“How do you make lasting work and not screw up your family?”
Critically acclaimed songwriter, mother, and humanitarian Claire Holley asked herself the question several years ago, shortly after moving to Los Angeles from her hometown of Jackson, Mississippi. Holley was preparing an essay for Image Journal on the perils and pitfalls of combining career with family. She used the imagery found in the iconic children’s book, Goodnight Moon. This simple storybook is tucked away in many family cedar chests, along with baby clothes and rattles—a touchstone representing the beautiful, idyllic early days of childhood. Millions of parents and children know the story of Goodnight Moon, but the talented Holley gives it a unique perspective. Illustrations depict a clock, moving ever forward in ten-minute increments, and Holley uses that image brilliantly to reflect on the dichotomy of time—at once childhood’s refuge and also the cunning thief of a mother’s creativity.
A room is described, with a red balloon, a toy house, a comb, a brush, and a few other items—all quietly existing. A clock in the center of the room moves in ten-minute increments as you turn the pages. There is something so tranquil, so simple, so pure about this room. It feels like a place we should go when we die. Before you go to sleep at night you say, “Goodnight comb and goodnight brush…. Goodnight stars. Goodnight air. Goodnight noises everywhere.”
As a mother, I am learning that moving at that quiet, slow pace may mean not getting things done. If you really want to be in this space of reading Goodnight Moon with your child or watching squirrels at the park, you may have to let it be and not insist on capturing it. When I read essays by women writing about their days being mothers—their nuanced, very specific, very full days—I must admit that I wonder what they are like as mothers finishing up writing deadlines.
We caught up with Holley for the third time in a year. We were on the phone, shortly after her return from the Savannah Book Festival. She performed there with southern songstresses Kate Campbell and Caroline Herring in a concert celebrating the life and work of Pulitzer Prize winning author Eudora Welty. Five time Grammy winner Mary Chapin Carpenter usually shares the bill, but could not make the third tribute performance because of one of many blizzards which pummeled the eastern seaboard this winter.
While in Savannah, Holley was waiting to perform at Trinity Methodist Church in a traditional “guitar pull” with Herring and Campbell. Singers sit together on the stage and swap stories and songs—the Welty tribute joining their music and stories to Welty’s writings. Holley’s son was with a baby sitter at a local hotel, and Mom was worried about him. Herring and Campbell were sharing stories about family life and the road and Holley recalled that her son, instead of being intrigued with her guitar “as something cool,” hauled off and hit the instrument in a pique because Mom was more focused on writing than on a two-year old’s perceived need for attention.
“I was obsessing over getting the word’s right for a song when he hit my guitar. He was sick of that guitar, and he was ‘kinda right, though. I needed to walk away from working on that song—or maybe I didn’t. You know that is kind of the big question for me. You can kill a song by working it to death.”
Obsessions notwithstanding, whatever formulas Holley has applied to parenthood and her creative life seem to be working. Nourishing transplanted Delta roots and tending to a mother’s worries are a challenge, but it appears that Holley may have found her muse and her strength in southern California. Work and family are both thriving, she has a new band, continues her solo work, you can hear her music on television soundtracks, she is learning to score movies and manages to squeeze in some time for humanitarian pursuits as well.
It makes one wonder if Claire Chamblin Holley needs to worry at all.
Solidly ensconced physically on the west coast with husband and family for over six years, and creatively anchored in the musical influences of her southern upbringing, Holley is solidly in control of her life. But the journey is never easy. Film scoring is the latest learning curve and Holley is pursuing it with vigor, not content to rely upon critical and artistic success from her recording career alone.
“I want to follow this curiosity and interest in film music. I don’t know where it will go, but I know that I enjoy composing with a particular character or landscape in mind, and the fact that making movies is a collaborative venture is part of its appeal,” Holley explained. “I loved being able to talk with the directors about their overall vision and then going back and tinkering with the music until it worked.”
The future vision is now, since Holley provided the music score for Berkley filmmaker Matt Silas’ 23 minute short, The Fence, which won Best Cinematography Award and the Director’s Spotlight Award at the UCLA Festival 2008. It’s no wonder that Holley’s score was an integral and emotional part of the film. The movie depicts an overwhelmed father who leaves his two daughters to watch over a broken fence on his family’s windswept cattle ranch. Every parent’s nightmare comes true, and a drifter attacks the girls. The father takes off cross-country with the girls in vengeful pursuit.
Silas met Holley at a Saturday night church service in LA and immediately knew her voice was something special.
She has a gorgeous, arresting voice, and to my ear, cinematic. I was working on the script for The Fence at the time. One night after the service I asked her if she’d ever written music for film before and I gave her a copy of the script. She said she was interested and would see if anything came to her. Pretty early on she wrote “Broken Things”, which is what you hear in the closing credits. When I heard it, I just about fell over. She got right at the heart of the story with that song and it became a sort of talisman that I carried with me and would listen as I continued to refine the script and prepare for the shoot.
It was a pretty effortless process. Working with her was one of the easiest parts of making the film.
The Anne Heche television series “Men In Trees,” featured two of Holley’s compositions “Waiting for Whales” and “Waving Goodbye,” from her CD, Dandelion (Yep Roc Records). The music critics agreed with the savvy television music supervisor about Dandelion. “Claire displays the instincts of a master short-story writer, crafting vivid, folkie vignettes of everyday folks, eccentric and otherwise.” (Harp). “Simultaneously sweet and gruff, she can sing luxuriant, summer-drenched ballads with the best of them, but there’s something of the honky-tonker lurking underneath.” (Paste Magazine)
The 2008 album Hush (Olivia) is Holley’s latest, and could be the soundtrack for today’s tough economic times. Holley’s capable songwriting suggests that what really counts are quiet times at home with loved ones. The deceptively laid-back “Simple Meals” celebrates just that. Paste Magazine likened Holley to “Rickie Lee Jones singing John Prine.” They may have nailed it.
What is Holley’s favorite? Here is where her southern roots reach deep. “Visit Me” opens with the distinctive pedal steel guitar of Greg Leisz. Holley heard Leisz playing on K.D. Lang’s Ingénue album and looked him up.
‘When I wrote “Visit Me,” it did not seem special, but the instruments—especially that pedal steel—created an atmosphere,” Holley said. It comes down to pure sounds and what they evoke.”
Holley donated the track to a benefit compilation for rape victims in Congo, Congo’s Angels”. “Visit Me” now gets regular rotation on a radio station in war-torn Goma, with a francophone DJ explaining in Lingala and Swahili why songwriters in America would bother to care for women, children and midwives in Congo. A midwife who carries victims of sexual abuse on her back to “safety” through the frontlines of rebel groups heard one of the broadcasts and wrote through a translator to the producers of Congo’s Angels that that she knew then and there that that “through song and words, millions of people would learn about the sexual violence taking place in Congo.” “Pure sound” evoked strong emotion in Congo.
Holley’s humanitarian sensibilities are powerful, and last year she did a concert benefiting the International Justice Mission (IJM) through Oregon’s Storyville Coffee Company, and hopes to do another this year. Based in Oregon, the Storyville Coffee Company encourages people to host concerts at $35 per ticket. All proceeds go toward efforts to stop international human trafficking. IJM hires lawyers and investigators to identify and prosecute perpetrators of slavery and sexual oppression worldwide.
Holley has also discovered that she does not necessarily enjoy working in a vacuum and to that end has formed a group called “Musette,” AKA the “Song Sirens,” with local musicians Nicole Gordon, Gia Ciambotti, Kristin Mooney, Bliss Bowen & Carl Byron.
“I have options working in a group that I do not have as a solo performer,” Holley says. I like the fact that every song does not rest on me.”
Writing in Image Journal, Holley summed up the basic challenge of juggling music and motherhood.
One of the top guns at my former record label said something to me a few years ago that stuck with me: If the material is good, that’s great. But if there’s no one to hear it, if there’s not an audience waiting for it, what good will it do you?” What if the time I devote to my son (s) leaves no room for building the audience? Will it be enough for me to be happy with the work, whether it is a successful release or not?
Who, after all, is the final judge of success? Holley seems to have found that incredibly delicate balance between work and family. And, how many singers can say that a Congolese midwife was uplifted in her dangerous work because of the “simple” gift of a donated song?
Upcoming Shows in the Los Angeles area:
- March 24: Musette (Song Sirens) in Sierra Madre
- April 7: Solo Show, Winestyles in South Pasadena
Follow the Song Sirens (Musette) on Facebook:
Claire Holley on Facebook:
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