Tomorrow, July 4, is Independence Day. But today, TODAY, is the day of National Freedom. The 5-song collaboration between artist Lonnie Holley and the late visionary producer Richard Swift is a tribute to urgent, raw, American art – from Howlin’ Wolf to Captain Beefheart, from Cecil Taylor to Bo Diddley. The songs pulse with anger, hope, energy and a bit of swagger. You can hear sweat and tears through the speaker. Swift left us two years ago today, but his spirit buzzes through these songs.
During a West Coast tour with Deerhunter in late summer 2013, Holley was put in touch with Swift by a friend who suggested using a day off on tour to record at Swift’s National Freedom Studio in Cottage Grove, Oregon. Now rather legendary, Swift was in a breakout moment as a producer having recently worked with artists like The Shins, Foxygen and Damien Jurado. Holley’s essential debut album, Just Before Music, had come out the year prior. The cosmic connection between Holley and Swift was immediate. They put down five songs in their day together: all conjured in the studio and one-of-a-kind.
Holley was born into the Jim Crow South and suffered abuses in its wake. After the loss of his nieces to a house fire 40 years ago, Holley carved their grave markers out of sandstone. In the time since, his art – assemblages, sculpture and prints – have been shown in galleries the world over – including The Metropolitan Museum of Art, The National Gallery of Art, and The Smithsoni… an. He has released three albums of his singular music. The most recent album, MITH, was released by Jagjaguwar in 2018. He’s performed his music across the globe and shared stages with artists like Daniel Lanois, Bill Callahan and Deerhunter.
Scolded as a child for touching the church piano and only using synths to make his music, Holley was drawn to Swift’s shabby, open-faced piano in the corner of the studio.
His first-ever time playing a piano is captured in the 11-minute, single-take “So Many Rivers (The First Time).” In the song, time becomes unstuck, elastic as Holley guides us on a journey from Moses’ basket on the River Nile, through war, slavery, Civil Rights – and on to what might best be described as The Singularity. When Holley finished playing the song, he broke down into tears. “The church isn’t big enough for you,” Swift said to comfort him.
At the end of that day in 2013, Swift – always up until the wee hours – made a late night call to the friend who had set up the session. He was effusive about the experience – thrilled to have found a kindred spirit in Lonnie Holley and thankful to spend a day crafting unclassifiable, extemporaneous and soulful music.
Another National Freedom session was put on the books for February 2014. This time Holley was joined by oft-collaborators Marshall Ruffin (guitar) and Ben Sollee (cello). The songs from this session take a markedly different shape than “So Many Rivers.” The hypnotic, stomping “Like Hell Broke Away” and “Do T Rocker” are rugged, dubbed-out blues pieces – Screamin’ Jay Hawkins as produced by King Tubby. As he growls his way across the songs, one can’t help but suppose Holley was inspired by the large â€˜Walt Wolfman’ painting that stood prominent at National Freedom. Opener “Crystal Doorknob” almost sounds like it could have been on Neil Youngs’ classic â€˜On The Beach.’ The studio band set up, which included Swift on drums, was so inspired that a last-minute show was set up in a local theater in Cottage Grove one evening during the session. On short notice, the theater was filled out completely. Swift, joyous and in the groove, didn’t open his eyes the entire set. Lonnie Holley unlocked that in Swift. We lost Swift two years ago today, and we’re humbled to share this set of music from an artist who so delighted him and inspired him creatively.