Singer-songwriter/longtime feminist/anti-war activist Holly Near's new album, 2018, is a thoughtful mirror on the craziness, worry and fear that defines the year of its namesake.
Windy City Times: The album is titled 2018, which is an interesting choice. What was the driving force behind this?
Holly Near: We went through the lyrics and song titles and everything felt a little shallow. I was sitting with my co-producer of the record … and I said, "What about 2018?" And she said, "That's it." It was as if with 2018 everybody knows what's going on this year and what kind of catastrophes we're living with. It just felt like it landed the CD in time, and hopefully the music will live on beyond 2018.
WCT: You have a background in acting and I'm curious how that affected your songwriting, especially lyrically.
HN: From early on, my songwriting has been defined by my ability to tell a story in about three minutes. … That was strong in my early development as a songwriter, and with the whole idea of a camera lens, where you can start way back and see the big picture and focus in on the detail, or you can start with the detail and pull back to see the big picture.
In my songs, I try to have that motion of lens and in doing so what I have discovered is that the listener can find themselves somewhere in that moving … of the lens, even if it's a subject they're not familiar with.
WCT: We see that in [the song] "Casualty in My Own House," starting from talking about violence in a relationship, to a child, then broadening that out to America's violencethat lens movement.
HN: I think that's a good example, and in some songs it's not like that. "Coup d'état" doesn't have a going in and out as much, but it has little surprises in order to keep it lighthearted, and at the same time it's actually extraordinarily serious. I have written some songs that were hammers over the head [laughs], but I didn't really like them that much.
My interest in the song came when I figured out how to go in through the back door: Stay away from rhetoric … and get down to talking with people about what we want. … It's an interesting thing as a songwriter to keep thinking about because on the other hand I don't want to abandon truth-telling or radicalism.
WCT: "Coup d'état" has a coy sound, but then when you listen to the lyrics it's the opposite. Something that's recurrent throughout the song is that a coup d'état is described by what it's not, as in, "It's not a dance, a Mardi Gras." What, in the terms of the song, would you say is a coup d'état?
HN: By definition, a coup d'état is an overthrow of government. For example, after Trump was elected I was in Chile and they had a military coup there for many years, and artists who I met in Europe and the United States had not been able to go back to their countries for 11 or 12 years for fear of being murdered. I met them when they were in Europe or the United States and did some collaboration work with [them].
So I was familiar with coup d'état from the coup in the early '70s. I started watching what was going on in this country. I was in Chile when it happened and people were coming up to me saying, "What just happened in your country [was] a coup." There was messing with the elections, there's underbelly reports of who was going to get in, there was a lack of truth-telling. So it was observing that through the eyes of the Chileans.
WCT: In the liner notes of "Someone Was Brave Before Me," you mention a "brave exercise" that led to the creation of the song. Could you talk a little bit about what that exercise entails?
HN: It started with an acoustic show that I did in New York and I asked some of the performers, if I sang this kind of riff would they be willing to step forward and tell a story of someone who had influenced their life. … That was the beginning of it, and when I would do songwriting workshops or I would give talks
I would use it as a way to get people to participate and remember that they were part of a long history of people who had stepped forward, not because they were trained organizers or because they knew what they were doing, [just that] the moment happened and they stepped forwardand so it's worked. It's been a structure to get people to come forward and tell stories.
I decided that I could put [the song] on the recording. At the end it's a little tag that says after all these songs and these ideas we didn't start here. And it didn't end here. And there's that last rhyme that talks about the rising of the new movement, so it tries to say in that short period of time: "That which came before us and that which is now and that which is carrying on."
WCT: Part of a legacy.
HN: It's that lens again. If you're put close, you're looking at Black Lives Matter. And if you pull back you see the whole Civil Rights Movement. Or if you're back even farther you look at the whole movement in this country toward humanitarianism … and then come in close to whatever's going on in your personal life at the moment, then I hope it can be used and it will be sung at rallies and marches.
See Holly Near in Chicago at the Old Town School of Folk Music on Friday, Sept. 28 at 8 p.m.; visit www.oldtownschool.org/concerts/2018/09-28-2018-holly-near/ .