Entertainment » Music

Going ’Into the Dark Unknown’ with Holcombe Waller

by Joseph Erbentraut
EDGE Media Network Contributor
Wednesday May 4, 2011

Singer-songwriter Holcombe Waller is one of those guys who just can't help but embrace his multi-talented, Renaissance man ways. Born in Connecticut, he was a bit of a musical prodigy from an early age. He jumped head-on into producing, mixing and playing music while an undergraduate student at Yale University and in 1999 self-released his first full album before dabbling in information technology and continuing to release his music on his own small record company.

Fast forward to this year and Waller is still creating his own music in a way that appears just on the verge of reaching a larger audience while holding firm to his Rufus Wainwright or Joni Mitchell-esque political-artsy-folksy roots.

His most recent album, "Into the Dark Unknown", has attracted both critical praise and a slowly growing fan base as listeners have latched onto the simple and poignant beauty of tracks like "Bored Of Memory," "Shallow" and "Hardliners," most recently depicted in an equally stunning music video. The album was called "a come-to-Jesus moment come to life" by NPR and his recent appearance in a quiet hotel room concert during the SXSW Festival was hailed in the pages of the New York Times.

Having recently signed to a new distributor, Waller is sticking to his angelically voiced guns and re-releasing his most recent album next month. In the midst of a series of live shows that will see him performing across the country in the months ahead, Waller opened up about his music, his life and his boyfriend (sorry, fellas!) in conversation with EDGE.

Into the dark...

EDGE: Hi Holcombe! You are right on the verge of re-releasing your latest album, "Into the Dark Unknown". Tell me more about that decision and what your hopes are for the fresh release date.

Holcombe Waller: I’m from Portland and have my own label that we just sort of put it out through a small Portland distributor but the music didn’t really get out there. Once everything happened at SXSW, I was picked up by Red Ryder, a booking agency out of Chicago, and a larger distributor offered to pick up my label. We thought it’d be fun to try and market it again, put it out there in June and let people review it that might not have ever heard it when it came out in February. Next week, I’ll be featured on the singer-songwriter showcase on iTunes, which is exciting, and there’s some really fun things coming through around the album release date. All these things help because I really want people to hear the album.

EDGE: Tell me more about your SXSW experience. I understand you got some particularly well-deserved props from rock critic Ann Powers. How was the whole experience?

HW: It was a great time. We stopped by and were expecting to put on a little private show in our hotel room and try and find a booking agent and it was just by crazy coincidence that we met the New York Times reporter and I invited my friend Jim, a wonderful man from New York who was really seminal in the gay rights movement in New York. It was all really surprising. It was great to reconnect with Ann. Though I’d never met her, she wrote about my first album back in 2001 and she’s a really nice person. A lot of great stuff has come out from all of that.

Story continues on following page.

Watch Holcombe Waller’s music video for "Hardliners":

Breaking through...

EDGE: That’s great to hear. There are so many bands and artists that head to SXSW hoping to be heard and it sounds like you were able to break through that clutter in a meaningful way there.

HW: I think it’s a huge showcase for fans, for music listeners and there’s tens and tens and thousands of them. It’s like a Mardi Gras for the fans. As far as the industry stuff that’s happening as well, if you’re looking to connect with other people in the business, it’s about as good as anything.

EDGE: Right now in the music industry there seems to be a delicate balance between getting your music out there to be heard and to also make money from it. I know you’ve utilized a Kickstarter campaign to help but tell me how you find that balance.

HW: I think the real challenge right now is that, obviously, people aren’t really buying music as much. The thing that Kickstarter really helped me do is to connect with fans who are supporting me while they’re also getting special stuff -- like t-shirts or even their names in the record or things like that. I think more and more, indies like myself have to be kind of creative in thinking about opportunities to get people to support you. There are people who will support you and would be happy to spend even $50 or $100 if they get something special back in return. It’s just about giving people a lot and putting all out there.

I know it’s a struggle but I’d rather be in control of my career creatively than to be at the whims of a larger company that might not have the same kind of artistic goals I do. There are some wonderful people working out there in the music business and it remains to be seen if I’ll put future records out on my own, since I’m in talks with a lot of people about the future.

EDGE: I just watched the new-ish video for your song "Hardliners." Tell me more about what inspired that song -- it’s really beautiful.

HW: I actually wrote that song as I was imagining my niece being born, growing up and becoming an adolescent. I don’t know why, but I was imagining her having struggles as she gets older. She’s turning three in July, so this is the future we’re talking about, but I also found myself revisiting memories of my own adolescence and the basic messages I wanted to hear then: That things may feel hard now, but to not let it get to you. The line that repeats is: "I won’t stop loving."

If you’re telling people it’s all going to be OK, when thinking too about the role that corporations play in the public media, brainwashing the masses into complacency to benefit their profit margins, I think it’s more important to say, hey, we can still get through the insanity of the world with this great love. That’s the underlying message of that song.

EDGE: That’s a comforting message, which matches the mood of a lot of the music on this album. It’s very reminiscent of the message of the It Gets Better project.

HW: I love that campaign and, certainly with regards to the way sexuality I think exists in the lives of most adolescents, it does get better. I think that, for everyone, it does. Adolescence sucks and when you throw on top of that the institutionalized discrimination against gay men and lesbians, it’s a bad formula for kids. But coming into an adult age, you develop more autonomy and authority over your personal life and feelings. I think it’s important we speak to youth on that topic.

"A real gift"

EDGE: Tell me more about your adolescence. What was it like growing up and when did you have that realization that you were different from other kids? What role did artistic expression play in your development?

HW: I started studying classical piano at about the age of three. I had "a real gift," as they called it and I was always put on a pedestal a bit as a child. At the same time, I was very shy and sensitive and aware I was gay at a very young age. I was also aware that wasn’t OK with my community or even my immediate family at the time, though they are very supportive now. I didn’t like being put on a pedestal for being musical because I didn’t like standing out in any way whatsoever. I was very concerned with not being different and was sensitive to being teased.

It makes me sad looking back because I think I had a lot of talent that was suppressed and squelched in my psyche looking back. It’s not something anyone intentionally did to me either, so when we look at things like institutionalized discrimination such as marriage inequality, we’re talking about screwing up children, not just civil rights. It’s all the most profoundly unconservative ethic. But typically I think most Republicans are completely insane, so that just comes as part of the package I suppose.

EDGE: You certainly don’t shy away from making your political views known, nor do you shy away from the label of "gay artist." So many musicians try to avoid being labeled as specifically "political" or "gay" -- why is that not the case for you?

HW: The only reason I can imagine an artist or public performer resisting politics or sexual identity is the fear that it will impede your ability to make money because you fear corporations and wealthy people, who are overwhelmingly conservative and own media companies, will snub you and prevent you from having opportunities. Frankly, I see my friends and family and others making unconscious decisions like that all the time and there’s nothing really wrong with those decisions. They have to support themselves and their families at the end of the day, but I’ve always been more interested in people who are concerned with the world in a more big picture sense. There may be a lost opportunity here or there but is it worth not losing your integrity or soul over it?

There are a lot of people out there who appreciate that message and would rather inspire people to think critically and I always think of it like which party would you really want to be at? The party of people who are intellectual, liberal and outspoken and embrace all sorts of progressive ideas from sexuality to gender identity, right? It may be that we’re all riding this wave culturally where we’re becoming more conservative and artists will become a smaller, niche group, but I’d still rather be at that little underground party broke than blowing money and pumping carbon into the atmosphere with all my friends on a jet.

EDGE: In addition to your album, you also recently created the score for the AIDS documentary "We Were Here" by David Weissman. What was that experience like? Do you hope to do more film scoring?

HW: I do hope to do more film scoring. That was a great experience. It’s really, really wonderful and beautiful, very heavy, personal and very important, so I was really honored he asked me to do the music for the film. It was also great going to Sundance.

EDGE: Do you find yourself listening to a lot of music in your free time? What have you been listening to lately?

HW: I’m so lucky that I’m really busy and I tend to just listen to whatever falls into my lap through the people that are around me or that I’m playing with. Through the folks I played with at SXSW, I’ve been listening to Alessi’s Ark and Jenny O. I met them both, got their discs and fell in love with them. My boyfriend is also a really big music fan and really good at exploring and finding new music. He’s turned me on to a lot of really great artists -- First Aid Kit, Alela Diane, who lives in Portland, and this group called Mountain Man. A lot of lady singers are the flavor du jour on our mixes.

EDGE: Is it challenging to maintain a relationship while playing shows on the road?

HW: It’s a little hard, but at the same time, my boyfriend is a full-time student and works 30 hours a week, so sometimes if I go away for a couple weeks it lets him get back on top of his work more. I’m really lucky because we’re both OK with spending a couple of weeks apart. I think it gets harder if it’s longer than that but we talk every day at least a few times a day. We’ve been together for almost two years and it’s awesome. It’s like we’re more and more in love with each other all the time. The relationship is the biggest success in my life, frankly.

EDGE: Beyond this current tour, what else are you looking forward to in the months ahead?

HW: I have a few more tours upcoming. I’ll be touring the West Coast with Jenny O. and have a great show with Laura Gibson, a wonderful folk artist, in June, plus a tour of the Northeast with Haley and Daniel. In the middle of all that, I’m writing a new performing arts piece, a dramatically staged sort of narrative story told in song accompanied with lighting and staging and video. We’ll be premiering a piece of that in June.

I’m also working on different music videos, and the next one should hopefully be out in June. I’m just generally trying to keep putting stuff out there. I guess my first real break will be in July when I’m really going to try and hunker down and write new music. The music writing has been here and there on the side, but I want to follow up this album with something else sooner rather than later. I’ve been feeling really inspired lately so we’ll see how that all shakes out.

Holcolmbe Waller plays SPACE in Evanston, Illinois (just north of Chicago) on Wednesday, May 4, accompanied with fellow queer singer-songwriter Chris Pureka. Visit www.holcombewaller.com for information on this and other shows Waller is playing this spring and summer throughout the country, including San Francisco, Calif. (6/2), Los Angeles (6/3), Brooklyn, N.Y. (6/21), Boston, Mass. (6/22) and many others.

Watch Holcombe Waller’s music video for "Shallow":

Joseph covers news, arts and entertainment and lives in Chicago. He is the assistant Chicago editor for The Huffington Post. Log on to www.joe-erbentraut.com to read more of his work.


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