Words by David C. Obenour
At 72 years old, the Alabama-born and now Atlanta-based Lonnie Holley has witnessed many wonders in his life. Some of these wonders could seemingly smother out all else with their darkness – like his time spent at the Alabama Industrial School for Negro Children (the subject of the podcast, Unreformed). But perseverance is a beautiful and uplifting wonder itself. Life and growth continue their struggle. He has witnessed this too.
As an artist, both in music and the visual arts, Holley has explored and celebrated this perseverance. Born from the slow months and years of the pandemic, Oh Me Oh My beautifully captures his singular vision as only he can deliver. Working closely alongside producer Jacknife Lee, the songs emerge masterfully with contributions from Michael Stipe, Sharon Van Etten, Moor Mother, Justin Vernon, and Rokia Koné.
Off Shelf: Can you tell us about the cover of Oh Me Oh My and why you chose it or created it for fronting this collection of songs?
Lonnie Holley: The cover was made by Joe Minter, an African American artist in Birmingham, Alabama. I chose it because he represents us as a people and our struggle before, during, and after slavery. He has created an amazing art environment around his house that celebrates 400 years of Africans in America. I told him what the songs on the record were about and let him make the cover, so Joe chose the cover. I chose him.
OS: It’s such a simple and somehow quaint sounding phrase, but I was wondering if you could break down the album title of Oh Me Oh My. How does it encapsulate these songs for you?
LH: To me, oh me oh my is on the same level as hallelujah. It’s a group of words that can mean so many things. In our joyful times or in our saddest moments, oh me oh my has been used by many of my ancestors before me. So many of the songs on the record speak of horrible times, but I tried to show that the horrible times empowered us and gave us the strength to keep moving forward. To do our best. Someone who doesn’t listen closely to the record might think that it is about sorrow, but they are not listening closely enough. The record is really about opportunity.
OS: When writing a title to a piece of art or writing in song or poem, how does your consideration for words change? Is there consideration for how the audience intakes them – whether read, or heard, or seen live?
LH: There is consideration for how people will see or hear my art or my words. Once it leaves me it’s out in the world for understanding.
A lot of times my titles and works, and songs, have many meanings and I try to use words that can have those same levels of meaning. When I sang I Woke Up in a Fucked Up America people thought I was singing about the president. I had to explain that my grandmother and my mother and her grandmother all woke up in a fucked up America.
I didn’t get to go to school like a kid should have. I spent some of those years in the horrible place in Mt. Meigs, so I didn’t get to learn words when I should have. I had to learn myself when I got older. And I like to make up words when there isn’t one that fits.
Sometimes I think, that should have already been a word. Words are very important to me. Thoughtsmithing is something I take very serious.
OS: As a visual artist and musician, what emotions and dynamics are you able to better explore or express through song?
LH: Like I’ve said many times, my art and my music come from the same brain. They are like Siamese Twins, one cannot live comfortably without the other.
As a musician, I can sing words and see and feel the audiences response. In a museum or gallery, I’m not there to see how someone responds or feels from seeing a piece of art. If someone listens to my songs and I’m not there, that’s the same as seeing my art.
An art work can change over time. People can see it and maybe it means something different in 2023 than it did in 1993. Not just to an audience. To me, too.
I feel like a song is a journey I can take with an audience. I may not always know where it’s going when it starts, but where ever it goes, we are going to end up going there together.
OS: I would imagine that as a visual artist, most of the control is directly handled and expressed through you alone. Leaving aside the incredible guest musicians you worked with on Oh Me Oh My for the moment, how does the nature of requiring a team for recording, engineering, and producing change your relationship to it?
LH: First of all, I don’t think it does. Yes, in my art, I’m mostly working alone. I pick the materials up and put them together. I pick the paint and the brush and decide where to put a stroke, image, or mark. Music is different because it does take a team to make the sounds and record and process them. I’m an expert with the materials I use in my art. Or at least I’m always practicing to do or be my best. But in a studio, someone like Jacknife Lee or Shahzad Ismaily is an expert in sounds and recording. I rely on them to help me be my best. I have ideas but they know how to make those ideas into a reality. Or to take my sound idea and make it better. I’m not too proud to let people help me. And because so much of my art making is done alone, collaborating with other people in the studio or on the road allows me learn and to see others learn from me. It’s a shared journey.
I sometimes make art with master printers in California and that art making process is collaborative. I love that.
OS: It’s hard to not want to ask about every contribution – but Moor Mother is a fascinating artist, collaborating with a wide range of bands and musicians. Can you talk about that collaboration and your meeting and working together?
LH: I first met Camae through my friend Alexia Chororos. I stay with Alexia and her husband Chip a lot when I’m in Philadelphia. On one visit years ago, she mentioned that I should meet Camae, who was living in Philly at the time. She arranged for us to have breakfast together. We hit it off right away and decided we should do something together. Not long after that, we played a show together in Philly. When I came out to work with Jacknife in California, Camae was living in Los Angeles. We had stayed in touch and I invited her out to the studio to record with me.
We are both parts of the wonder, so coming together we became the wonderful. We became the answer to our ancestors prayers. Just proving what our brains could accomplish when we work them for the best of humanity.
Collaborating is like wearing masks of many faces.
OS: Jacknife Lee also shares a writing credit on each of the songs on Oh Me Oh My. How did his intimate involvement change or channel the finished songs?
LH: It’s hard to be thankful for COVID, because it caused so much damage and harm. But, the time we had during the COVID period to slow down really lead to the record. Jacknife and I would talk about the songs and what the purpose or message was I was trying to convey, then we would create the music and words. He would help build the sounds to help tell the story. He was a really wonderful collaborator. And because of COVID, many of the collaborators had to work remotely and send in their parts. Jacknife really helped make all that work beautifully. After the works were all put together, it felt like we were all in one place working together.
OS: I wanted to ask about what seems to be an interesting dynamic with folk art and music. Though it certainly deserves thoughtful consideration and respect, is there a disconnect between the place from where it is created and what it addresses as compared to how it can be typically recognized or presented at galleries and theaters?
LH: I don’t really know what folk art is. I’ve been called that a lot, but I’ve been called a lot of things that didn’t mean anything to me. A lot of things people have called me have clung to me like an ill-fitted suit. I just make things. I would rather people just call it art. Or call me an African American artist if I have to be called something. I’m just trying to make things to make the planet a better place. Most of those names and titles that have been given to me, or to Joe Minter who painted the album cover, or to Thornton Dial and others, were names and descriptions that kept our art from being looked at like everyone else’s art. My mama and grandmama couldn’t sit up front on a bus or eat at a restaurant without going around back or go to school unless it was with each other. And those names meant my art wasn’t shown where other art was shown. This art didn’t have a place. Those names were what Bill called back of the bus names. My friend Bill Arnett fought that battle with us. For us. Along side us. To get our art recognized just as art. I’m honored that my art is now at the Metropolitan and the National Gallery and the Royal Academy. My art and my music are made to educate people and teach them something. Showing my art in a museum or gallery or me playing my music in a theater is not a disconnect. It’s a reconnect. It reconnects the art with the people it is made for. Some might say that a black artist like me should keep my shit away from cluttering up some prestigious space, but in the reality of time, it is the right time for us to better understand each other and the conditions each other are living in. So I see my art and music and ANY space it is seen or heard as a reconnect.
OS: Finally, you address some real personal trauma and ugly shared history on Oh Me Oh My but that’s only part of the arc of its story. How do you balance the pain and ugliness you’ve experienced and witnessed with searching and recognizing the beauty that still can exist amidst it?
LH: Really, to me, ugly rides the planet. Ugliness is everywhere. But beauty grows, and shows itself like the seeds. We must cultivate the seeds and keep them growing properly. I will always speak of the ugliness, but I wasn’t the only one who endured that ugliness or experienced the treatment I sing or art about. Suffering and pain have been a part of our lives since birth. I will not be the only one who sings about it or makes art about it or tries to make a joyful noise about it with our instruments to help this planet continue to turn. Years ago we drove past Mt. St. Helens and I saw the regrowth struggling to make its way through the volcanic activity. Also we were back in New Orleans after Katrina and we saw the humans there struggling to get their communities back together. I’ve also been in California right after the fires and seen new life growing out of the charred debris. My songs are like that new life growing out of the charred debris.