Ali Holder Talks Uncomfortable Truths in Unusual Times

Uncomfortable Truths is by far Ali Holder’s most sonically adventurous work. The Austin singer/songwriter has always had a bluesy streak in her personal blend of Texas country and electric Americana, but her sophomore full-length carries her further from those roots, finding niches to fill with fuzzy guitars, Mellotron, strings, harps, and more.

Perhaps it’s fitting that her most thoroughly-produced album is also her most thoughtfully-written. Throughout Uncomfortable Truths, Holder opens up difficult conversations on topics from gender inequality to poverty to chronic pain, taking stock of her privileges, disadvantages, and the limitations of her voice.

It’s an inherently risky and challenging concept, and Holder doesn’t shy away from its most personal reaches. On “Bad Wife” and “Take Me As I Am,” she unpacks the expectations put on women in marriage and the efficacy of therapy. On “Reborn,” she talks about healing from the psychological damage that often follows physical illness.

On “Bruja” and “Singing Over Bones,” she sings from the perspective of La Loba, a character in Pueblo myth, to explore femininity and wildness, as well as bring attention to the plight of women murdered by drug cartels in Mexico. On top of the subject matter, it’s a decision in songwriting perspective that has thorny implications of its own.

Before the album release, Holder spoke to The All Scene Eye about accessibility in art and learning how to talk about race. Like many other artists, Holder was forced to cancel her album release show due to the COVID-19 pandemic. Since this conversation, she’s announced a Facebook and Instagram Live event for April 10 at 7:30 p.m.

How have you been holding up given the pandemic situation? What have you been up to while things like performances and your art teaching have been on hold?

I’ve just been trying to get my mental health stable before I start being creative. I’ve been trying to give myself a routine and do things like meditate, yoga, and all that good stuff, and then, just now, getting around to feeling like I can do something like concerts on streaming. But yeah, I guess just accepting that all my release stuff is going to have to be pushed until fall and going with it.

Do you have anything planned in terms of playing online? I see you’ve been offering tarot readings by Zoom.

I definitely will be playing online. It just seems so overwhelming at the moment–so many people are playing, but eventually, I’ll do that. And yeah, tarot readings online as well, and I think some of my art classes are going to be online. I’m not sure yet.

Have you ever tried to do something like that remotely?

No, I’ve done a lot of tarot remotely, but–I guess I’ve done a few songs here and there, but that’s about it. And definitely not teaching art.

We’re talking around this major public health situation, and it makes your album sort of apropos. You speak to illness throughout it. Have current events given this album a different meaning for you?

Yeah, it’s interesting, I always have dealt with chronic migraines and different things like that, and I have a pretty delicate immune system, so I’m used to being home. I started quarantining myself a little bit earlier than everyone else because my immune system is delicate, so I’ve been home for quite a while now, and it just feels a little more panicky to think that everyone has to take these precautions. It’s a hard adjustment.

How did you first start working on the songs that would become the album Uncomfortable Truths?

Some of them I just was working on here and there–different song challenges and just randomly writing songs–and I was starting to feel really icky about music. Putting my picture everywhere and promoting myself all the time, I was like, “I need to figure out how to do this to make it feel a little better somehow,” if that makes sense. I had heard Oprah say, basically, you know you’re on your soul’s path when it’s helping other people, and I was like, “Oh, well, how can I help other people through music?” Other than just, I know some people really love music and they relate to it. How could I help more specifically? I thought, well, being really up-front and honest about my chronic pain, marriage, mental illness, all sorts of things–those are things I can actually talk about and hopefully help someone else feel less alone about.

When you had this idea, was that something you wrote the other songs with in mind?

Yeah, so the song “Reborn” is all about chronic pain, and there’s four vignettes about different kinds of privilege. Those were written specifically in mind. One of them is about mental illness, one of them is about violence, one is about sexual assault, one is about poverty, and kind of the different privileges that come along with those things if you have them or don’t have them in your life.

How has chronic pain impacted your experience as a musician?

I mean, I’m 33, and this last tour I went on in January was the first tour that I actually was able to take care of myself in a way that I didn’t end up with a debilitating headache or I didn’t end up sick. It’s taken me a long time of trial and error, but it’s the same principles I have when I’m home–making sure I’m getting enough sleep, making sure my central nervous system isn’t going bananas, things like that. Making sure I’m eating the proper food. Otherwise, that can be a big spiral.

In the music business, are there any things that strike you as important to be more mindful of, in terms of accessibility for people who have those considerations?

Yeah, I mean, I don’t think it is a consideration. Being a musician, it’s like you’re thrown into a boxing ring, you know? You have to be tough as hell. You have to figure out as you go. You have to hope that people will help you, that you find the money to pay for PR, and that you find other jobs that allow you to tour. It’s this scrappy situation as is, so there’s not a lot of accommodations made. It’s only been recently that I’ve been asking things like, “Oh, can we not have these lights on? It’s going to trigger a migraine.”

You have to really be vocal and stand up for yourself, but ultimately, it’s worth it. One of the last gigs I played–I have a few songs about marriage on the album, and a woman came up to me, and she was crying. She was like, “I wish that I would have heard that song earlier on in my marriage. Things might be a lot different now.” Even though I’m kind of suffering on stage sometimes [laughs] other people are suffering too just living their lives, so it’s nice if you can give any kind of relief to someone else.

And to connect with people who have similar experiences in a way that other professions wouldn’t allow you to.

Yeah, and I think a lot of people just need to be seen. They don’t even need an answer. They just need someone else to understand fully what they’re going through, and I’m so lucky that I am in a situation where I can be completely honest about stuff. It’s hard for me when I do sometimes step into real-world jobs because I’m not used to certain corporate etiquette. [laughs]

Each of the “Speak” vignettes that appear throughout the album has a different instrumental and energetic feel to it. From the initial idea, how did you develop those?

When I was writing them, I knew it was too long to be one song. It would be pretty boring. Not boring, but an acquired taste–the long, 70-verse songs that some folk songs are, so I thought, “I’ll just chop them up.” My band is really great, and I trust them all to experiment and help me come up with sounds, so we just sat around and mapped it out. 

The one about violence we wanted to be really rock-and-roll-sounding, because we were like, “What is the music that’s closest to violence?” I can’t really play metal, so [laughs] that’s as rock and roll as we could get. With the poverty one, we wanted it to be a little more downplayed, but also still accessible, so we went with an Americana-type vibe. The last two were about mental illness and women’s rights and sexual assault, and I wanted them to be pretty sparse so you focus on the words. I really appreciate the guys in my band. They’re helpful with helping me actually make the sounds that I’m trying to talk about.

Yeah, tell me about who you worked with on this album.

My guitar player is named Jeremy Menking, and he’s been with me for pretty much the whole time I’ve been playing music in Austin. My bass player is a guy named Gregg White. My drummer that I usually play with actually couldn’t do it, but we had an incredible drummer who recorded the album. His name is Dees Stribling, and man, he brought some really cool percussion to it. The first track, I was like, “I want this to be like Tom Waits and Fiona Apple mixed together. How do you do that with percussion?”

There’s also a lot of really cool organ and Mellotron sounds on this album.

My bass player plays, like, every instrument. It’s maddening. [laughs] He did a lot of the keys and the Mellotron, and one of my best friends was singing harmony. Her name is Stephanie Macias, and she’s a great harmony singer. 

We recorded at Ramble Creek in South Austin with a guy named Britton Beisenherz. He’s done Will Johnson records and Doug Burr–some vibey indie records that I really liked. I knew I wanted this to be a little different than my other records, so I felt like it was a good fit.

Your last EP, Huntress Moon, is much more minimal. What made you want to do something different this time?

Well, my first LP and my first EP were fully produced, and then Huntress Moon I’d written after a Stephen King series that I loved, and I didn’t really have any money to record. My friend Lindsey, she plays bass and cello, and she was like, “Well, let’s just go record it.” We went to another songwriter’s cabin, and her boyfriend at the time, who was an audio engineer, recorded it. It was really simple and it was super fun to be that raw. For this one, I spent a year fundraising, if not more, so I wanted to go all-out.

You’ve used a lot of crowdfunding to make music. What was it like this time around having a couple of those campaigns under your belt?

The first one I did for my first album, and that was when crowdsourcing was kind of starting. The second one I did just for PR on my second album, and I made about three grand. People who listen to my music aren’t necessarily ones with a lot of money, which is totally understandable. I’m not either. This one, I did the Indiegogo, and I raised, like, three grand again, which I was very thankful for, but after that, a friend of mine has been helping me make all the steps to get this album out a little bit easier, and we’ve been structuring them into small tasks. She was like, “You actually need to raise money before you can do all of this.” And I was like, “Oh, yeah.” [laughs]

I spent the Indiegogo money on recording and paying my band. It was just a chunk of that–I had to use other money of my own–and then I spent the last year asking people if they wanted to host fundraising concerts. It’s one thing to ask people over the internet, but to ask specific people who actually could help you raise money–I definitely worked through a lot of my money issues with it, so that was good. All of them went through, and I think I made, total, four grand from that. It allowed me to pay for the bulk of my PR, and I was very, very thankful.

You offered some unique rewards for backers on this project. There were some personalized voicemails that were claimed, and some tarot readings. What is it like interacting with music listeners that way?

I love it. The song-gram or the voicemail-gram was pretty fun. That’s just something silly. And again, I love doing tarot readings, so it’s very easy to do them online now. You don’t even have to meet in person. I like connecting that way; reading tarot allows you to skip all the small talk and go straight to what’s actually going on with people and their struggles and ways we can be practical about helping them.

You’ve talked before about the ways in which songwriting and tarot reading are similar–they both make use of archetypes and things like that.

Absolutely. One of my songs, “Lightning Rods,” off this new album–it’s definitely a PSA to not date a musician, but it’s based on The Magician, who has one hand to the ground and one hand to God because he’s his own lightning rod for creativity. I thought that was a really beautiful image.

It’s very much a therapeutic tool, or at least, I feel like it is. Also, when I get stuck when I’m writing, I’ll just pull cards and be like, “Is this a theme I can work into this?” Kind of a pick-your-own adventure.

Do you have a favorite moment from recording this album?

I think just allowing myself to be outside of the box in general. I played electric on the whole album, which is fun for me. I love the song “Bruja” because it’s like avenging these women who were killed via the cartel, and when we were recording that song, it was like my prayer going out into the world for them, you know? It’s nice to actually capture these things and think of them as a message of hope, or revenge, or whatever, that you can put on repeat.

I wanted to ask about “Bruja” and “Singing Over Bones,” and this character of La Loba you speak through. Can you tell me about how you first encountered that character and what drew you to it?

I was reading a book called Women Who Run with the Wolves. It’s a psychologist and a professor, and she digs into the wild woman archetype through legend. One of the legends she talked about was La Loba, the wolf woman who collects bones–like, collects the bones of wolves because she’s half woman and half wolf. Whenever she gets a full set of bones, she sings and chants over them and brings a new wolf woman into the world, basically. 

I love the idea of women being born upon the bones of the women that have come before them, just as a nod to lineage, and then just the idea of the wild woman archetype. I wrote “Singing Over Bones” with a friend, Ida, from Denmark, and whether being raised in the states or in Denmark, we were both taught, “Don’t be so wild. Don’t be your full self. Don’t be too much. Don’t be too loud.” Our culture teaches us that across the world as women, and we were kind of done apologizing for that. That’s how we used La Loba in that song–about not apologizing for the wild within me. In “Bruja,” I wanted to make her a revenge character to kill all the men who had destroyed those women’s lives.

Who are some women who you see yourself in the creative lineage of? Who are the people who come to mind when you think about your own bones?

The first thing that comes to mind, my mom’s mom was an artist and a musician. She never had lessons in her life and just could play any instrument and sing any song. She was also a really gifted visual artist, so there’s some of that lineage in there. My mom has always raised me to be such a feminist, so that’s definitely a part of my lineage.

This might be a little off track, but there’s a card in the tarot that’s been coming up a lot for different readings that I’ve been doing, and I get it a lot. It’s called the six of cups, and it’s kind of about healing your lineage and your family–basically, the things my mother and my grandmothers couldn’t heal in themselves. It’s my job to heal them because I am of the time and culture that I’m allowed to do those things, so I love that idea of a healing lineage. And then the idea of the lineage of myself. The different lives that I’ve led, the different people that I’ve been–healing each one of those to get to the evolution of my next self.

The press for this album traces that story to Pueblo myth. When you embody that perspective, do you worry about stepping on any toes, culturally?

Yeah, absolutely I worried about that. One of my best friends, the girl that sang harmony on my record, is Hispanic, and the first thing I did before I wanted to record it was, you know– [laughs] “Is this okay?” She was like, “Of course it is. This is a message that every woman needs to hear.” 

Someone had actually written back a press response saying, “I don’t know if I feel comfortable talking about this song unless this person has some kind of heritage, or some kind of Hispanic background,” and I was shaken by that because that’s the last thing I would ever want–to be insensitive. Can I read you back what I wrote?

Of course, feel free.

“Thank you for your concern. To give you more context, the art installation that this song was based on was in Ojinaga, Mexico, right across the border from where I was living in the Presidio County area at the time, where I still spend time every year to write because of my deep connection to the land and the desert out there. I was doing oral interviews for my graduate thesis, and at least half of my interviews were from native Spanish speakers. Almost every single one of them commented on how devastating the cartel was and how it affected so many people in the area.” That was when I was going through my graduate program, and I didn’t write “Bruja” then, but it was something that always stuck with me, so when I was reading Women Who Run with the Wolves, about La Loba–I basically say “this book is about all the wild woman archetypes. In this, La Loba is a mythical creature. In no way was I trying to appropriate Mexican culture by speaking for or taking on her voice. I was just writing a song. 

My job as a songwriter is to create a story. This is a story of revenge from the perspective of a mythical creature named La Loba. My cultural background is one of Irish descent. I have written songs from the perspective of druids and Celtic witches. I was very into Greek mythology for a while. I have written songs from the perspectives of Aphrodite and Persephone. I’ve written from the perspective of Tara, a Hindu goddess. My friend Michelle, who was raised Hindu, prays to Tara for strength. She gave me a Tara statue to pray to in hard times. These are songs of death, lust, revenge, and strength, from the perspective of different cultural myths and gods and goddesses. 

Please know that before I even recorded the song, I asked one of my best friends, who is Latinx, if this was culturally insensitive or appropriative. She said no. I took her at her word.

I have never told stories just from my perspective. It would be limiting as a writer. Please know that any sort of cultural appropriation was not my goal or intent. Growing up in Texas, Mexican culture has had a huge presence in my life and a huge influence on me as a person for the last 33 years. However, I completely respect your views if this is something you find offensive and do not want to be associated with. If that is the case, my most sincere apologies. Thank you for your time and honesty.” Thank you for letting me read that.

I wanted to ask because, this being such a thoughtful album in the way it deals with intersectionality, it made me curious where that song came from.

Yeah, understandably.

This is an album that is based on uncomfortable truths–maybe that answers the question, but how has it been sharing these songs with people? Has there been discomfort in that as well?

Yeah, I mean, I was raised a white girl in North Texas by a white family, and race is something I’m still learning how to talk about every day. With privilege as well, I’m not from a rich family, but by no means have I ever wanted for any necessities. Now, of course, everyone in the arts is struggling, but even just being a white woman in the world is one step up above a lot of people, unfortunately, the way this class system is structured. 

I wanted to be able to talk about privilege, but I don’t know how, you know? I was kind of like, “I can’t speak to violence physically, but I can speak to emotional violence and abuse.” I can’t really speak for other people, but I would like to use my voice to lift up their issues. And poverty, I’ve of course been in that situation before, but it’s not something I can speak to in terms of being on food stamps or things like that. I’ve done a lot of work with the homeless, and I would love to hold all that judgement that they get and lift that up somehow. Same with mental illness. The healthcare system has failed me so many times, and I want to be able to talk about it in a way that–I’m so lucky to have health insurance, and a lot of people don’t have it. Same with women’s rights. Again, I’m so very lucky and privileged, but how do you talk about it without sounding like an asshole? How do you talk about it when you want to be like, “I just want to help. I want to somehow make this narrative about the person that it’s impacting and not the person that’s trying to help.” I don’t know–so it is uncomfortable. [laughs]

Was there a point in your life that made you conscious of what privilege you do hold and made you think about speaking from that place?

Honestly, it kind of started once I moved to Austin a decade ago. I didn’t realize all the paradigms I had grown up in that revolved around race and gender and poverty, and even misogyny that I didn’t know that I carried. For the last decade, I’ve been unraveling those things and trying to become more and more sensitive and more and more in tune with–like you were saying, intersectionality. Trying to include everyone in a voice. No one gives you lessons on how to talk about race or how to talk about sexuality. How to talk about privilege. We have to learn the hard way, so I would rather be like, “Okay, I’m here to talk about it. This is what I have. Please help me talk about it better,” because I’m not going to get any better by not talking about uncomfortable things.

How have people received these songs as you’ve shared them over the past few years, in terms of those conversations and those subjects?

The privilege ones and “Take Me As I Am,” “Reborn,” and “Nova,” I really haven’t played in public very much just because I wanted to try to keep some things a mystery, but I have a really good response to “Bad Wife.” I think a lot of women can relate to it and the pressures we put on ourselves. A lot of people have specifically come up to me about that song and said how they appreciated it. “Bruja” as well. A few people have come up, and they’re like, “Thank you, I’ve had family members who are dealing with this on the border,” or, “I have a cousin whose best friend was murdered,” things like that. They’re like, “No one else is talking about this, so thank you.”

With the way that things have been upended, in terms of shows and album releases, what is your plan going forward to share those other songs with people?

Aw, man. I don’t know. [laughs] I love playing live because something switches on in me when I get on stage, I have a mic, and I can hear myself–you know, I have a guitar, it becomes a performance, and I can really use it as catharsis. Something switches in me that allows me to perform. When I’m in front of a computer trying to do an online show, whatever that is does not come across, so I need to figure out how to get in that headspace. Right before everything went bottom-up, I bought a bunch of merch to sell, so just trying to sell that online, not waiting for the release, just being like, “Alright, here’s some vinyl and t-shirts. I’ve gotta make my money back on these, so who wants them?”

You talked a little about how self-isolation is something you’ve been accustomed to in the past. What music do you enjoy in times like these?

I listen to a lot of podcasts. That makes me sound like the worst music person, but–I don’t know what it is, I’ve had a block the last couple of years. I think because I can’t listen like when I was 16 and hearing Lucinda Williams and Ryan Adams for the first time. You get into an album so intensely, you connect it to all these emotions, and you know it backwards and forwards. I don’t know if I just have lost the attention span because of social media or if I focus too much on what the recording process was like, but I’ve had a block of really getting into music lately. 

My husband loves music and plays music, and I’m very thankful for that because he’s introduced me to some people like Damien Jerado and Jason Molina. I’ve listened to those people, and that’s the first time in a while, other than people in town. All my friends that play, I love their music and know it when I go see them live, but those are some people that have been on my periphery, and the first people that I’ve been like, “Oh, wow, I love songwriting, I love music, and it’s not something that I do just to do.” I don’t know how to explain that, but in stressful times, music is not something that consoles me. It’s recently been writing and listening to podcasts. There’s one I listen to called Unwell–it’s a fiction story, and it’s just so nice to check out.


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