Some artists punch the clock. For others, like Tara Holloway, the membrane between performance and life is thinner, if it’s there at all.
“My fans think they know me, and they really do know me,” says the Canadian-bred singer-songwriter. An inveterate road dog and seasoned couch-surfer who was bounced between Ottawa and Vancouver in her youth, Holloway claims “the iPhone is my home” and has spent half her life on stage. Now, some 15 years into her career—and with the help of some very auspicious friends and a back story that reads like a movie—Tara Holloway has finally compiled a debut album, Sins to Confess, of staggering depth and personality.
But the first thing you notice is the voice—a grainy and versatile thing that can elevate a Bourbon-spiked country soul number like “This Time fer Sure” just as comfortably as it sits inside the carnival-esque coming-out anthem “Boyfriend” and the twisted pop-noir of “Misnomer”.
In any setting, Holloway’s pipes are a thing of towering character, seasoned over years of club performance and put to use demoing tracks for the likes of Christina Aguilera and Cher. Told you the back story was a head-turner, although Holloway takes a less sensational view of her invisible adventures inside the music industry. “I don’t really think about it,” she says. “It’s a paycheck.”
Indeed, one of the breeziest tracks on Sins to Confess, “Heart Goes”, is a co-write with Ben Lee that came out of an uncommonly painful demoing session with the indie-rock cult hero. But let’s reorient the story back to the beginning of the album, sailing past Holloway’s unlikely musical collaboration with her friend, former member of the Grass Roots and reliably weird cast member of The Office, Creed Bratton (yes, you read that right, they performed together at SXSW), back to the mid-point of the last decade when she showed up in LA to work with mercurial Jellyfish frontman, Andy Sturmer.
He liked Holloway’s take on his own “Sweet Wingless Angel”, but a collaboration between the two of them gradually petered out. “A couple years go by, and I realized it wasn’t happening,” she recalls. “But I was so gung ho, and so was Dave Way, who was the engineer on the project initially. He ended up being the producer and co-writer.”
On her frequent trips to California, Way furnished Holloway with a studio, gigs, and a cast of backing players that included guitarist Val McCallum, and drummers Brian MacLeod and Dony Wynn among others, all of them studio and road vets with the likes of Lucinda Williams and Robert Palmer. As Holloway puts it, the entire, piecemeal, four-year experience was tackled with “no label, no manager, just friends,” yielding co-writes with people like Jon and Sally Tiven on “In the Flesh”.
That low-pressure approach to recording might account for the playfulness of Sins to Confess. From the had-to placement of Waylon Payne cover “The Bottom” on Sins, after it was featured in a movie that still has new fans continuing to reach out to Tara searching for the track; to the from its salty opener “East Side Story” —a boozy, bloozy, and pissed off tale of love gone bad that suggests the sound of Sheryl Crow if she grew a pair—to the slinky, mid-‘70s Motown-redux of “Facebook”. “That one’s a deep personal song about shit that happened in my family,” Holloway says, with characteristic bluntness.
Across its ten tracks, her passion for music of all shapes and sizes bustles around between the grooves of Sins to Confess, from Howlin’ Wolf, to Janis Joplin, Led Zeppelin, Aerosmith, Patty Griffin, Esthero, Hayden, the Weakerthans, Tegan and Sara, Sia, and even Waylon Jennings. The unifying element is that voice, and a widescreen sincerity that bleeds into every track. “I never know what to think,” Holloway offers. “From one month to the next, I’m not sure what I sound like. Somebody called me blue-eyed soul, and I thought that was cool. I’ve also heard that I’m like Canadian Americana. Acoustic punk. I dunno.”
Whatever it is, Holloway’s music is striking enough that she’s had five songs placed on Sons of Anarchy. Her work persists in being utterly revealing, meanwhile, perhaps most of all on final track, “The Leaver”, which is a sort of pained, distaff take on Marvin Gaye’s “Wherever I Lay My Hat (That’s My Home)”.
“I’ve been on the road, balls to the wall since 2006,” Holloway says. “I haven’t paid rent since then, let’s put it that way. No job, other than playing music, staying on couches, and wearing myself out. ‘The Leaver’ is totally about being a touring artist all the time. I have friends who have apartments and jobs when they come home, but for me, it’s always had to be all the way. I’m the leaver. It’s totally literal.”
Some artists punch the clock, assuming a persona when they climb on stage. For others, the inner and outer voices are identical. Tara Holloway? What you see and hear—that’s what you get. “The differences from song-to-song, the language, everything about it, none of it is on purpose,” she explains. “It’s just who I am, really. That’s the thing about my life, and my music—it all really is me. I’m living it exactly like you hear it. I’m not gonna hide from myself. That’s what my art is. It’s me.”