficulties of being a woman composer in a mostly male-dominated world, trying to please the director and/or producer, working with very low budgets and having your music—which you busted your ass working on—mixed to an almost inaudible volume."

When Holland isn’t busting her ass recording and performing on the folk circuit, she can be found in her role as a professor of music in Cal State’s Masters of Commercial Music program. One glance at the program’s curriculum makes it easy to see why Holland was a perfect fit.

"It focuses on songwriting, arranging, film scoring, the business of music, the history of popular music and things like that," she said. "Most of them are upper level and graduate classes. It’s a big part of my life. It’s my day gig. They’re [Cal State] very supportive of me having a career outside of it though. And because I have a day job, I have more freedom to do exactly what I want to do musically. In other words, I’m not dependent on music to make a living. That’s pretty significant."

To say that the combination of Holland’s many commitments makes for a hectic lifestyle is an understatement.

"It’s very difficult to juggle having a career, being a mother, trying to write songs, trying to do scoring, teaching, going to the cleaners, buying groceries and all the stuff everyone has to do," she said. "When I’m doing it and all the balls are in the air, it’s great. Every once in awhile, all the balls drop and I feel like I’m a failure at everything single thing I’m doing and I get incredibly depressed. But I only teach 33 weeks a year, which for a full-time job is pretty damn good. Not many people only get to work two-thirds of the year. During the downtime, I work on my songwriting and career like a son of a bitch to make up for the time I can’t do it."

When Holland is teaching, her students reap the benefits of learning from a professor possessing first-hand experience with the inner sanctum of the music industry.

"They’re aware of Animal Logic and I talk about it a lot," she said. "When I teach a Business of Music class, I say things like ‘In my opinion, I would not do such a thing because this is what happened to me.’ So, I use examples from my own career a lot. I think they appreciate the fact that I’m not just some academician but that I know what I’m talking about because I’ve lived it."

Deborah Holland

Complete Interview Transcript:

Describe the thematic underpinning Book of Survival’s songs are built on.

I was originally going to call the album My Middle Ages. [laughs] The songs focus on adult themes about coping with life as not being a kid anymore. The topics address being middle aged—there’s no other way to say it. I would not have written these songs in my 20s or early 30s. The things that affect me now are being married, being a mother and being someone who thinks about mortality and politics. But I wasn’t trying to write songs that all fit this theme. I simply noticed that when I looked at the list of songs I wanted to record that they all fell into adult topics—except for "Faded Red Car." Maybe "middle age" is a stupid phrase. But it’s about being grown up. And having a kid makes you not want to be a kid too. You see the world differently. There’s a sense of humor on the album too. I didn’t really have a sense of humor in my writing until recently. I think you get to a certain age or point in your songwriting when you have to look at the world with a little sense of humor. You can’t be that serious anymore—even with songs with serious subject matter like "Kids with guns," "Pinochet and Margaret Thatcher" and "The end of the world."

What is the Book of Survival?

It’s what each individual comes up with. It’s about how each individual figures out how they’re going to live and not be miserably depressed. Some people have AA, some people have shrinks. Most people have some type of religion and others just wing it by the seat of their pants. I include myself in the latter category. I just kind of figure it out in terms of how to live and get along. This is an insane world and insane times in which we live. We have wars, poverty, the threat of terrorist attacks, guys bursting into Jewish community centers and shooting people, freeway car-jackers and freeway shooters. It’s gone over the top. It’s hard to figure out how to deal with all of that. So, that’s what the Book of Survival is. You have to come up with a meaning for your life. No-one can tell you what you need to be happy.

In the grand scheme of things, are things any worse now than they were 500 years ago?

Well, 500 years ago, we didn’t have nuclear arms. But maybe it wasn’t any easier. Maybe they thought the same things we think now—that these are really rough times. Maybe it’s human nature to think things were easier in the past. But even in our own lifetime, don’t things seem more out of control than they did 10 years ago? There seems to be more of everything. There’s more people on the planet and that makes things harder too. And look at the stuff happening with the weather. That freaks me out. We have the Greenhouse Effect, El Nino—the weather is out of control. There was only one snow storm in New Jersey last year. That’s weird! You have to figure out a way of coping or you’ll go crazy. You won’t want to get out of bed and you’ll just pull the covers over your head.

Despite those perceptions, there is a positive side to the lyrics on the new album.

I think in all my songs—even the ones that are negative—there is the message that even though it always seems the water is coming in, you have to try and bail out. I got the philosophy from my father. I know it sounds so politically correct and naïve. But it doesn’t mean you have to give up your life and become Mother Theresa. It means you have to do something to try and improve the world. You have to maintain a sense of humor too. So, I think there’s optimism in my music. I don’t think it’s all that dark. I think I was darker in the songs I was writing with Animal Logic than I am now.

"Kid with guns" is a fascinating song on a lot of levels. Let’s start with the overt meaning.

It’s hard to know the good guys from the bad—and in this case it’s the kids. I wrote that song before the Columbine shootings, but during Columbine, Kosovo was going on. So, bombs were actually being dropped while the Columbine shooting happened. To me, there’s a correlation. Clinton made a speech saying kids need to learn to deal with problems without resorting to violence. Well, duh, look who's talking. We’re a gun-happy, war-happy culture and I feel that has something to do with why these things are happening. Guns should not be so readily available—‘Take away the guns’ as Cheryl Wheeler says. I’m not going to blame the situation on videos and television, but it has to have something to do with it too—the accessibility to that kind of mindset and how immune people are to seeing violence.

In the song, you sing "There’s nothing I can do or say that’s not been said or done." Do you believe that?

Yes. To a certain extent, I can say or do something. I can offer my own take on it. But I don’t know what I can do or say that hasn’t been said or done. However, as I said in the song, I promise I will make an effort to bail out the water. I can do that. I will not hide my head under the blankets and say "Oh, it’s a terrible world. Oh woe is me." I will try to affect change in my own way.

As a mother, do you think about how you can shield your child from the madness?

I don’t know that I can shield him from it. I don’t know if that’s possible. I can hope he doesn’t become one of those kids by trying to keep watch over his mental health. But I don’t think you can protect your child from the crazy nuts in the world. I can’t guarantee that someone is not going to come into his school with a gun. It’s horrible to think about, but it’s true. I just hope that it doesn’t happen. In "The end of the world" I sing about going to Portage Prairie—going to Canada if the shit hits the fan here. Just pack up your car and drive over the border—if they still let us in by then. Canada does seem to be a saner country and doesn’t seem as trigger happy and bomb happy as we are.

There’s another eyebrow raiser in the song that goes "Paula Cole posed this question in a more commercial song/But John Wayne’s not the hero I would need" in reference to "Where have all the cowboys gone?"

I don’t mean to put her down, but that song really did irritate me. The last thing men need to become is more like John Wayne. She seems to be pining for a certain kind of masculinity or machoness that’s not around anymore. To me, it’s kind of a weird, anti-feminist song. Maybe she didn’t mean it that way. Maybe women that age are looking for that. Certainly, I’m not. Women like bad boys—I did for many years. But then they wise up.

Describe the motivation behind "The end of the world."

It’s poking a little bit of fun at the Y2K mania. It’s also dealing with my own fear of the religious right taking over this country. I fear that could happen and it is happening more and more. You can’t teach Darwinism in Iowa public schools now because of a thing the school system passed. The power those people have really does scare me—way more than being afraid the world is going to end. The last verse of the song deals with my own mortality.

Deborah Holland

Does that cross your mind often?

All the time. I’ve always thought about death. I’m afraid to die. The thought of not being here anymore—of nothingness—can make me have a hardcore anxiety attack and send me to a therapist. [laughs]

"Pinochet and Margaret Thatcher" takes the Book of Survival to a macro level with its look at international politics.

I don’t think I would have written it without recording The Panic Is On. Making the record had a lasting effect on me. It gave me a renewed interest in political songs. Granted, they are way left of center in how I approach them. I was thinking about having them have sex in the song, but I thought that might be going too far. [laughs] Political songs that espouse my political beliefs represent a direction I may want to continue with.

The album is very sparse, with largely acoustic instrumentation. It’s a far cry from Freudian Slip and Animal Logic. What made you pursue that direction?

It’s easier to record an album with fewer instruments and fewer players. The Panic Is On only had two players. I liked that. With Animal Logic, everything was produced, overdubbed and layered. I did a million vocal takes. I punched in words and syllables. I would punch in an ‘uh’ or any little thing that sounded slightly flat or sharp. I can’t make a record like that anymore. The Panic Is On is almost 99 percent live. I really enjoyed that and wanted to stick to it. The new album is mostly live too. The other thing I discovered from The Panic Is On is that you can take different styles of music and if you produce it and arrange it the same way, it all ties together a little more. I wanted to try that with my own music. Some of my songwriting is all over the map stylistically. I wanted to see if I could make my music tie together a little more by using the same instruments and it worked. I enjoyed not using drums for the past two records. It’s kind of neat having percussion as your rhythmic element. I think it’s also a reaction to it being so hard to sing over drums and bass in Animal Logic. That made the more folk and acoustic setting appeal to me. I also recorded this album differently from Freudian Slip and Animal Logic. On the new album, the arrangement is built around the way that I wrote the song. That wasn’t the case with Animal Logic. They deconstructed my songs and made brand new arrangements. That was great for a band setting, but it makes it hard for you to play those songs by yourself. You need the whole band to do it. I knew I was going to go out and promote and tour this record by myself, so I wanted to make a record with songs you could listen to without the other couple of instruments and still have it sound good.

Who are some of the artists that inspired you to go the folk route?

In the beginning, it was a combination of folk singers like Joan Baez, Pete Seeger, Phil Ochs, Woody Guthrie and the Weavers. In the ‘70s, I discovered singer-songwriters like Joni Mitchell, James Taylor, Laura Nyro, Crosby, Stills, Nash and Young and Bonnie Raitt—I wanted to be Bonnie Raitt when I first heard her. I liked other odd things like Jethro Tull, Jefferson Airplane, The Flying Burrito Brothers and Led Zeppelin as well. Later, in my 20s, I got into jazz. In fact, my undergrad degree was in jazz studies. I loved Miles Davis’ stuff from the ‘60s with Wayne Shorter. The Band was another influence. I used to hitchhike to go see them live. There’s also Linda Ronstadt, Emmylou Harris, Fiona Apple, Radiohead, a lot of classical music and top-40 too. But for me, it’s about the song more than anything else.

You use some old-time English in your lyrics. It’s not uncommon to hear things like "Gee," "Swell," "By golly" and "My Favorite Joe" in your work.

That’s true. I never thought of that. I use "critters" too! I wasn’t aware of it at all. I wouldn’t have known that if you hadn’t said it. I have no idea where it comes from. I don’t talk that way. I don’t say "By golly" at all. It’s gotta be something to do with the fact that I’m an avid reader and have been since I was a kid. I love Dickens and Thomas Hardy, but I don’t think I’m getting language from them. I guess it just evolves over the years. I enjoy playing with words. When I write a song, I try to go someplace. I’m trying not to be self-conscious. I just let things come. I don’t know where they come from. The only thing I buy into from a spiritual level is the creative process. It mystifies me. I believe in the muse. If I don’t line-up whatever needs to line-up, I can’t write a song. No-one can be in the house. I can’t even be downstairs. I have to be totally alone. The creative process is something I can’t define and I go on faith. When I’m writing a song and the words and music are flowing, it’s like a religious experience. The song almost writes itself when it’s really, really right. It’s effortless. And there’s nothing better. But there’s lots of blood, sweat and tears in between. There’s lots of things that don’t work. "Spy in the house of love" is the first song I wrote where I was aware of this. It’s the first song I felt that wrote itself—I was just the vehicle for it. When I hear other songwriters say this stuff, it sound so new agey and goofy. I feel like I sound like Tori Amos when I talk this way. But it does feel this way.

Describe your transition from New Jersey to Los Angeles.

I grew up in New Jersey and also lived in New York for a year. Then I moved to L.A. because I thought it was the place you go if you're a singer-songwriter. That’s where Joni Mitchell and Jackson Browne were. It was 3,000 miles away from home, so maybe it was about getting away from home too. This was back in ’77. In ten years, absolutely nothing happened as far as trying to get a record deal, making demos, putting bands together and shopping tapes to publishers. I was about to give up. I said "It’s not gonna happen" and "who cares?" It was then that I wrote "Spy in the house of love" and "Firing up the sunset gun." I gave them to a publisher named Dan Howell, who died a year ago. He heard something in those two songs. He was also the administrator for the Police catalog and knew Stewart [Copeland]. Stewart told him he was looking for a female singer-songwriter and Dan gave him a couple of tapes. Mine was one of them. So, those were the two songs that got me into Animal Logic.

The Panic Is On was a significant departure from Animal Logic and Freudian Slip. What made you want to record an album of political songs from the 1930s?

After everything fell apart with Miles and Freudian Slip, I didn’t know what the hell to do with my life. I also had a newborn baby at the time. So,I decided to get out of the music business. I wasn’t going to write songs anymore and I chose to get my masters degree in Commercial Music at Cal State University [in Los Angeles]. When it came time to do my thesis, I was thinking about how much I loved the song "Brother, can you spare a dime?" I wondered if there were other songs written in the 1930s that were as good as that one. So, I started to do some research. At first, I was going to write a regular masters thesis, but I thought the songs were so cool that it might be neat to record them. So, the whole point of my thesis was that there were songs from various genres that have nothing to do with each other—from blues, tin pan alley, country and folk. But lyrically, they were all talking about the same thing. They were saying ‘It’s really hard during the Depression. Times are tough. This sucks.’ At the same time, most of the songs that were popular during the 1930s were also saying ‘Hey, keep on the sunny side of the street’ and "Smile, darn ya! Smile." I recorded them with just bass, percussion and vocals to show that they can sound similar and to bring together the different genres. I felt that if I put a guitar on ‘How can a poor man stand such times and live?’ that it would sound more folk or country. I thought if I put a piano on ‘Brother, can you spare a dime?’ that it was going to sound more like a jazz tune. So, I thought by stripping them down this way and really exposing the songs, I could show how common the commonality was between them.

Panic Is On

The way you used bass guitar on the record is particularly unique.

Bob Mair is an amazing bassist. I tortured him with the parts he had to learn. They’re very hard bass parts. He’s doing everything. He’s the bass, the guitar, the banjo and piano. The mix is kind of out there too. The record has all of these weird effects and stuff. Bringing in Animal Logic, people had said to us towards the end of the group "Why don’t just the three of you record something? Just drums, bass and vocals." And by golly, isn’t that what I did? [laughs] It’s the real stripped-down core of what Animal Logic was doing. That might have influenced what I did too.

And despite that, The Panic Is On received a good deal of positive attention from the folk world.

Folk DJs really loved that record. And really, to me, it’s not a folk record at all. It’s a very experimental record to me in that there’s no guitar or piano and the production is more modern than on my new record. There’s also some wacky stuff in the mix. But that’s what I like about the folk world. They don’t care about that stuff. They just care about the song which is why I got into music in the first place. That’s one of the problems I had with the second Animal Logic record. It became less about the song and more about the bass and drums. That was totally understandable because the bass player and drummer want to play interesting grooves. But I’m not a groove writer. I don’t care that much about the groove. It happens later. For me, it’s about the melody and lyrics.

Describe how you researched the songs you chose.

The songs mostly came from universities that house centers on their campus specializing in the genres on the record. For instance, UCLA has a popular music archive, North Carolina at Chapel Hill has a folk music archive and the University of Mississippi has a blues archive. The archivists at those centers helped me out a lot. When I told them what I was looking for, they were able to point me in the direction of certain songs. In some cases, they even sent me recorded versions of the songs. The Woody Guthrie songs are easy to find, although I went to the Woody Guthrie archives in New York to get historical information and dates. There was also a series on the Great Depression by PBS and Sony put out a record from it. A friend of mine at Sony tracked that down for me. Also, some of the songs I was familiar with are the versions by more contemporary artists. I always knew "How can a poor man stand such times and live?" from Ry Cooder. I had heard his version of "Do Re Mi" too. Ry Cooder’s been digging up and re-recording old songs for years.

So, I spent about a year researching the material and then narrowed it down to songs I wanted from different genres. I also chose songs that I felt I could do a good job performing in that I could bring something to them. I tried to make sure they worked together as a whole. Then I rehearsed them with the bass player to make sure they worked as just bass and vocal. We then added the percussionist. Other than a couple of percussion overdubs, it was recorded live. We went in the studio one day and just laid them all down. In some ways, it’s easier to sing material I didn’t write. You’re not so attached to the tune. You don’t nit-pick and obsess over things as much. I guess it’s because they’re not my children. I just went in and sang the songs. There was none of the punching in, overdubbing and editing together of takes. It was what it was.

Is The Book of Survival a ‘90s update to The Panic Is On?

I hadn’t thought of that. Some of them are. "Pinochet and Margaret Thatcher" and "Kids with guns" are. But I don’t know about the whole record. I don’t feel like it’s a political record. But digging down and rediscovering political songs for The Panic Is On had an influence on my own writing. I don’t think I could have written ‘Pinochet and Margaret Thatcher’ and ‘Kids with guns’ without making that record. In the past, my music’s been more personal and not political. So, it’s been a really positive influence on me. The other thing is when I made The Panic Is On, I was at a place where I wasn’t going to write anything. Nothing was coming out. Turning to other music when that happened was a worthwhile thing. I would consider doing that again. I think it would be great to make a whole record of union or work songs. So, The Panic Is On opened up other avenues which I wouldn’t have thought of before.

The interesting contrast is what "survival" meant in the 1930s versus what it’s come to mean in the 1990s. The concept tends to be a lot more superficial these days—something the new record deals with too.

Yeah, it used to be about getting food on your plate and a place to live. Now, survival isn’t just about food on the table. It’s about how to cope with all of the internal and external factors in your life.

The theory is that something like the Great Depression could happen again at any time.

That’s true. One of the points of making the record is that it’s all still going on—a severe depression could happen again. We’ve all heard the whole thing about everyone being affluent and the economy doing great, but all you have to do is go to any city and look around. There’s still a million homeless people [in the USA] and lots of kids who don’t have health insurance and are living below the poverty level. There are lots of people of people working for minimum wage or less. So, the songs on The Panic Is On are very timeless.

Do you feel the record allowed you to escape the pop trappings of Animal Logic and Freudian Slip?

It turned out that way when it was done, but in the beginning it was purely a project. There were a lot of economic considerations. It was my first completely self-produced record. I paid for it myself. I couldn’t do anything extravagant and don’t know that I would have wanted to. It was very liberating to make a record this way. It definitely broke down my whole approach to recording music I’ve been using for 20 years which is you go into the studio, do a million takes, overdub the parts, punch in the vocals and comp together different vocal tracks. You end up spending a lot of time and laboring over everything to get a slicker sound. People ask me if I’ll ever make a record that sounds like Animal Logic again and I don’t think I will. I like this other approach much more. It stays truer to what music should be about. I still enjoy a well-produced, slick record, but I don’t think it’s appropriate for my music anymore.

The Panic Is On

There isn’t a lot known about why Animal Logic broke up. What can you tell me?

It was pretty benign. Basically, the second album came out and it wasn’t doing that well right off the bat like the record company wanted. They felt for it to really break that the band had to tour extensively. Stanley was unwilling to tour extensively. He had a career as a film composer that was just taking off. It didn’t make any sense for him to go out on tour and support a record for which he would make no money when he could stay in town and make X amount of dollars scoring films. I don’t blame him. I’m not angry at him at all because I totally understand. Stewart, on the other hand, with his experiences with the Police, was much more savvy in knowing what it takes to break a pop record. The Police got in a van and went to every single club. Animal Logic was the kind of band people needed to see live to get excited about. If they didn’t see us live, I didn’t think it was gonna happen. And we didn’t want to get another bass player. It wouldn’t have been Animal Logic with some other bass player. So, they decided that was it and let me go pursue a solo career. They felt I was being held back by their inability to do what was necessary to promote the record. Stanley was not aware of the pop-making machinery when he got into Animal Logic. He came from the jazz world. In the jazz world, you release a record and it sells its 100,000 or 200,000 copies or whatever. That happens whether you tour or not, whether you do press or not, whether you do these meet and greet dinners or not, whether you go to the distributors and shake hands and say "Hi" or not. Stewart’s a master of promotion. He understood that we needed to do a lot of promotion to get it to the stage where it would sell more copies. But he genuinely loves to play too. He’s just happy playing his drums. This is my opinion. Stewart and Stanley might totally disagree.

How did audience and industry expectations of the band affect its ability to deliver on its mandate which was interesting, intelligent pop songs?

Critics and fans of Stanley and Stewart thought the music was going to be different than it was. When they saw the names Stewart Copeland and Stanley Clarke, they weren’t expecting it to be mainstream pop and it was. They thought it would be more wild and experimental. The initial negative reaction was difficult to get over.

At tonight’s gig, you were concerned for a moment that you were characterizing Animal Logic as a negative experience.

It was difficult. I also wasn’t the happiest I had ever been in my life in Animal Logic because I lost complete control over my music and because people weren’t interested in seeing me when they came to see the band. They were forced to deal with me. I remember a guy at a show in Brazil who tried to wave me aside to get a better look at Stewart. In Holland, someone threw a beer can on stage next to me. I was miserably depressed after that, but it made me much stronger and I got cockier on stage. I had to develop a tough stage persona. For those fans, the songs were vehicles for Stewart and Stanley to have drum and bass solos. That was reality. They didn’t know what it was about and weren’t interested in me. If Stewart and Stanley were unknown and there were no expectations regarding what the band was going to sound like, I think Animal Logic would have done better than it did. But Animal Logic was the most wonderful thing that ever happened to me. It gave me a career. It gave me a life. Everything good that’s happened in my life since Animal Logic is a result of Animal Logic—even my teaching position at Cal State. I got to score films too. In fact, The Panic Is On probably wouldn’t have been released had I not been known as the "ex-singer-songwriter of Animal Logic."

Did you experience moments with the band when you transcended the baggage of being an unknown fronting two legends?

Towards the very end of touring, I came into my own a little more as a frontperson. It definitely took awhile. But the kind of leader I was becoming with Animal Logic was not who I really am as a performer. Saying "Put your hands together! Everyone say yeah!" is not who I am. It was a little bit forced. It was like acting. I was playing a role. I’m not a lead singer. I’m uncomfortable just standing out front with a microphone in my hand. I’m way more comfortable now playing an instrument and singing. At the very beginning of Animal Logic, I played some keyboards, but not much. Now, you can see how comfortable I am doing what I’m doing. I don’t think I’m acting. I’m just having fun. It’s a huge difference. I’m also older and more confident. I’ve got more experience. I know what I want to musically now. I talk about having a mid-life crisis all the time. I get very confused about my career direction, but I’m not confused musically as far as the kinds of music and songs I want to do.

What do you miss about Animal Logic?

I miss performing in front of large audiences. And it was nice to be able to call people like L. Shankar and have him play on the record. Or if we needed a trumpet solo, it was "Let’s call Freddie Hubbard!" That was fantastic. We had great musicians play with us. It was also nice having people do the day-to-day things I do myself now. I book myself, I promote myself, I manage myself, I pay for everything. I miss the perks. It was nice to say "We want to go on David Letterman" and then we’d go on David Letterman. The doors that were open because of the names of Stewart and Stanley were nice.

Do you ever ask yourself "What if Animal Logic serves as my commercial apex?"

I’m sure that it is the commercial apex for me. I will never be mainstream again. I don’t write mainstream music anymore. I don’t produce myself in a mainstream manner anymore. The lyrics are so far from being mainstream. I don’t write big choruses anymore. In Animal Logic we had choruses like "Someday we’ll understand" or "Someone to come home to" [sings chorus]. I don’t do that anymore. It was another lifetime—another phase. I can’t relate to those songs anymore. It’s just like how I can’t relate to songs I wrote when I was 15. I wrote a song about the Vietnam War called "Oh, what can I do when I hear about war?" It went "Oh, what can I do when I hear about war?/The sadness it brings/The hearts that it tore/It makes me feel sad/It makes me feel mad…" [sings in a country-folk style] That was one of the first songs I ever wrote. I can’t believe I remembered it. I swear to God, I’ve never quoted it until now. I wrote it to try and sing at protest rallies and coffeehouses. I couldn’t write a song like that anymore. It’s like the early ‘80s when I kind of had a new wave rock band in L.A. I played electric guitar and wore spandex.

How do you look back at the Animal Logic records?

When I listen to the Animal Logic records, I’m really proud of them—even the second one. They’re beautiful-sounding records. I don’t think the songs are as good as what I do now though. The production is amazing. When I hear "Spy in the house of love," it knocks my socks off. I’m not embarrassed by the songs. Some of them really hold up. "Rose colored glasses" is a great song. And I still perform "Spy in the house of love" and "Firing up the sunset gun" sometimes. Other Animal Logic songs do make me cringe a little bit—things like "Someone to come home to." That’s a really dumb rock song. But the Rolling Stones do dumb rock songs and I like them. So, there’s nothing wrong with that. I think it’s true with songwriters that the current thing you’re doing is what you like. It’s hard to like what you did before.

What were some of the significant highs and lows for you with Animal Logic?

The number one high in Animal Logic was singing a duet with Jackson Browne on the second album. I thought I had died and gone to heaven. That happened because we recorded it at his studio. He was just hanging out and we asked him. He was a really nice guy and said yes. It was a really great experience making the records because of all those great people who came in. As far as lows, touring was hard and painful, even though we didn’t tour that much. It was very hard for me to know that people were really coming to see them and not me. It was understandable, but it made me feel weird and very small. It was hard to maintain any kind of sense of confidence and ego. I felt overshadowed by them. It was natural. I would be the same way if I went to see a band that had two of my heroes and one unknown. I wouldn’t be particularly interested in the unknown.

Are Stewart and Stanley heroes of yours?

Yeah. I loved the Police. They were pretty remarkable. I loved Return To Forever too. But I didn’t treat them that way. I tried to treat them like any other band members. I think that was part of the reason I got the gig. When I went to the audition, I decided to pretend that it was just any old bass player, drummer or guitarist. At the time, Andy Summers was the guitarist in the band.

What was it like being a female singer-songwriter in Animal Logic performing with players who have largely male followings?

The male energy in Animal Logic was intense and it wasn't easy holding my own. Certainly, the fan mail we received was mostly male. The male audiences—especially the guys in the front—were definitely less interested in me.

What were some of lessons you took away from the Animal Logic experience?

I learned all about the music business. I learned that it isn’t about getting a record contract. I always thought the be all and end all to success was getting a record deal. Then I found out that’s just the first step. That’s nothing. Everything that comes after is what it’s about. It’s about the promotion, publicity, touring and the other crap that happens afterwards. Through Animal Logic, I also got confidence as a writer. Before Animal Logic, I was always trying to do a cross between what I wanted and what the record companies wanted to do. Once I had some success as a writer, it was a springboard to follow the path I wanted. I don’t know if I could have done that without Animal Logic.

Something you told me 10 years ago still sticks in my head. You said that at its core, the selling of music is no different from selling a bar of soap.

It’s absolutely true in terms of marketing music as a product. Anybody who thinks it isn’t gets sorely disappointed and fucked over business-wise. It’s sad and it is like a bar of soap. I talk about that when I teach a Business of Music class at Cal State. That was a good quote. [laughs]

You also seem more comfortable with your voice and presence as a performer than you did during your Animal Logic days.

I think I’m a better singer, writer and performer than I was 15 years ago. I don’t belt or push anymore when I sing. I got blood blisters on my vocal chords after touring with Animal Logic. Before making the band’s second album, I had to have surgery because I was pushing so much all the time. But I even sang that way in the studio. I don’t anymore. I feel I have more nuance now in my singing. I discovered that, particularly in a live context, I can sing more quietly. Maybe part of discovering that is not having a band behind me.

Let’s talk about the segueway from Animal Logic to your first solo album Freudian Slip.

After Animal Logic split up, I immediately started working on songs for the solo album. It was co-financed by Miles [Copeland] and Frankie Blue—my best friend. Frankie gave me lots of free studio time. I finished the record first and then shopped it. Business-wise, Miles kind of half-heartedly tried to get me a record deal somewhere else because I.R.S. didn’t want to put it out. They didn’t think they could do a good job with it and they didn’t want to put out any more AAA records. So, Miles formed a label called Dog & Pony records just for that record and decided to release it himself. We had a couple of promotion people and it was doing well. Several tracks like "My favorite Joe," "Tried and true" and "20-20 vision" were getting lots of AAA airplay and it was charting in Gavin [radio charts]. But two months after it came out, Miles pulled the plug and it died. He was going through some financial situation in which his accountant advised him to drop many things. I was heartbroken. I went into a year-long depression. By him dropping me, I literally had nothing—absolutely nothing. He was my manager, my publisher and my record company. I just gave up and caved in. It took me awhile to come out of that and write songs again.

By getting dropped, do you feel that the potential for a significant solo career in mainstream pop was squelched?

Could I have been the next Natalie Merchant? I guess one will never know that, but in theory, yes, that could have happened if the money had been there to push it. I thought it was a damn good record and so did everyone else. But it would have been difficult because of the touring. You can’t make a record and not tour. I had a newborn baby when that record came out, although, to tell you the truth, it would have been easier to tour with a newborn than with a five-year-old. Yeah, I’m disappointed the album didn’t do better than it did. But you move on.

Deborah Holland

From a musical perspective, Freudian Slip in some ways felt like Animal Logic III.

It’s not that different from Animal Logic, except the songs were not deconstructed like they were with the band. The arrangements were based around the way I wrote the song. All the parts I wrote are on the record. That was not true in Animal Logic. Also, I hardly play on the Animal Logic albums. The way I wrote the songs were the basis for Freudian Slip. You can hear some songs transitioning to what I do on Book of Survival including "Washington Square at night," "House of volunteers" and "Dog and pony show." So, it’s kind of a transitional record and the beginning of the kind of songwriting I do now.

What thoughts do you have about the way female singer-songwriters are perceived by the business and the public now, compared with the late '80s and early ‘90s?

It's so much better now than the way it used to be. When I was trying to get a record deal in the ‘80s, I always got "We already have a female artist on our label" from companies. I was told that if a record buyer goes into a store they won't buy two from female artists! Obviously, that's changed. Even when Animal Logic was trying to get airplay, we would meet with that type of thinking also. They’d say "We're already playing Alannah Myles!"

Let’s talk about your film scoring work. How did you get into that realm?

Miles Copeland started a film company and began using I.R.S. acts to contribute to the music. I had studied film scoring and was dying to score a film. Miles was my manager and the boss [at the film company], so I got my first break. I did the score for Circuitry Man whichwas their second or third film. I also did the scores for Genuine Risk, December, Venus Rising and Out There.

What attracted you to the process?

It's very exciting to see your music make a scene come alive, but there are many negative aspects to film scoring also. For instance, the music is not the most important thing. There are also the difficulties of being a woman composer in a mostly male-dominated world, trying to please the director and/or producer, working with very low budgets and having your music—which you busted your ass working on—mixed to an almost inaudible volume.

Are you still pursuing film work?

I occasionally pursue projects, but not wholeheartedly. Between my career as a singer-songwriter—which gives me more satisfaction—teaching full-time at Cal State Los Angeles and being a mom, there's not much extra time. I do some ghost-writing for a television show but mainly I'm trying to get songs I've written used in films and TV. I've had some success at this in the past and it's a great vehicle for getting your songs heard and making a little extra money. If a good film was offered to me, I'd take it in a heartbeat—even with a low budget. But for now, I'm not making a concerted effort to go after film scoring. Stewart still hires me occasionally to sing on songs he does for films. He did a film called Legalese for TNT and had me sing the closing song. He also had me do stuff for Highlander II, Wall Street and other things too.

What is the focus of your work as a professor of music at Cal State?

I teach three full days a week in the Masters Program of Commercial Music. It focuses on songwriting, arranging, film scoring, the business of music, the history of popular music and things like that. Most of them are upper level and graduate classes. It’s a big part of my life. It’s my day gig. They’re [Cal State] very supportive of me having a career outside of it though. And because I have a day job, I have more freedom to do exactly what I want to do musically. In other words, I’m not dependent on music to make a living. That’s pretty significant. But the fact is, I need to have a career as a performer. When I tour, it’s really hard on my husband and son. My mother told me "When you got the teaching job, I thought that would be enough for you." But it’s not. I need to do it. I have to have a creative outlet. Teaching gives me a financial base, but it doesn’t give me creative satisfaction. Doing The Panic Is On as my thesis kind of got me into the folk world. And to get tenure, you have to be active in your field. So I couldn’t rest on my laurels. I had to be doing something. So the combination of going back to school and becoming a professor gave me a kick in the butt to get back into the music world.

Teaching has many perks and it’s kind of neat in some ways. It’s pretty consuming too. It’s very difficult to juggle having a career, being a mother, trying to write songs, trying to do scoring, teaching, going to the cleaners, buying groceries and all the stuff everyone has to do. When I’m doing it and all the balls are in the air, it’s great. Every once in awhile, all the balls drop and I feel like I’m a failure at everything single thing I’m doing and I get incredibly depressed. But I only teach 33 weeks a year, which for a full-time job is pretty damn good. Not many people only get to work two-thirds of the year. During the downtime, I work on my songwriting and career like a son of a bitch to make up for the time I can’t do it.

How do your students react when they find out about your career?

They’re aware of Animal Logic and I talk about it a lot. When I teach a Business of Music class, I say things like "In my opinion, I would not do such a thing because this is what happened to me." So, I use examples from my own career a lot. I think they appreciate the fact that I’m not just some academician but that I know what I’m talking about because I’ve lived it.

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Deborah Holland