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Lonnie Holley

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 story

Born in Alabama in 1950, Lonnie Holley was introduced to the world at a time when legislated racial segregation was at its peak and the Jim Crow laws had not yet been abolished. One of 27 children, Holley’s early life was far removed from any recognisable childhood. At the age of four he was traded for a bottle of whiskey and by five he had started working - picking up trash, washing dishes and eventually digging graves.

At one point he ended up in the Alabama Industrial School for Negro Children where he was tied to a tree and whipped with an oil soaked stick for trying to escape.

Holley, in an interview with The Record, said “it's not that I couldn't cry dearly about that, but my art allows me to rise above it. I love my art.”

He started creating visual art at the age of 29 and released his debut album, Just Before Music, with Dust-to-Digital Records in 2012.

Having spent the last 18 years documenting his life, filmmaker George King shared with the New York Times the belief that Holley’s work was vital to the artist’s survival.

“Lonnie is kind of like a shark that way: to survive he has to keep moving forward, to keep making things. It’s almost an existential thing. That’s how he experiences the world.”

These days Holley can be found touring internationally, spending time with his 15 children and, as always, creating art that seeks to help life make a little more sense.

The art

Holley's first works of art were sandstone tombstones for his sister's children who died in a housefire. Since then he has made a career creating pieces that celebrate his hometown of Birmingham's African-American community and its industrial heritage. From carvings and paintings to found object sculptures, Holley's work is sprawling, strange and brilliant.

Holley has work in the collections of the Whitney Museum of American Art, The Smithsonian American Art Museum and the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York, among many others.

The music

With his 2012 debut album Just Before Music, the cosmic chaos of Lonnie Holley's art was given a new, aural dimension. He has since released two more albums, Keeping a Record of It and last year's MITH. Having made a name for himself among industry insiders, Holley has performed alongside members of Deerhunter, The Shins and Black Lips, opened for Animal Collective and injected some of his signature experimental sound into Bon Iver's 22, A Million.

“Holley’s music, which is largely improvised, contains hints of Stevie Wonder, Sun Ra, Lou Reed, Alice Coltrane, Gil Scott-Heron, Miles Davis, and at least a dozen other singers and composers. His precise influences are difficult to identify and parse. Holley is interested in mélange—the soldering together of disparate objects or ideas, in order to build something that feels both new and borrowed.” - The New Yorker

Of his most acclaimed song I Woke Up in a Fucked-Up America, Holley explained: “Reality is humans crying out unseen tears. It’s a great amount of sickness and poverty. You’ve got more graves being buried than we got planters of new trees… This has been so messed up. It’s been so backwards. And is even getting even worser.” 

Burn Into Colors, 2017


Pencil drawing on paper, 2011


Fifth Child Burning, 1994

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.”


We Are The Eighth Kind – Lonnie Holley, Ramin Haerizadeh, Hesam Rahmanian and Rokni Haerizadeh


Dust Speck in Mother Universe – Lonnie Holley and Nelson Patton


If I Left Behind – Lonnie Holley with Dave Eggar and Will Glass

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”


“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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