Lonnie Holley always manages to find the beauty in terror

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By Amit


When musician and artist Lonnie Holley arrived in Paris in 2019, Notre Dame was still smoldering. He was touring to support his 2018 album “MITH,” but the venue was only blocks away from the cathedral and he wanted to bear witness. During his previous visits inside, Notre Dame’s grandness had inspired him to spontaneously sing, and when he went over after the gig and saw it eaten away by flames, he sang once again, this time in sorrow. Walking through fourth arrondissement, he improvised a tune that he would later name “I Smell Smoke on the Streets of Paris.”

This is Holley’s way. Whether in his celebrated multimedia visual work or as a performer, he finds transcendence in apocalyptic imagery and beauty in terror. The most recent fruit of his fecund and turbulent imagination is the new album “Oh Me Oh My.” By some measure, it is his most seemingly mainstream project, featuring production by Jacknife Lee (U2, Modest Mouse, Taylor Swift) and guest vocals by R.E.M.’s Michael Stipe, Bon Iver’s Justin Vernon and the acclaimed poet-musician Moor Mother, among others. But the vision is wholly Holley’s, and the music is his signature ambient-soul: half-spoken, half-crooned, built on pillowy keyboards but almost uncomfortably intense and intimate. His words are improvised, drawing on that same attention to sensory detail — and destruction — that compelled his Paris outburst.

“I think if you listen to my music and close your eyes, it’s almost like me painting a picture of it,” he says from his studio in Atlanta. “The artistic brain, the musical brain, they come from the same place. I have to go into the ocean of thoughts, the well of thoughts.”

On “Better Get That Crop in Soon,” Holley sings over Lee’s hard-swinging drums, speaking as an enslaved person, addressing “Massah”: “That old leather whip … split her back wide open.” On “I Can’t Hush,” Holley remembers looking at his mother and grandmother as a child, wondering why they never spoke about the terrible pain they’d endured in the Jim Crow South, promising he will speak for them now. History is always present in Holley’s music, but so is the hopeful future. “As we grow we learn each other more and more and more,” he sings on the title track, “We learn how precious life is.”

By the time Lonnie Holley turned 10, he had experienced more strife and trauma than most people can imagine. He was born in Birmingham, Ala., in 1950, one of 27 children. The poverty was so intense that his parents agreed to give him to a burlesque dancer who could breastfeed him. But that dancer eventually passed baby Lonnie along to the McElroys, a local couple who owned a whiskey house. Holley was a toddler when he arrived there, and the cruelty was immediate and unrelenting.

He was beaten by his alcoholic adopted father and stabbed in his head with a fireplace poker by a drunk visitor. He was the only one home when kindly, maternal Mrs. McElroy died, and 7-year-old Lonnie spent days in the house alone with her corpse. When he returned from carousing, Mr. McElroy chased the boy out, and Lonnie was hit by a car and dragged down the street, putting him in a weeks-long coma.

This harrowing childhood is recounted in the first episode of a new podcast, “Unreformed: The Story of the Alabama Industrial School for Negro Children,” which is written and hosted by Josie Duffy Rice, a journalist who studies the criminal justice system. The show concerns the title institution, better known as Mount Meigs, where hundreds of black juveniles were abused, starved and effectively enslaved in the 1960s. Holley was sent there at age 11, after being picked up by police for breaking curfew.

Like Satchel Paige, the legendary Negro Leagues pitcher who spent six years imprisoned at Mount Meigs, Holley is what Duffy Rice calls “one of the lucky ones.” Many of the institution’s “graduates” became criminals, but Holley became a world-renowned visual artist, with work in New York’s Museum of Modern Art, Atlanta’s High Museum, the Philadelphia Museum of Art and the White House. Holley’s sculptures, often made from found objects and full of human forms and faces, are also in the Smithsonian National Gallery’s permanent collection and are featured in a current exhibition, “Called to Create: Black Artists of the American South.”

Rice comes from an art-loving family, but when she met Holley to interview him for the podcast, she only then realized that he was one of the people her parents revered. “Now that I’m aware of him,” she says, “I’ve had so many people reach out who love his work. He’s traveled all over the world. He’s a prolific artist beyond comprehension, across so many mediums.”

“Unreformed” is a welcome showcase for Holley’s inimitable drawl and his storytelling talent. He recounts his biography with solemn forthrightness but without a trace of self-pity. He is quick to sympathize with those adults who helped him, especially Mrs. McElroy and his beloved grandmother, a rural Alabama mortician. On “Mount Meigs,” the dark, roiling centerpiece of “Oh Me Oh My,” he recalls the sexual abuse and hard labor of his early adolescence but repeatedly places his own memories in a wider legacy of “children after children after children” who suffered in the exact same way.

Holley is volcanically self-expressive in his visual art, whether rending tiny wires into human profiles or planning massive statues from uncut granite and gleaming metal. His first work was directly informed by trauma — he created sandstone graves for his sister’s children — and he was initially deemed an “outsider artist” due to his lack of formal training. But collectors and benefactors including Bill Arnett and Jane Fonda recognized his openhearted emotionalism and his facility with painting, drawing, sculpture, mobiles and installations. A lifelong music lover, he began recording and releasing albums commercially in 2012.

Michael Stipe knew Holley’s artwork for decades but was unaware of the man’s music until he heard a track from “MITH” called “I Woke Up in a F—ed Up America.” That track was released the same year as Childish Gambino’s visceral song and video “This Is America,” and Stipe saw them as powerful, complementary visions of Black pain from polymathic artists.

“Visually and musically, I would regard Lonnie as a trance artist,” Stipe says. “He has encyclopedic knowledge of so many things, and such life experience. He takes all these different things that are swirling around in his head and he applies it to the medium in the moment, and in that moment it either happens or it doesn’t. Being able to tap into that trance state is profoundly powerful, and Lonnie does it very well. It’s not easy to access.”

“Oh Me Oh My” was spearheaded by Lee, who has been a fan of Holley’s music for more than a decade. While his production credits might point to a mainstream pop sensibility, Lee has worked with plenty of more offbeat artists and sought Holley out through a mutual friend. “Lots of people say they love Lonnie, artists especially,” says Lee. “I thought this would be a good opportunity to get those people to give him attention.”

Holley came to Topanga Canyon, Calif., to begin their collaboration. Lee asked him personal questions and played keyboard underneath his flowing responses, continuing until Holley’s energy was spent. Then Lee would edit the results into cohesive songs and add overdubs. Occasionally outside musicians would join them in the studio, while others, like Stipe and singer-songwriter Sharon Van Etten, recorded their parts from afar.

Van Etten met Holley in 2015 when they were both on tour. “I felt like he saw my soul,” she says. “He looked deep into my eyes and held my hand when he first shook it, and I felt like he knew me and embraced me with love at first meeting. I haven’t ever met anyone like him.” She wasn’t given any real instruction for their track, “None of Us Will Have But a Little While,” just a request to add her voice and guitar. She embraced Holley’s sense of overflowing creativity. “The music moved me in this way where I felt the notes resonate with my body and I tried to respond to the emotions in his music.”

This is a common refrain from those who work with him. “Lonnie doesn’t hide himself, ever,” says Lee, who is already working on another album with Holley. “He reveals himself easily, he cries. He kind of changed my whole approach to music and living. When you’ve been through so much and still find the joy … He does with his art what he did with his life: He takes difficult, awful experiences and makes them beautiful.”

“We were right on the ocean shore, and right on the earthquake line,” Holley recalls of the Topanga sessions. “A lot of time, that’s in my music: disasters, whether hurricanes, tornadoes, floods. Seeing the mountains and the slopes, seeing the fall come in, memories came back for me. To go through those canyons, it reminded me of Birmingham,” specifically the hills that fed the city’s local pig iron and coal mining industries. “A lot of musical work is conditioned by where I am.”

The talk of digging reminds him of his grandmother: “She dug three graves of the four girls who died in the 16th Street Baptist Church bombing in Birmingham. I was helping her. I had just gotten out of Mount Meigs.” He was a teenager and did his work quickly so he could go be with his older cousins, but his grandmother called him back. “She said, ‘You can’t put a straight coffin in a crooked grave.’ I didn’t know how to write that down, but I engraved that thought on my brain. It keeps me even now. If I can’t do it powerful enough to make an impact on the world, I won’t do it.”

He carries an enormous weight in his work and in conversation. Ruminating on environmental collapse, he says, “I’m trying to sing about the biblical truth of ‘the fire next time.’ The heat factor alone is going to suffocate us. I can’t help but sing about it. In my lifetime, will I be able to make a difference? Have I done enough?”

Holley says his goal is “to pick up the torch” from artists who paved the way, mentioning Quincy Jones and Stevie Wonder, who contributed to global causes with their instruments and their money. Even though he makes his artwork solo, often from castaway junk he finds on his daily walks, his yardstick is the chorus of superstars on “We Are the World.”

He has seen the worst that life can offer, and now his art, whether by paintbrush, pliers or microphone, is made with those stakes in mind. “Oh Me Oh My” radiates with that sense of purpose. As our conversation ends, he asks me one favor, something to share with readers. “Do let ’em know that we did try.”

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