Known throughout the art world for his found-object sculptures, paintings, and installations, American artist Lonnie Holley gained a new audience when he started releasing and performing his music during the 2010s. Entirely improvised and impossible to categorize, his free-flowing compositions include stream-of-consciousness lyrics delivered in his deeply expressive, world-worn bellow. He never performs a song more than once; for his performances, he’ll write down a list of titles serving as subject matter, but the content is entirely different each time. His debut album, 2012′s Just Before Music, was his first studio recording following several years’ worth of home recordings unheard by the general public. Following its release, Holley began touring with musicians such as Bill Callahan, Deerhunter, and Animal Collective, in addition to making more collaborative studio albums, including 2018′s politically charged MITH and 2021′s Broken Mirror: A Selfie Reflection, with Matthew E. White. Holley’s 2023 album Oh Me Oh My featured guests like Michael Stipe and Sharon Van Etten.
Lonnie Holley was born in Birmingham, Alabama in 1950, the seventh of 27 children. His childhood was tumultuous and storied. He claims to have been traded for a bottle of whiskey when he was four years old, and he’s worked a variety of odd jobs since the age of five, including digging graves, picking up trash, and working as a short-order cook at Disney World. He began making art at the age of 29, starting out with sandstone carvings before incorporating discarded objects into large-scale sculptures. His first exhibition was at the Birmingham Museum of Art in 1981, and his work was soon displayed in museums in New York and Atlanta. By the end of the following decade, his art had been showcased throughout the world, and he had been invited to the White House by President Bill Clinton. The first major retrospective of Holley’s art was titled Do We Think Too Much? I Don’t Think We Can Ever Stop. Beginning in May of 2003, Holley spent a year creating sculptures at the Birmingham Museum of Art. This was documented by the film The Sandman’s Garden, as well as an art book.
Holley had been making home recordings of his music since the ’80s, but he never intended any of it to be heard by anyone else. Matt Arnett, whose father collected Holley’s art, began organizing professional recordings of Holley’s music in 2006. Holley gave a performance at his home in 2010; in attendance was Lance Ledbetter, founder of Dust-to-Digital, a label normally known for its expansive reissues of obscure folk and blues recordings, often taken from 78 RPM records. Holley became the first living artist signed to the label, and his debut album, Just Before Music, was released in 2012. He also began touring, and the belated vinyl issue of Just Before Music included tracks from a live session at celebrated Jersey City radio station WFMU. Holley’s second album, Keeping a Record of It, appeared in 2013, and included guest appearances by Deerhunter’s Bradford Cox and Black Lips’ Cole Alexander. By the end of the year, Holley had toured throughout America with Deerhunter and Bill Callahan, in addition to completing his first European tour.
During the following years, he continued touring and recording with musicians such as Daniel Lanois, Jenny Hval, Julia Holter, and many others. In 2014, he contributed several interludes to the Arthur Russell tribute album Master Mix: Red Hot + Arthur Russell. Art institutions continued to showcase his work, including the Metropolitan Museum of Art. Bon Iver sampled Holley’s music on 2016′s 22, A Million, and the two artists shared the stage at the end of the year. In 2018, Holley’s third album, MITH, was released by Jagjaguwar, also home to Bon Iver. Preceded by the striking video for the song “I Woke Up in a Fucked-Up America,” the album included contributions from Laraaji and the late Richard Swift. National Freedom, an EP of a 2014 session cut with Swift, was released in 2020. Broken Mirror: A Selfie Reflection, a funk-influenced session with Matthew E. White, was released by Spacebomb Records in 2021. Holley then worked with producer and musician Jacknife Lee, resulting in the 2023 release Oh Me Oh My. The album included appearances by Michael Stipe, Moor Mother, Sharon Van Etten, Bon Iver, and Jeff Parker, among others. ~ Paul Simpson