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Who is Lonnie Holley?

Every era has its prophets...

Chelsea Slender

An introduction from Ben Marshall, Vivid LIVE 2019 Curator

Every now I then I get to program an act that means so so much to me and this is an unashamed piece of personal advocacy for Lonnie Holley, a truly incredible artist that you need to know about. The 69 year-old is the 7th of 27th children, born in Jim Crow era Alabama. When he was 18 months old, his mother left him with a burlesque dancer who took him on the road and brought him up.

He became a father himself at 15 and now has 15 children of his own. He did time in the notorious juvenile labour camp, The Alabama Industrial School For Negro Children. He discovered a latent artistic talent at 29, when his sister tragically lost two children in a house fire. Lonnie used cast off sandstone, a by-product at a nearby industrial site, to sculpt the two tombstones, which were discovered by a gallerist looking for artworks in the south, leading to a fine art career from the early 80s. Lonnie's found-art sculptures are now exhibited in the Smithsonian Institute and have been displayed at the White House (and famous Gee's Bend quilter Mary Lee Bendolph has a piece in MoMA called "Lonnie Holley's Freedom").

But no-one knew that from the mid-80s, Lonnie was also making incredible, almost unclassifiable music on tapes at home. In 2012, Atlanta boutique label Dust-to-Digital found out about these recordings and began releasing them: haunting vocals accompanied by rudimentary keyboard effects, progressing without any traditional song structure — no choruses, chord changes or consistent melody whatsoever, but still capable of inducing goosebumps.

Now Eno, Bon Iver, Byrne and Callahan all know who he is but the public still don't really. If you want to take a chance on something you've never heard at Vivid LIVE next week, buy a Lonnie Holley ticket for $49 here.

Lonnie Holley has devoted his life to the practice of improvisational creativity.

As he sees it, his work is the product of struggle and hardship, of furious curiosity and biological necessity.

It defies genres, mediums and expectations. It is unlike anything anyone else is doing. It is distinctly his and it’s not something you want to miss.

The collaborations

Holley’s travels have given rise to collaborative opportunities with a diverse community of musicians. These manifest in many different forms; an intimate gallery show, a studio session, even a cross-medium performance art piece.

Justin Vernon (Bon Iver), who sampled Holley on his track '33 God', explained: “Lonnie Holley is unique. There aren’t but a handful of artists in the world that you can truly use that term.  His mastery of song and improvisations, his VOICE, and the improvisers he chooses to play with …. It’s all of MASTER level.”
 

The acclaim
 

Every era has its prophets... Lonnie Holley—a 68-year-old sculptor from Birmingham, Alabama…speaks to the anguish and tumult of modern life with extraordinary fury and perception”

Pitchfork

“He makes the kind of sculpture–and produces the kind of music–that changes people. It gets into their emotional and intellectual core and forces them to rethink art and history, as well as their own assumptions about how the world works”

SF Weekly

"Somebody does something a little different and plenty of folks are ready to dub them a 'self-made man' or 'self-made woman.' But what Lonnie Holley does, and what he has made of himself, demands a whole new term. He truly is his own invention.

NPR Music

The playlist

Influences, collaborators and his own inventions

From jazz trailblazers (Alice Coltrane, Sun Ra), to high profile collaborators (Bon Iver, Animal Collective), to his original works, we unpack the sounds of the elusive, indefinable Lonnie Holley.

See Lonnie Holley play Vivid LIVE in the Opera House Utzon Room on Friday, 31 May. Tickets available here.

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