Every decision that Holland Andrews makes isn’t arrived upon lightly. The experimental artist who records and performs under the name Like A Villain arrives at them through deep intention, serious deliberation, and a dash of gut feelings. That includes everything from shaving their head (“The cutting of the hair meant a lot of things and meant nothing all at the same time,” they told me as we baked in the late summer heat) to the much more disruptive choice they are making to move to New York City.
“I’ve been given such an incredible foundation here in learning who I was and becoming the person of my dreams,” they said.
“With how my career is going and the opportunities that I have been flowing into in terms of making music for more interdisciplinary work, I found a lot of internal expansion. I was really enriched by that and I think I have more abundance of opportunity in New York for that, specifically.”
While the Portland music scene will be the poorer for Andrews’ absence from it, the timing of their move couldn’t be more perfect. They’ve already garnered a lot of attention for their work throughout the US and Europe and have some exciting new opportunities on the horizon (including a big announcement they can’t share just yet). And there’s What Makes Vulnerability Good, their third album that, once it is released on September 20, will surely shake up their world in a big way.
Some of that will be a byproduct of having this new record released on Accidental Records, the label run by UK composer and musician Matthew Herbert. But their music on Vulnerability is their largest, most daring statement yet, that burns like a beacon for the tenderhearted and the broken in spirit as well as lovers of pure, bold sound. The music—all fluid electronics, free jazz spills, and tense rhythms—feels like it is consuming every bit of Andrews’ system, resulting in vocal performances that sweep from gentle crooning to full-body roars. It feels like the perfect reflection of their lyrics that explore the conflicted feelings of a break-up and the moment that her mother—a former member of a short-lived girl group who recorded a lone single for Joe Jackson’s label in the ‘70s and sadly took her own life when Andrews was 16—lost custody of her children.
With Andrews’ final show as a hometown artist happening this week as the kick off of the TBA Festival, we decided to sit down with them outside a bustling café to talk a little bit about Vulnerability and a lot about their family, their growth as an artist, and the physical sensation of making a big sound with their voice.
MERCURY: Do you feel that it was a big risk to move from California to here?
HOLLAND ANDREWS: It was a risk. You don’t really know what’s going to happen to you before you go to a brand-new place. You don’t know how you’re going to find yourself integrated into the community. There’s just so much unknown. So, moving into any new city is a risk even if it’s rural Illinois town. It’s hard to say if it was a bigger risk. The difference now is that, with both of these moves, I was equipped enough to feel like I could do it. New York may seem more risky because it’s one of the hubs of the world. I feel like this is one of the most right decisions I’ve ever made. The same as when I decided to come to Portland.
When listening to the new album, I got stuck on the song “Wavebe” where you’re singing about being held underwater and getting pulled out right before it’s too late. It felt to me like an expression of the huge risk that so many women take in dealing with men in this world. That’s just my interpretation…
I think your interpretation is perfectly accurate for you. I wouldn’t want to change your connection to what that means. That song was actually written from a personal experience where my mother’s ex-boyfriend from when I was a child literally tried to drown me. I have zero expectations to what people assume with my music. The album is just a container and it’s a container of all my own story. That event eventually led to the courts giving my father custody of me and my sister. Which then leads to “You Got It,” earlier on the album, which is a song from my mother’s voice where she’s singing about her anger that my father got custody of my sister and I. Which was definitely for the best. There was never a doubt in my mind that that wasn’t the best decision, even as a child.
I did a little internet sleuthing and tracked down some info about the singing group that your mother was in with her sisters, M-D-L-T- Willis, and found a video of them on Soul Train. What is it like to see and hear your mom in this context?
They had filmed it, and Don Cornelius, who owned all the rights to all the Soul Train material, wouldn’t let any of it go. But my cousin was dating this woman for a while who went to Japan and found the footage. She brought it back and made copies for the entire family. The Christmas after that happened, everybody was gathered for this surprise. Like, none of my family knew except for my cousin. Then the TV comes on and you see Soul Train and… this is what they’ve been wanting to see for years. They only had this memory of doing this thing. I grew up with them singing all the time. And every Christmas and every holiday that we would get together, my mom and her sisters would sing different songs from when they were younger. Some old Jackson Five stuff and Christmas stuff. After my mom died, that started to decrease. When we saw that video, I think it was four years after my mom had been dead and I was the same age then as when my mother was performing in that video. So everybody in the family was like, “There’s Holland!”
You grew up with your family singing R&B and soul songs and more traditional pop fare. How did you end up connecting with more avant garde artists and composers that informed what you’re doing now?
That’s a good question and I never know how to answer it because it always just felt so natural. I would live with my dad in Orange County, so when we were there, the music that I would choose to listen to would be very different from the music I would listen to when I was in LA seeing my mom and my aunt. I was talking with my friend Alissa DeRubeis and she was saying how punk is a gateway drug. It was the first introduction I had to seeing shit that was super different from what status quo music is. That led me to listening to college radio and they would play just about everything. Even if I didn’t like it, I would consume all of it because it was different from what was on the other stations. I would sit with a pen and paper and write down the names of the artists and look them up. Then going to record stores and getting different records. At one point, I finally understood that I like things that were very dissonant as well as very beautiful. I think my search for things like that led me to making my music.
Your mom took her own life when you were 16 but you didn’t really start making your own music until a couple of years after that. Do you feel like those two things are related, that that experience pointed you toward your art in some way?
It was related in some way because after her death—45 days later—I got sober. I was young and coping in all the wrong ways. I got sober through an intervention from my family. If it wasn’t for me getting sober and pivoting my life towards self-work, then I probably wouldn’t have even had the economy in my own mind to realize that I could. I was always a musical kid, playing tenor saxophone and clarinet in school band and singing all the time. It was the fabric of my being, but I never felt like I was any good. I didn’t see myself as a composer. And the examples I saw of what songwriters look like is very limited. There was a point where I got to playing with music software, but it wasn’t something that I took seriously. It wasn’t really a decision I made to pursue it. It was just me writing songs in high school and putting them on MySpace. It wasn’t until I moved here where I realized I could even perform my own music. Somebody hit me up on MySpace and asked if I would play this show. It was three months away and I dedicated that time to getting gear and building a set. Luckily, that first show was amazing. That allowed me to feel comfortable enough to do it again and get to experience the catharsis of that in a way that was nurturing and releasing. There has to be a way that that’s connected to the suicide because everything that happened after that stemmed from that point.
That mixture of beauty and dissonance is so important to your music. Especially on the new album where you move from these lovely tones to this almost terrifying wailing. When did you realize you could sound like that and realize that you wanted to include it in your music?
I always knew that I had a big voice and could make very uncomfortable sounds. I was a kid that grew up watching cartoons and would often emulate the sounds that the characters were making. I was really into who the voice actors were and who was doing what. In my own spare time, I was just playing with my big voices. I don’t know when but there was a point at which I realized I didn’t have to just keep making the same types of music. That I could recreate the narrative of who I was as a musician. And that meant not giving a fuck about who I thought people thought I was and what I did. I remember one time I was on tour and this man told me that he was really interested in the music that I would make once I would only focus on making music that’s beautiful. Not that that experience wasn’t shitty, but looking back on it now, that was really a huge compliment because I elicited a response from someone that pushed them to their edge. They also saw that I offered relief in the beauty that I’m trying to cultivate. But I think it’s something that I do because I have to. I like to do it. Which is the reason to do fucking anything.
What does it feel like though to reach back and pull that voice and those sounds of your body?
It feels like a necessary dismantling. It feels like permission that I give myself, which is very freeing. It feels like me getting to be me without condition. That’s the dream. But always with the goal behind it to uplift people.
What Makes Vulnerability Good is set to be released on Accidental Records. How did that happen? How did you get connected with them?
I had just finished recording the album with Arjan Miranda and we were sending out to different people. Of course, everybody said no. The critiques were usually, “Oh, this is too weird,” or, “This is not weird enough,” or “We don’t really like your voice,” or “Your voice is great but this is too weird.” Just all these very conflicting things. But I was in Berlin and staying with a friend and we were talking about music and listening to my album. It was really resonating with her and she sent it to Matthew, who she had worked with before. It turns out that he really liked it and asked to release it. Through a lot of emailing that took a long time. There would be this space between emails where I’d be, like, “Oh my god…is it today? Is it going to happen?” But it was through this right place, right time scenario.
I imagine you’ve performed in front of your father and your family by now. What do they make about your music and what you do?
Oh, my dad is so sweet. He says, “It’s so wonderful to see how you’ve grown and changed through the years. Experimental music may not be my choice of music to listen to, but I love getting to watch you evolve.” That’s like the best that I could ask for, but my entire family has been nothing but supportive. Especially because my mom’s side are all musicians and performers. So getting to live off of your performance work is the ideal. They don’t feel like they need to understand it.
(Like a Villain plays TBA tonight, Thurs Sept 5, 9 pm, PICA, 15 NE Hancock, free)