THE first time I heard about Lonnie Holley was in August last year when I was visiting Portland.
I was at Mississippi Records and my friend Darren Hanlon was there with the store owner Eric Isaacson. Eric has an incredible understanding of early American blues, soul, R&B and folk music. He said, “You have to go around the corner to this gallery because Lonnie Holley is playing there.”
You don’t take a recommendation from Eric lightly. Darren and I jumped in the car and drove around to see Lonnie play. I came in halfway through the show but I’m so glad I got to see him perform. It was a really sweet daytime gig with lots of mums and dads and kids sitting watching. The way he sang had a soulfulness that reminded me of Nina Simone. It felt open and in the moment; a true meditation.
Lonnie was there as part of a residency where he had been making art with kids as part of the KSMoCA kid scale art fair at the Portland Institute for Contemporary Art. It was cool to see kids artworks in a gallery rather than a classroom perhaps because we don’t take the art of children seriously. White patriarchal systems have taught us that art is a process born from years of hard work and technical mastery, and yet children seem to create some of the best work I have ever seen.
When I said hi to Lonnie at the gallery, he had just finished playing a show and then he was back making a sculpture. It occurred to me then that his life is a constant artwork in creation. He’s always making sculptures or artworks. The rest of his life seems to fit around his creation – just small stuff like getting to shows and traveling the world including his first tour of Australia.
When I caught up again with Lonnie in Belgium last year he was making a collage in a notebook before he went out to play a festival show. And then his show was improvised, like all of his shows, which feels like it takes a lot of courage – to me anyway. I don’t think I’ve ever seen someone improvise lyrics to a whole hour-long set of songs before. That takes a lot of trust in the act of creation.
But then it feels like everything Lonnie does is a thumbs up to Mother Universe. Maybe the secret is: if you trust the mother has, then you know the mother gives.
Jen: Is there music or anyone in particular that has inspired you to go and write your own music?
Lonnie: I think everything I’ve been listening to all my life has been inspirational. But when it comes down to the planet, when it comes down to where the planet is suffering the most, and where humans are being affected because of those conditions – especially when it comes down to water and our air, and the land that we live on – if we don’t have good air, then it doesn’t matter what part of the land you live on. It’s not good for us, because the air circulates all over the planet.
And if the water has been poisoned, or is being affected by any amount of poison, until it starts killing off that life form that’s in it … I don’t know whether you remember how we used to play in mud? And everything that we stirred up ended up settling to the bottom. And the muck part of that settlement is where these little chemicals and particles of that debris is. Actually, it doesn’t stay settled. Because you’ve got other life forms that’s trying to live in it. So it’s continuing to be stirred up. That’s the reason I end up using in my songs, the gumbo manner of our universal, planetorial, in our human actions. We are all keep everything stirred up in one way or the other….
That’s what I’m concerned about. A lot of the music we listen to doesn’t get that deep. They don’t. They’re about moving from one transition of being musicians – getting, finding, having an edge or getting recognition, and then getting rewarded for it. But my thing as an artist is, I’m an artist first. Well, I’m a human first and then I became an artist because of what I was interested in. And that’s what makes me different.
"I don't have a problem with the way we're presenting ourselves as musicians. But right now I'm more, 'Extra! Extra! Read all about it!'"
Jen: Absolutely. In a way, it feels to me that it doesn’t really matter what we’re doing, it’s how we’re being when we’re doing what we’re doing. It’s what you bring to music or to art; not the art or the music itself.
Lonnie: I don’t have a problem with the way we’re presenting ourselves as musicians. But right now I’m more, “Extra! Extra! Read all about it!” I’m that type of artist where, I’m bringing you everyday faults. I’m bringing you what is going to be so effective that it could cure you. But, there have been artists that have told us and sung to us about our conditions as humans. There have been humans that have been concerned about humans and the processing of that. They are concerned about human conditions in wars or fighting, and the aftermath of bombing and dropping bombs. Or just building explosive devices and testing them somewhere. Just by testing these different things, you’re affecting the Earth. After the rain, and everything falls on that, that’s got to be washed off to some level. So the bleed-off is what I’m talking about. And how it gets into the roots and everything. It’s really deep, but it’s what I sing about.
Jen: It also feels very connected, and you have an awareness that all of the things that we do as humans on this planet, have an effect.
Lonnie: And have contributed to. That’s the whole nine yards. It’s, “What have we contributed to?” And, “How have we contributed?” And then if we sit down and look at what we are paying into. And then if we don’t mind paying into it this way, if we change just a little bit of our habits, and pay into another way, then we are reforming ourselves. We are doing better just by breaking down the contents of danger. And then, taking the dangerous things and breaking them down. Using them to pay for the new manufacturing of new, better ideas. This is all I’m singing about.
Jen: Yeah. Well, I think at this time on the planet, it’s what we should all be singing about. Don’t you think?
Lonnie: I think it is, but we should be singing about speeding it up … Because, I went to the store and I got all the National Geographics that I could, that showed me the birds, that showed me the seas and showed me the oceans. It showed me the containment thereof. So I’m looking at all these things now that is perishing because of conditions I’m talking about. I’ve got some of the oldest magazines that I possibly could get. But now – to see some of those things, some of those times – and go back through some of those old magazines and see how the climate over a 30-year period has changed drastically. To the point we’re having a problem with the amount of snow in certain places. All that snow had to melt, and then the water has to go somewhere.
So the water now is rushing down. It’s going to overflow a lot of what man has considered to make as dams. It’s going to cause the backwater in those dams to build up. It’s going to put a lot of pressure on the walls themselves. So if you look at a lot of my art, my art would speak for a lot of my singing methods … Everything that I try to sing about, I’ve done art about it.
Jen: When I saw you play last year in Portland, you were there doing a residency with kids. It was a kids art fair. And as soon as you finished playing your music, you walked over to a sculpture you’d been working on and just continued to make your art, a different form of art. And I just wanted to ask you, how was it working with kids? Was it different? Do they have a different vibe, a different energy?
Lonnie: No, I think the kids know me as an artist. Because they are children, especially in their beginning grades, from kindergarten on up to maybe high school. They’re not about attending concerts. They’re not going out, because they have to be at home and have a curfew, or whatever. They can’t be out at the time I’m on stage singing.
So a lot of their mothers have to get involved with coming out. I think Lonnie Holley is still more of a beginning happening. I don’t have a name like some of the big rock stars, or whatever. I think my work, as far as going overseas, or when I’m going to Australia – it’s going to be my first time going there. I want to go there and respect what’s there. I want, wherever I go, I want a little bit of the history of the place that I am, and I want to sing.
But as far as bringing the national, more universal message, especially with little children they are not really that broad minded right now. They are not having to worry about that, because you have to remember. If the parents are not interested in learning our universal order, then I’m not calling them stupid, but I sing this song about us being in the quicksand field of stupidity. And how being in this quicksand field of stupidity, and not wanting any help to get out, how we can easily perish there. Because of playing on the playgrounds of foolishness.
We can be on the playgrounds of foolishness too long. That means we can be investing into foolish things. Everything that comes on that’s new. I remember when I was a little bitty boy there was a term, “Yield not unto temptation.” Things can so easily be slipped in on us now. Because of their beautification, what we think is so beautiful. Simply made, but we want to test it out. We want to see. Is it feasible? Is it beautiful? Is it attractive? Can I give this to you and will it get me something from you? It’s almost like a bouquet of roses. I know that they’re going to die, but when I give them to you they are so attractive that I may end up getting a kiss. I may get some love from you.
But those roses is going to die, they’re going to dry up. And then I’m going to have to go find some more roses. So, feeding those temptable manners is what we got stuck in. That’s what we do, as one would say. In a sense, we defied the biblical translation. You have to translate what all the biblical terms were. And we just went on and found ourselves all living against the rules and regulations. Therefore, when storms and hurricanes and everything destructive comes in our lives, we’re so quick to call and scream out, “Oh my Lord! Oh my God! I know that just didn’t happen!” You see what I’m saying? Because we wasn’t ready for it.
Jen: Lonnie, I know that you are really interested in travelling the world and seeing other cultures and geography, and the flora and the fauna. I just wanted to let you know the indigenous culture of Australia, the First Nation’s People of Australia, have been here for 40,000 or more years and are considered to be one of the oldest civilisations in the world. So, there’s a deep spirit in Australia that I think you are going to feel when you get here. It’s very wise. There’s also the most incredible animals. You would have seen pictures of kangaroos and koalas, and platypus and wombats. I will try and take you to see some of the wildlife here, because it’s so special. Are you looking forward to it?
Lonnie: I’m looking forward to actually having some time to journey around … I had met some of the musicians back in the late-’80s, early-‘90s. Australian musicians came to Birmingham and they had these -they were almost like shakers, but they hummed into them and rattled. I just really loved the culture and how they made sounds out of the objects that had been found … I’m getting a chance to travel and meet people now. But I think Australia’s actually going to be one that, if I can get a chance to play with some of the artists and we demonstrate our activities together – that would be great if you can make that happen.
Jen: Yeah, you’re going to feel some connectedness here. I love whenever I see you – I’ve only met you a couple of times – but both times you’ve said to me, “Thumbs up to Mother Universe.”
Lonnie: Thumbs up from Mother Universe.
"I get up every day and I do something. Every day I get up I say, "Okay. God's Spirit, what can I do today? What can I offer you today?"
Jen: I like that because it’s not very often you hear a man acknowledge Mother Universe.
Lonnie: It acknowledges everything that ever existed. When I say that, it means everything that ever existed and ever will exist. It’s within her, if we do find another planet, it’s going to be within her. But if we don’t care enough about the planet that we live on – if we can’t find the time to understand that it’s necessary that we all work together and get the resources from this mothership to make that happen – then we’re just digging and draining this mothership of all of her resources…
It’s almost like me going to Africa. Why would I go to Africa if I didn’t have a meaningful sacrifice, if I didn’t have something to lay at the throne of my ancestors? If I hadn’t already sacrificed it – hours, minutes, and seconds of my time. Everything I do is a sacrificial offering. Whether I die today or tomorrow, I have done this offering, ever since I found out what I was worth.
But what if I wasn’t an offering of my mother’s 27 children? I was an offering and didn’t even know it. But I had to grow up, and I had to find out that I’m just like any other prophet. I had to grow up and find out what I was put here for. And that’s you, too. You had to grow up and find out what you were put here for. It’s not just a man thing, it’s a human thing.
Jen: Yeah, I hear you. I hear you.
Lonnie: It’s a human thing, and that’s what’s going to be shown. That’s what we’re trying to do, is get that back in alignment. We’re trying to line that back up, so they can appreciate that. Because the mother has already sacrificed a mate, sacrificed those nine months that they suffered. They could have failed. They could have ate the wrong food. Any little thing could have went wrong and then our lives could have been over. You see what I’m talking about?
But instead, there was something that was watching over us. It was something that was protecting us, in the womb and out of the womb. And that’s why you go back and then you say to the ancestors, or you say to those living elders that had prayed and went to the spirit for you. It’s going to be a beautiful journey, when we go back through those elders and we see the traditions, and things like that. That’s what it’s all about, is honouring that.
Have you had a chance to go to Africa?
Lonnie: No, but we got so close … I’ve been looking forward to going to Africa, and looking forward to going to China [and] have a chance to go to Japan and do some other, more musical journeys with art backing it up. Hopefully, we’ll get a chance to have some workshops and things while we’re in Australia, if it’s no more than me demonstrating out of materials that we walk around and find. I’m looking forward to it.
Jen: That’s something I noticed when I was looking at your sculptures that day in Portland. It seems like everything you find is valuable, that you create work from whatever is in the natural environment around you. But often those things are like manmade objects, or things that people would describe as junk. But, you don’t see it that way. It feels that you just take whatever is in front of you and create something from it. And I found that to be, in a way, similar to your spiritual approach around how we shouldn’t waste, and we should recycle, and we should take care of the planet. This seems like that comes through in your artwork as well, that everything is precious.
Lonnie: If you take care of the planet, then you’re [making] better conditions for generations yet to come … And with the increasing ability of cellphone capability, and laptops that’s so thin you can put them in your backpacks, people are connected now to more information than ever before. And that’s in my song, ‘The End Of The Film Era’. All three of the albums, if you look at them, they were almost like Lonnie Holley’s book. And in each volume, you’re getting a certain amount of chapters. The chapters would be each song that was sung. And then, for somebody else to come along and add information they felt that they got from just hearing these songs. You see what I’m talking about? So by the time I’m dead and gone for 25 years, by people doing research on my name, how much more paperwork is going to be added to the subjects of Lonnie Holley. It’s the same way with your music, I’m not just talking about me…
I can’t name everybody that’s interested in saving the planet, or saving our water, or interested in our climate or ozone layer, or whatever. I don’t know all their names, so I try to say humans.
When I say humans, I’m thankful for all of your participation. [But] we’re going to need to keep our people that is interested in technology to deliver the best technical devices, we’re going to have to pay for them. And to do that – beyond acting stupid or getting drunk, or getting lazy, just sitting around thinking that we could kill our depressive moments, our boring moments – we should find something to volunteer and do, then we won’t have to be bored.
I get up every day and I do something. Every day I get up I say, “Okay. God’s Spirit, what can I do today? What can I offer you today? What can I offer to the humans today, to let them know that I’m studying to make myself approval.” But I also say, “Practice.” Practise to do what? Make yourself perfect at what you do.
Jen: I hear what you’re saying Lonnie. It sounds like a siren just went past.
Lonnie: Oh, ambulances be passing all the time. Crazy Horse is still about four or five miles away from here, so the ambulances are passing all the time. And also, I’m on the route that every Saturday and Sunday, more funeral cars and things pass by, right in front of my front door, than I ever saw in my whole life, because there’s a cemetery right down the street.
So I’m between the occurrences of life. All the way from the cradle, literally, to the grave. It’s not that I’ve gotten comfortable with these sounds and can work. But, I just can’t worry about them when I have to travel … I’m tired of having my feet up in the clouds. Because lately, just to get up in the air has been a lot of problems. To get back down has been a lot of problems, turbulence and different things. I sit pretty comfortably on the plane, I don’t be too afraid going through the currents. But I’m concerned, like anybody else. But again, I appreciate you and I’m looking forward to coming to Australia.
Jen: Yeah. I will be here Lonnie. I can’t wait to see you. I can’t wait to see you play, and I would love to try and arrange for you to meet some indigenous people, you know. Some of the oldest souls on the planet come from this part of the world. I think that it would be pretty amazing if you get to see them play music … I think you will be inspired by them, and by their art. By their artwork as well.
Lonnie: The main thing is togetherness. That’s what we are coming there for: to unify and say no matter where we are, that our togetherness matters. And that should allow their music, and people that is involved with distributing the music, to take each country’s music and let this music circulate…
I mean, a lot of times you don’t have the funds that’s available to have programs where you can have 1000 or 2000 humans coming. But in a sense, our music can lead up to that. Our music can teach and motivate, and be inspiration for that. I’m trying to really be an example while I’ve got my health. Now remember, I’ll be 70 years old my next birthday … A lot of my art making friends and my music making friends [have] already died. I want to do the best I can while I’m still alive.
Jen: I’m glad, Lonnie, that you are travelling – even though it’s a bit later in life, that the touring has started a bit later in life. But you know what’s so great about it is that, if you had come over and toured in Australia in your 20s or 30s, there just wouldn’t have been the same depth and wisdom. I think it’s really important in music, that we have voices that are in their 50s, 60s, 70s, 80s, 90s. Because, what you have to say in your 60s is very different to what you have to say in your 20s. I want to hear what people have to say in their 60s and 70s, because there’s wisdom from living. You’ve lived a life, a big, full life, and I want to hear about what you’ve learned. It’s valuable, it’s important.
Lonnie: I think it’s like a work of art, really … But if you look at the older pieces of art that I’ve done, I’m still kind of going in that well of thought, or that ocean of thought. I’m pulling information from all of these different characterisations of materials that I’ve gathered over these years and conditions. You’ve got to remember, I’ve studied so many levels of materials and their destructive manner, of just being in the process of trying to self destruct back into particles of earthly debris. Again, it’s a whole lifetime of experience here, that I will be bringing. So, I want to try to do that the very best that I can do. That’s what I try to example every day.