Since debuting her magnificent, classical piano rendition of Phish’s famous Tahoe Tweezer Jam, Holly Bowling has been busy sharing and growing her unique concept of improv-turned-composition (and often turned back to improv) through many amazing live performances.
Last year, after contributing a breathtaking version of the Grateful Dead’s 6/18/74 jam on “Eyes of the World,” she was inspired to not only begin performing more of the Dead’s body of work, but to also record an entire album of Dead material reimagined as piano pieces, called Better Left Unsung, which comes out on Friday.
One place her touring has taken her was to the lineup of Brooklyn Comes Alive this past October, where she opened up the festival at The Hall at MP. After her set, Holly took some time with our reporter Miles Hurley to discuss everything from her changing musical and artistic visions, to some really neat inside details on recording a lengthy “Dark Star,” to writing songs and lyrics, and more.
The Poke Around: So how did your set today feel?
Holly Bowling: I had a lot of fun, I really liked it. It’s always funny, you show up in a headspace, or at least I do, where I’m just getting into the groove of the day. So when I walked on stage, I was still feeling a little checked out, but by the time I walk off I feel great. It’s a fun way to come into the world in the morning, you know?
With your music especially, it’s different than, say, the band playing right now (Organ Freeman followed her set). It’s such a personal, and more intimate sort of thing to just jump into.
Yeah, and especially when I get to dial into improvising for awhile…it’s kind of like a chance to meditate, or really kind of check in, and walk in with yourself, and find that space. And right, with this band the energy is really outward and is still a connection with the crowd. And I aim for that too, but just to take all this outward energy and try and channel it and focus it into a more introspective connection, hopefully still with that same, unspoken, musical and emotional connection. It’s just a different pathway.
Well, seeing you perform just now, for instance during “The Squirming Coil,” I definitely noticed that. You have the crowd engaged but you are so just invested in it yourself, like you were just playing it in your living room or something.
(Laughs) Yeah, it’s funny, because when it’s going well, I am very much in my own head, and I play with my eyes closed a lot of times because I just get lost and swept away by the music. But at the same time, you still feel the energy of the crowd, and when people are locked in, and they’re along for the ride with you, it just makes the whole thing better.
So, you’ve been throwing in more Grateful Dead songs with Phish tunes recently. In your live performances, do you gravitate more towards improvising in your own way, as in your own interpretation of these songs, or do you try and emulate the way the Dead might have jammed on a song, or the way Phish might have on theirs?
Such a good question, I’m glad you asked this! So, it’s been evolving for sure—what my shows are like live has been gearing more and more often towards my own improvisation, and that’s partially a result of just getting more comfortable with the arrangements, and feeling like I don’t need to be quite as true to them. In a sense, I think it’s most true to the music to try and push it away from where it was and put more of my own voice into it.
Let me back up a bit. Right now, there are three kinds of things I’m doing. One of them is jam transcriptions, and that’s note for note arrangements of particular jams. And that really steers towards classical music, and my background in that. It’s like a piano reduction of an orchestral work, except instead of coming from an orchestra it’s coming from a rock band. Thing number two I do is jam teasers. Kind of the same idea, but just pulling out the thematic nuggets, where, if you heard it, you’d go, “Oh, I know that jam!” and basically treating some of Phish’s really top-notch improvisation as though it was a song that they had written, and that could be arranged, and made variations on a theme.
Then there are also arrangements of the heads of the song, and the jams that come out of them are entirely my own thing—I’m not trying to recreate any particular date. Sometimes, I’ll try to go in the style of the band I’m playing. You know, Trey’s licks and Jerry’s licks are very different, and just through the process of transcribing different jams by the two bands, you pick some of the stylistic things up. But once I get going in a jam, I’m lost. Lost in a good way—I’m off on my own tangent, and at that point I’m not trying to emulate any band so much as I’m letting my voice have a chance to say something, in between the touch points of the songs that people are familiar with. I think now, compared to a year ago, minute for minute there’s exponentially more of my own voice then there was a year ago. That’s been a really fun process to let develop, just through touring in the last year.
Well that’s awesome. It has to be cool to have a fan base that grows off this sort of base. As in, your fans go to more and more of your shows and they can go, “She definitely changed that song up from last time we heard it, it’s even more unique now.” That should be cool to have that recognition develop in your fan base, too.
Yeah, and I think that I’ve been finding my own voice more and more, so if someone came to a show a year ago, and then came to a show now, they wouldn’t be like, “That was boring and exactly how it was last time.” Like, the song’s different, the style’s different. And I still love doing the jam transcriptions. I very much have roots in the jamband world and the classical world, and I don’t really want to live in one or the other. There’s things in both that I still want to draw from.
But it’s funny, because now I think when I improvise something that is all me, people are like, “Oh that was really cool, what date was that one from?” And I say, “No that was just me!” (laughs). And the same thing with my charts and stuff. I have stuff that’s completely scored out note for note, that looks like a sonata or an etude, all the fingerings are written in, I’ve gotten it down to every minute detail, and I know exactly how I want to play it, and it should sound the same every time. And then I have other score or charts that I’m pulling up and there’s literally no chords, none of the arrangement is written out. It’s all in my head, and it’s just, like, reminders of the structure of the lyrics and stuff, because I sometimes lose that when there’s no vocalist.
Sometimes, I think, because I started out with the jam transcriptions, people have the idea that everything is scored, and preplanned, and in reality, there’s actually very little of that happening at this point.
In your music, as I see in your setlists, a lot of times there are so many teases. Like, in that recent video of you playing “Cassidy,” there’s the main lick from Pink Floyd’s “Fearless” right in there so seamlessly in between the Dead parts…are teases in your music usually a spur of the moment thing?
Yeah, I would say almost always it’s a spur of the moment thing. Unless there’s something I’m trying to say, or an inside joke, or a message I’m trying to put there. But usually it just happens. Your fingers also have patterns that they get used to, so when there’s a song you’ve been practicing or just playing around with, your fingers will find their way into that. Or, you’re just messing around and letting it go, and you hear it and go, “Oh yeah, yeah, what is that? Okay, let’s do that again!” But it’s never like, “Okay here are the teases I’ll throw into Cassidy today.”
So, I watched the teaser video for your upcoming Dead album, the part where you were talking about “Dark Star.” As you explained, there’s the really short part of Dark Star, the composed section…
But you came out with a twenty-seven minute track? Was that one take?
Yeah, yeah! That one was really fun. I mean, I knew it was not going to be a two-minute track, because “Dark Star” never is, right? That’s the whole structure, the whole point of “Dark Star” is that it’s a giant, open playground (laughs).
But I went in with the idea that I was going to sit down and do one long, continuous take, and we were not going to edit it at all. And I didn’t know if it was going to take two or three tries to get the one that I was happy with, but I knew we were not going to go in and edit and be like, “Oh, there’s a note there that I didn’t like…” None of that. And I also went in and was definitely not aware of the time. I was intending for it to be maybe like…ten minutes? So that it would’ve fit on the vinyl version of the record, and I just kind of got…
Lost in it?
Yeah, and well, lost and found. You’re lost but you’re also intensely focused. I found the thing I was looking for, and I walked out of the studio and into the control room, and my engineer was like, “Yeah, so that was like twenty-seven minutes,” and I just said, “Ah, shit.” (laughter)
So we didn’t edit it at all, but we did go back and I wanted to play around with some extended techniques inside the piano, so like…plucking strings, hitting them with mallets. We were taking a metal guitar slide and running it up and down the bass strings to get some funky sounds. And then I’ve got this thing called a wand, it’s kind of like an EBow, but it’s handheld, and you can use it to get the strings vibrating without having to hit them. It’s basically like a magnet, electrical thing, so you just hold it close and the strings will start to vibrate. And there’s no attack, so you can sustain it indefinitely, and you can get these sounds that you would never expect to be coming out of a piano. And then you can move it up and down the length of the string and you’ll pull out different harmonics as you move around…
So we did all that stuff as overdubs, because I just have two hands … so that was edited in the sense that we added stuff on top, but the actual piano track that you expect to come out of a piano was one take. First take, no edits.
So tell me about your connection with Brooklyn. Do you have any experience here in connection to your musical career taking off?
You know, I’ve played in New York maybe more than I’ve played anywhere else, which is funny because I live in San Francisco (laughter). When everything that I was playing was very Phish-focused, I think it sort of happened naturally because Phish’s base is very strong in the Northeast. It’s also just an easy place to tour.
MSG New Years Eve (during Phish’s 4-night runs) must be a good hotspot to play.
Yeah, and just super fun. The energy in the city around those days is just like, you can feed off it. I think I’m here in Brooklyn Comes Alive because (founder) Kunj Shah and I have, let’s just say, a passion for Phish. We’ve definitely run into one another at a handful of shows. I think that’s what initially sparked the connection to here. But I love playing New York, and super, super psyched to be here. It’s definitely an interesting, and not cookie-cutter, lineup.
I saw in the documentary about you, “Distillation of a Dream”—which is a really nice little documentary—that you also got to meet Mike Gordon at one of your shows?
It’s really funny, because that was one of the first shows I played, and it was definitely still when everything was much more formulaic, like it was all about the arrangements, and less about blasting off into whatever space we go to. I had no idea that he was going to show up, and I had just taken a set break, and my plan for the second set was to play the Tahoe Tweezer start to finish. Right before that happened, Mike Gordon walked in the door. I was like, “Okay, this just got interesting.” (laughter)
I got to give him a copy of my album on the day that it came out, and he stayed for the whole Tahoe Tweezer, and he’s sitting there, and I’m playing the exact bass line he played with my left hand, so just like, no pressure. (laughter)
So Elise (Testone) coming up to sing with you today put this question in my head: do you sing? And also, have you ever considered composing your own pieces to put into your shows?
I do sing, but not in this context. The Phish and Dead piano interpretations are strictly instrumental, and I really dig them that way. I write my own music, but I haven’t recorded any of it in the studio.
I just did a fully improvised set with Al Smith, the drummer for (Tom) Hamilton’s American Babies at this festival last weekend, Luna Light. We’ve played together once before, as a quartet, but this time we just went up and did a duo set, just drums and keys, all improvised. It was super, super fun. I was really digging that vibe, so I might steer towards that, might do like a trio or quartet. But this next year I’m going to tour around the Dead album that’s coming out in December, and then my next place I want to turn to focus is putting my own stuff out there. I’m dialing in what direction I want that to go, and then taking it out on the road. I did the Phish album, the Dead album, now I really want the third to be my own.
And I’ve been writing songs with lyrics recently for the first time in a really, really long time, but not with the intention of putting them out there. I’ve been kind of writing for me, not because I think other people will be into them, just because I’ve realized it’s like therapy, you know? It just kind of helps you work through stuff and think about everything. Being on the road a lot, there’s not a lot of time to process that, but I realize if I write lyrics or write songs, or if I’m just singing them for myself in my living room, it’s a really good thing for me to have in my life.
I think in the jam community that you’ve come into and have been playing in, people are open, and are more responsive to, songs not written necessarily written for them, but as you said, songs written for yourself, stuff that you’re hearing and feeling.
Yeah, I mean everything I write, I write because I’m into it. Not because I’m like, “Ooh, the people are going to love this one.” If I was going to write that kind of music, this is not the scene I’d be doing it in (laughter). But you know, writing lyrics and singing them is a different kind of personal than what I’m used to on stage. I put everything I have into playing, and I would like to think that that emotion is conveyed through what I’m doing on the piano.
There’s something different about putting words to that emotion, something that makes it a little bit less abstract. And, I respect people that can do it—I’m not sure I’m quite ready to bare my soul along those lines. I like keeping it to the instrumental…level of openness, haha. (laughter)
So, lastly, I’m just curious to know, who are you most excited to see on this lineup today? Are you hanging around to check it all out?
Yeah! Well I’m super psyched on these guys right now (Organ Freeman), anything with a killer B-3 is right up my alley. And then, Reed Mathis’ Electric Beethoven I’m super stoked on, like…my whole thing is classical music instrumentation and spin on jamband music, and he’s taking the opposite. He’s taking classical music that I love, by one of my favorite composers, and putting it into a jamband setting and improvising with it. So I feel there’s some parallels there. I love the concept and I love the execution of it. And I haven’t seen it live yet, so…
Bowling has a few more dates on the calendar for this year, including a slot at Christmas Jam as well as a two-night run at the Cutting Room in NYC on December 30-31, the second of which is planned as a Phish pre-party festivity. Her new album, Better Left Unsung, comes out on December 9.
Check out her website here.
Interview by Miles Hurley
Courtesy Photo by Jeffrey Bowling