Interview: Holly Near

Singer-songwriter Holly Near has been combining music and activism for over four decades, dating back to the turbulent early-70’s when as a cast member of the Broadway musical Hair she was part of a silent vigil for the victims of the Kent State shootings, and as a member of the FTA (Free The Army) Tour she traveled with Jane Fonda and others to protest the Vietnam War.

Over the years Near has also lent her talents to feminist and LGBTQ causes, and she has worked with other socially conscious musicians including Pete Seeger, Arlo Guthrie, Bonnie Raitt, Jackson Browne, and Joan Baez.

Near is also notable for being one of the first women to found her own record label, Redwood Records, which released her own recordings and those by “politically conscious artists from around the world”.

Near’s honors include being named Woman of the Year by Ms. Magazine, and being nominated as one of the “1,000 Women for the Nobel Peace Prize” in 2005.

Near answered the following questions by email on 11/16/12 for a preview article for the 11/28/12 benefit by her and actor/activist Mike Farrell (of B. J. Honeycutt fame from M*A*S*H) for Antioch University Santa Barbara.
(Irene Young photo)

Jeff Moehlis: What can we look forward to at the upcoming benefit for Antioch University Santa Barbara?

Holly Near: This is a special event, not my usual concert. All fall I have been on tour with a band doing a CD release tour but in Santa Barbara we take a short break from the concert to do this special event with Mike Farrell. I have known Mike a long time. He has worked so hard on trying to stop the death penalty and it is very sad that once again, people voted for the death penalty. I don’t understand it. It will be good to see Mike and thank him in person for his years of work. He is, of course, also a marvelous actor. So at this event, the presenters have asked us to present Songs and Words of Hope and Freedom. Mike will read the works of great writers and activists and I will sing songs in keeping with the theme of the words he speaks. I think it will be very powerful.

The goal of the concert is to raise funds for students who need financial aid to continue and complete their education at Antioch University in Santa Barbara.

And then in February, I will come back to Santa Barbara to do a full concert at SOhO. I encourage people who have the funds to attend the fundraiser. And then keep in mind, I will be back at SOhO in February and we will do the full concert.

JM: Can you tell me a bit about your new album Peace Becomes You?

HN: The new CD, Peace Becomes You, is a combination of songs written by me, by other social activist artists and some standards which I have interpreted through my lens. These “covers” range from Irving Berlin to Dr. Bernice Johnson Reagon to Cee Lo Green to Jacques Brel to Ferron. Pretty eclectic, yea?

JM: How do your songs typically come together, or is there a typical?

HN: I write what I feel like writing at any given moment and in the end, I either like the song or I don’t. Can’t really say why sometimes I like it and sometimes I don’t. I discard more than I keep. As for songs by others, I have to hear it coming through my brain, my heart, out of my mouth. And I need to find an anchor that lands the song in order to sing it. I remember sending a song I wrote to my friend Bonnie Raitt. This would have been maybe 20 plus years ago. But she just couldn’t feel it coming out her. I totally get it. Why that is, I don’t know. But when a song clicks, then the sensation for me is like dimension shows up. What was shallow becomes deep.

JM: Any thoughts on the recent Presidential election?

HN: I liked what Tom Hayden said. “Let’s have Obama’s back in November and be in his face in January.” I agree with that. In a democracy, one has to struggle with elected officials to keep them on track. They are being pulled so hard by politics. As a female, I would rather struggle with a president who is living in contemporary times than one who was determined to take us backwards. So yes, very happy Obama got re-elected. I think he is a smart man. I think he has a basic humanity that is so important. The coalition that was built to get him re-elected now needs to push hard for the things that are good for the nation and for humanity.

JM: What advice would you give to an aspiring musician?

HN: There are lots of ways to be a musician. A musician has to find her/his way. Sometimes that is clear from the start. Other times, it is trial and error and full of surprises. I thought I was going to be a star on Broadway. Instead, I became fascinated with music associated with social change movements. The main thing is to be good at one’s craft. And that takes practice. Artists are like heart surgeons. I wouldn’t want my heart cut open by someone who had not studied medicine.

JM: What are your plans, musical or otherwise, for the near future?

HN: I am going to finish out the CD release tour which extends through out 2013. And then we will see. I’m 63. I have been singing in public since I was 8 and professionally since my late teens. I may keep doing this work or I may discover other things I would like to do. This is an amazing planet. I try to remain open.

I must say that it has been great fun taking a band on the road this time around. I have often traveled with a pianist, almost more cabaret in style than folk. Now I have piano, bass, drums and support vocals. I love this band. Each of them is a stellar player and they are so personally supportive of me and my work. They are adept playing jazz, folk, pop and theatrical music. As I move through styles, they are right there. Each of them played on the new CD.

JM: Do you want to set the record straight on anything about your life or career?

HN: Of course. But those kind of reflections probably belong in a book. When we work with such complexity, there is always misunderstanding. Looking back would require some real thought and no short answers. In general, I have been so surprised by my life. And it keeps being surprising. A few years ago I was nominated with 1000 women from around the world for The Nobel Peace Prize. That was definitely not something I saw coming.

And working on the new CD which actually turned out to be two CDs was very rewarding. Instruments age. So I didn’t really know how it would turn out. To my great pleasure, my voice sounds woody and rich and has a maturity that I like. I think I sang very well and at my age, that is a delightful achievement.

JM: What are your plans for Thanksgiving?

HN: Not a big holiday for me. I will probably keep it simple. I always take some time to think about how this world would have been different if our European ancestors had not felt the need to commit genocide. Of course, there were some who were respectful and grateful to their new friends. But I think it is worth remembering the millions of people dead, land destroyed, rituals stolen. And the wars that are going on daily in our lives now. Our animal has the capacity to be so beautiful and so horrific. I find that astounding. It is a kind of practice to stay leaning towards the beautiful. I am not sure it come naturally to our species. It requires vigilance.

My daily mantra goes something like this, “This is the only planet we know of that has life on it like this and we get to be here. Greet the day. Make meaningful choices. Take time to live from a place of fascination rather than fear. Offer support and love to a child or young person. Let go of a resentment. Honor simplicity. Assume everyone has a worthy story….” And it goes on and on. But I find it helpful when I get all caught up in the muck of it all to remember that it is only because of the gift of gravity that we are not all flying off into the universe. And that makes me smile.

JM: Where are you responding from?

HN: I’m currently up in Sebastopol, Ca.


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