by James Barker, Senior Writer
Just one listen to the growl and rasp of Jett Holden’s remarkable voice is enough to know that he is a major talent. His cover videos on YouTube, which range between everyone from Brandi Carlile and Tracy Chapman to Britney Spears and the Spice Girls, illustrate this perfectly. After playing last month’s AmericanaFest and the release of his first full EP Necromancer, it’s time for a more in-depth look at this rising star from the “Southern Gothic side of country music.”
Based in Tennessee, Holden grew up in a musical family and has been making music and writing for years. Posting “Taxidermy” online earlier this year brought him to wider attention after previously facing industry barriers from people who saw his talent, but passed him over for being “too big a risk” to sign — another example of the music industry’s failings in intersectionality, and a reflection on the legacies of racism and homophobia at its core. Now, in 2021, it’s Jett Holden’s long-overdue time.
In just three songs, Necromancer shows us the accomplished artist that Holden is — from the power of “Taxidermy,” which shows both his political astuteness and ability to craft an affecting song, to the more subtle storytelling of the title track, which showcases the beauty of his tone. Throughout, Holden demonstrates a unique lyricism both in the writing and in his vocal interpretation of his songs.
After hearing the EP I wanted to know more about Holden’s music, how he sees the current state of country music, and what I was most excited to hear more of: his voice.
I’m really enjoying the new EP and its title track ‘Necromancer’, could you please say a little about the story behind this song?
“Necromancer” was a song I wrote about letting go of an on-again, off-again relationship. I got the idea for it when a friend of mine tried to end a relationship with his boyfriend. He explained that his partner was dead to him, but they still tried to reach out to him through social media after their phone number was blocked. My friend responded with, “I wasn’t aware dead people could speak!” From that, I carved out the bridge of the song, then flushed out the rest of it.
On your Twitter profile, you describe yourself as “writing the songs I wish I had growing up.” Can you say a bit more about what you are hoping listeners get from your songs?
I grew up in a Jehovah’s Witness family. My grandfather was an elder, and a lot of my youth was shaped by that faith. So when I realized I was gay, I went through a lot of turmoil reconciling my beliefs with my identity. It was a very lonely experience. I hope my music speaks to those who feel silenced by their religions, their families, or their communities. Hopefully, it helps them feel less alone.
I have to ask you about your voice. It’s extraordinary. Has singing been something you’ve always done? What role has singing had in your life?
I started singing in choirs starting in the 5th grade, but I fell in love with music because of artists like Tracy Chapman, Garth Brooks, and Damien Rice. I didn’t feel like a lot of popular music was for my voice, though. So I started listening to and watching videos of my favorite singers and bands, and learned their techniques. I learned how to growl and rasp by listening to Chris Stapleton. I learned how to yodel by watching Patsy Cline sing “Lovesick Blues”. I learned to play the guitar by finger picking along with India Arie and Tracy Chapman. Then I took my favorite aspects of these various influences and Frankensteined them together to create my own sound.
How would you describe your music, are there any artists past or present that have particularly influenced you?
I would consider my style as closest to the Southern Gothic side of country music. “The Thunder Rolls” by Garth Brooks was one of the first songs that imprinted on me stylistically. From there, I ventured into the darker side of music. Jim Croce’s “Time in a Bottle”, The Civil Wars’ “Barton Hollow”, Seal’s “Kiss From a Rose.” I fell in love with their fingerpicked tracks, lamenting melodies, and abstract storytelling styles.
I wanted to ask about your covers, and I love your Spice Girls cover on the EP. What do you set out to do when you interpret other people’s songs? Are there any particular songs or kinds of songs you especially like to cover?
When it comes to covering a song, I look to the lyrics first. I can manipulate a melody to fit me, but the stories are my favorite part. “Hey Ya” by Outkast has a line that gets me all the time despite its upbeat tempo. “Nothing lasts forever. What makes love the exception? Why are we so in denial when we know we’re not happy here?” Beyond that, I like to go for the unexpected. Sometimes I just have friends recommend cover challenges. That’s how the Spice Girls cover came to be. My friend Holly suggested it.
In “Taxidermy” you sang about Black Lives Matter and conveyed so powerfully the importance of seeing the humanity behind causes people post about. What’s your perspective on the different work and communities that are forming in and around country music (with things like AmericanaFest) right now supporting queer and BIPOC artists?
“Taxidermy” came out of a frustration with the lack of action to rectify what was happening in our nation in regard to police brutality and racism in our nation. It was seen beyond Black lives, however. Asian hate crimes have risen. LGBTQ people were experiencing their own injustices as well. And women continue to go underrepresented. It was beginning to feel like we were being told that the solutions we were being offered were to just get over it. To comply with authority until they decide that we’re actually free or equal.
It’s been a frustrating journey in this industry because a lot of the hate and discrimination has been swept under the rug. The support from the Americana community has been refreshing, though. There were several panels at AmericanaFest this year exploring the experiences of BIPOC and LGBTQ members of the industry, and the changes needed. Artists like Brandi Carlie, Allison Russell, Amythyst Kish, and so many others are finally being recognized. I just hope country music as a whole continues in their steps.
How has this year been for you with more people discovering your music?
This has been a wild six months. It feels like I’ve made more strides in this short time than I did in the 13 years prior combined. A large part of that is the team I work with, who have had my back the entire time. And it also has a lot to do with BIPOC and queer artists coming together to make these strides in Americana and Country. We’ve discovered so much community in 2021, and being able to show that our numbers are disproportionate to what the industry has shown thus far has only bolstered us. It allows us to show that not only do we exist, but we’re talented and deserving as well.
What’s next for you and what are your plans for the next year or so?
Since AmericanaFest, I have been able to line up some shows. I am also planning to record and release my full debut album within the next year. At the rate things are moving at the moment, I have no idea where things might end up in a year, and that’s exciting. I’m just seeing where things lead and taking opportunities as they come.
Is there anything else you would like to mention to our readers?
No matter how unfeasible the endeavor seems, there’s hope. I’m a gay, Black man in country music, and I’m beginning to make strides. The reason for that is that I and the BIPOC and LGBTQ artists I’ve met over the last year are standing beside each other. Black Opry and Country Queer are two organizations I’m working with that I would recommend reaching out to. You’re not alone. And there’s room for more than one of us.
Necromancer is available now on all platforms.
Senior Writer James Barker is a PhD student at Newcastle University UK, currently writing a thesis on Dolly Parton. He wants academic work to be engaging and accessible to everyone and to have a real impact on the ground, not least changing country music to be more inclusive. Contact James at email@example.com.