Robin Holcomb has never thrashed a guitar chord, as far as I know, but she is the most audacious music-maker left in Seattle since Kurt Cobain lifted a shotgun to his head. Holcomb has never played with Bob Dylan (though that would be interesting), but she weaves more American musics into her songs—Yankee hymns, dinner-club cabaret, Charles Ives, backwoods country, Stephen Foster, Lower Manhattan avant-garde, rock, blues, gospel, and more—than anyone since Robbie Robertson. Robin Holcomb has never had a hit, even a left-of-the-dial, college-radio hit, but she is the best American female singer-songwriter you have probably never heard of.
This is not another story of music-industry wickedness. Nonesuch Records, bless them, has just released The Big Time, Holcomb's third album of songs—her first in 10 years. She has not exactly been pursuing pop stardom of any scale and, now in her mid-40s, is not likely to begin anytime soon. Her career has been more akin to that of a serious composer, which she trained to be and is, with an album of mostly commissioned keyboard pieces (Little Three, Nonesuch, 1996) that sound as though they might have been written by Debussy had he immersed himself in American music of the Civil War era. These instrumental works differ in structure and reach but not in kind from her songs, which, too, are rooted in her unique, Americana-meets-Modernism playing.
She approaches a piano as if it were a piece of Shaker furniture—something on which to create melodies spare and rather unworldly. Many of her songs have only the loosest pop-song shape, and a number of them begin with what amounts to a half-minute or longer piano flourish, as if the family has gathered in a Victorian parlor after a big meal and she's trying to get everyone's attention. For that matter, her singing too has the intimacy of a bygone time—not the earnestness of the coffeehouse or the sultriness of the jazz club but the spiritual-minded purposefulness of the church supper.
Before moving to Seattle in 1988, Holcomb and her husband, Wayne Horvitz, were part of a music scene in downtown New York that was percolating in clubs like the Knitting Factory and the Ear Inn. The sound that came out of those places back then—a postmodern mélange of Steve Reich minimalism, art rock, and free jazz—has continued to suffuse Holcomb's recordings, with Horvitz, who has produced each of his wife's song collections, coaxing Sunday-service or roadhouse colorations from his Hammond B-3, and Bill Frisell, who also left Manhattan for Seattle, doing most of the guitar work, daringly. The eerily beautiful soundscape of the simple two-chord "I Want To Tell the Story" means everything to the song, but its off-tempo bass forays and dissonant string and reed timbres don't make for really popular pop.
Neither do Holcomb's lyrics. She has expressed admiration for W.S. Merwin, and her approach to lyric writing has more in common with his poetry than with the rhyming-couplet verses and catchy refrains of most songwriters. Holcomb doesn't unfold narratives; she juxtaposes imagistic phrases, leaving spaces between them for meaning to pool. She forgoes rhyme, for the most part, but may suddenly repeat a phrase again and again, talismanically. And, like Merwin, she is intrigued by rustic America, its spookiness and vastness. She's seen enough of it—having been born in Georgia and raised in central California and having spent several years working with sharecroppers in North Carolina—to have cured her of bathos or easy nostalgia. In songs like "So Straight and Slow" from her self-titled first album and "Iowa Lands" from her second, Rockabye, she writes of Americans' unsettled (and unsettling) relationship to place unsentimentally, if elusively. She writes about everything elusively, including love, which is what most of the songs on The Big Time are about. To "get" a Holcomb song requires an investment in repeated, careful listening. The reward is to experience what we mean by "art."
This is not what Americans seem to want from their female singer-songwriters today, as they did a generation ago. (Think of Joni Mitchell.) Tori Amos, Liz Phair, Fiona Apple, Jewel, the Canadian import Alanis Morissette—these young women won fans in the '90s with lyrics directly confessional and provocatively dysfunctional and with music built mostly around rock chord changes, even when unplugged. The only American woman to achieve success writing consistently memorable music in recent years has been Lucinda Williams, whose alt-country songs are not experimental but tautly crafted and plain-spoken. (And how long did it take her to find a wider audience?) Others, such as Aimee Mann—who has tried to be a pop star—and Sam Phillips are, like Holcomb, talented, accomplished women in midcareer residing with their venturesome tunes on the outskirts of the country's popular music, though neither is as far out (in both senses of that phrase) as Holcomb.
What could bring Holcomb's songs to more listeners is other interpreters. In the late 1960s, Barbra Streisand, the Fifth Dimension, and Blood, Sweat, and Tears tamed and brought to a wider audience the wildly dramatic pop songs of Laura Nyro, whose inventive fusions of urban musics in some sense prefigure Holcomb's more heartland amalgams. Listening to The Big Time, I found myself making a mental list of all the singers who could stand some fresh material and who could make a Holcomb song their own. Macy Gray is just right for the stately soul ballad "Like I Care." How about Dolly Parton for the country waltz "I Tried To Believe"? And if Mariah Carey is serious about making a new start, let's hear her apply that multioctave voice of hers to the born-again-themed jazzy suite, "Tell the Good Friend on Your Left." Which leaves the art-songish"If You Can't Make the Curve" for the great soprano Audra McDonald. She could bring Holcomb into an American recital hall or two and, eventually perhaps, into that capacious American song book, where she belongs.