MUSIC | Swingin’ singer Sony Holland: Subtle to the supreme


Local lady makes good, hitting the big time in L.A. That’s Sony Holland, born hereabouts in Pelican Rapids. She has a wonderful CD, Out of This World, and has played heavyweight hot spots like the Blue Note (NYC), major festivals, and done a lot of touring, especially in Asia. And she now works—quite successfully, thank you—out of Los Angeles. She’s back in her home state this weekend for a Sunday gig at the Dakota.

None of that is the best part, however. It’s one thing to do swing. One very good thing, of course, for folk who dig the genre. Sony Holland, though, is the caliber of artist who could bring it back into fashion. Don’t laugh at the prospect of such sounds making a return to the big market. What, after all, do you think Blood, Sweat, and Tears were?

Anyway, point is, vocalist-songsmith Sony Holland is profoundly gifted. Fluid phrasing, naturally, is a requisite for the style of music that made Sarah Vaughn and Johnny Hartman famous. Holland begins at smooth, then intrigues. She is subtle to the supreme. That’s her calling card, and cut after cut on her debut album Out of This World sustains her mastery of the artform. She takes splendid turns on the classics like “Old Devil Moon,” “I’ve Got You Under My Skin,” and “Skylark.” Added to which, she writes as beautifully as she sings. Her originals “It’s An Understatement,” “I’ll Lead The Way,” and “By The Sea” (she also did the arrangement for “By The Sea”) are faithful to the craft and showcase a fascinating hand all its own.

Your songwriting is exceptional. Who are your main influences?
I’d love to take credit for the songwriting, but the songwriter in the family is my husband, Jerry Holland. Jerry gets inspired by many things, but a lot of his inspiration comes from our daily lives. For instance “It’s An Understatement” was written for me while I was performing in Asia for three months. The lyric in the second verse is specifically about that. “I’ll Lead The Way” was written…because I can be a tiny bit bossy. Did I say that!? “By The Sea” is about Carmel, California, where I play three or four times a year. Jerry is originally from New York. He was a songwriter in Nashville when we met. We both were yearning for sophisticated music.

How much of the arranging do you do?
I’m learning what works well for me, so in the case when I’m working with an arranger, I generally have a lot of input. I’ve been paying lots of attention to other people’s tracks to find out why they work. The right arrangement is every bit as important as a good song, a good singer, and a good band. It took me a long time to understand that. In fact, some mediocre singers make great records while some great singers miss the mark.

What do you look for in backup musicians?
Not all great musicians are good accompanists. I’m drawn to players who have a strong sense of the entire song, which includes both the melody and the lyric. Some players can support the melody and weave in and out of the changes without stepping on my vocal. That’s heavenly.

Who are your vocal influences?
I’ve got so many great singers in my CD collection. I’ve been lucky to see two of my favorite singers in concert recently, Nancy Wilson and Tony Bennett. I recently heard Ernie Andrews, who is based in Los Angeles. At 80, he has so much charisma—not to mention his chops which are out-of-this-world good. He could easily have been well-known.

You’ve segued to what you describe as a “broader” repertoire. What inspired that?
Many jazz singers are trying to liven up the genre by bringing in new material, whether it’s original or something from Motown or the singer-songwriter era. Some of it works in a “jazz” setting and some of it doesn’t, so there’s going to be some trial and error. Bringing new tunes to the table is important because no one is going to top Sarah Vaughan’s versions of the classics. Every singer needs a style and a song of his or her own to be identified by. This may be something new or something he or she does well and different from anyone else.

How is to be back?
Let’s start by saying how excited I am to [come] back to Minnesota, even if it is brief. I’ve heard that the scene in Minneapolis is thriving. And I’ve put together a solid trio of Twin Cities musicians for my date at the Dakota.

What’s next? When will there be a new CD?
For my next project I plan on putting a lot more time into pre-production. I’m also going over a wide variety of material. I am waiting to get a feel for what goes over best in concert. I’d love to record within six months to a year. Vocalists used to record one, two albums per year when record companies were picking up the tab. Things are much different now, with us independents doing most things solo. Believe me, if I could record once [a] year I’d be doing it.

Dwight Hobbes is a writer based in the Twin Cities. He contributes regularly to the Daily Planet.

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