Holly Bowling Channels the Dead Across America

Photo Credit: Jefferey Bowling

It’s hard to imagine the unstructured, genre-spanning ecstasy of the Grateful Dead translating well to solo piano. But if anyone was going to do it, it’s San Francisco-based Holly Bowling. Bowling, who started playing piano at age five, remembers a childhood steeped in equal parts jam bands and legendary composers. “My parents brought me up listening to the Dead and Little Feat, a bunch of stuff like that. They also had Mozart, Beethoven, Chopin, Debussy, all kinds of classical music. I have this weird dichotomy,” she says.

This dichotomy stayed with her through college, where she majored in piano performance but ducked out of class to catch Phish shows. Bowling still uses the meticulous arranging skills from her classical pedagogy, now counterbalanced with a love of improvisations. She now has two full-length records of Grateful Dead adaptations, 2016’s Better Left Unsung and a release forthcoming this fall, Seeking All That’s Still Unsung. Recently, the pianist embarked on the Wilderness Sessions, a cross-country tour featuring outdoor locations from Yosemite to Utah’s salt flats to the Badlands, bringing the Dead to life at every stop.

As Bowling grew into adulthood and began playing the band’s music, she felt her appreciation for their range and spontaneity deepen. “It’s a huge catalog that spans a lot of years. There’s a raw element to the early stuff that I absolutely love, along with the really delicate beauty of the Garcia/Hunter ballads. I also just love the spirit that band had from day one, never doing the same thing the same way twice,” says Bowling, who also released Distillation of a Dream, an album of Phish covers, in 2013.

“The music that feels the most like me is when I take the techniques I learned in classical music and apply them to improvisational music,” the composer says. “I will spend hours creating charts for where the vocals would be. I’m meticulous about that. I think about how I can best give a song an arc when I rip the story away from it. The flip side of that is that there’s usually a launching off point in the song where I go from the stuff that’s extremely scripted and then it shifts to ‘I have no idea what’s going to happen next.’” Listening to her music, it’s not always easy to tell what was planned and what arose in the moment.

Bowling’s first album of Grateful Dead Covers, Better Left Unsung, was recorded live, where many of her adaptations found their genesis. Taking Seeking All That’s Still Unsung into the studio meant losing the energy of the crowd—a feat she’d replicate during the COVID-inspired Wilderness Sessions tour. Fortunately, the pianist loves a challenge. She considered what she could do in a studio that wouldn’t be possible live. “I experimented with overdubbing myself playing to respond to myself. I was inspired by the Bill Evans album Conversations with Myself,” Bowling says, referring to a landmark 1963 jazz album. On Seeking All That’s Still Unsung, Bowling blends romantic arpeggios, jazzy syncopation, and jubilant pop—often within the same song. Her renditions are masterful and accessible enough that Deadheads and neophytes alike will take pleasure in the songs’ complex unfolding.

Photo Credit: Jefferey Bowling

Just as Bowling made the most of the recording environment, she’s learned to appreciate the variety of obstacles she’s encountered during the aptly-named Wilderness Sessions. While planning the tour, she thought about how to incorporate diversity with just the right amount of adventure. “We wanted to pick things that were varied, not sets that were all on mountaintops. We also wanted a balance of the familiar and unknown,” she explains. “Yosemite is close to my heart and close to where I live. It’s familiar and it’s amazing, but it didn’t have the feeling of pushing me out of the edge. Some of the other sites I’d never been to and didn’t know what to expect until the sun came up. That feeling plays into how the music goes.”

In the performance from Lake Tahoe, Bowling looks perfectly relaxed. She sits at her keyboard in flip flops and sunglasses, her dog at her feet while the expanse of the Sierra Nevadas and the lake itself sprawl behind her. Channeling her surroundings into her performance, she’s clearly in her own flow state. “Once I started working with the place instead of against it, the whole thing got much more fun,” she says, noting that the curveballs at her concerts are quite different from playing “when you’re on the edge of a canyon and sand is smashing into your face!”

Playing shows at outdoor locations Bowling had never visited has proven to be the ultimate test of planning meeting uncertainty, especially when she played at the Utah Salt Flats. “It’s crazy hot so we wanted to do it at sunrise, so we went out there at 3:30 AM. Driving out there, there’s no one there, it’s crazy windy, no signs of life. I’ve never seen a darkness like that. We almost didn’t do it,” the pianist says. “We did it and it was just incredible. It felt like it was an example of the place working into my playing. The wind was playing the strings on the little harp I have on top of my keyboard. Part of the point of this was to find inspiration elsewhere since I was missing the exchange between audience and performer, and missing the adventure of being out on the road. The salt flats were the perfect example of what I wanted coming to fruition.”

As Bowling makes her way back across the country, she’ll be bringing plenty of Grateful Dead songs with her. But, like her favorite band, she’ll never play these songs the same way twice. And, even if she wanted to, the wind and sand wouldn’t allow it anyway.

Follow Holly Bowling on Facebook for ongoing updates and check out the remaining dates of her Wilderness Sessions Tour below.

9/24 – Bruneau Canyon, Idaho
10/1 – Beartooth Mountains, Wyoming
10/8 – Badlands, South Dakota

How Molly Tuttle Made Her Quarantine Comfort Songs Personal on New Cover Album

Photo Credit: Zach Pigg

Even after its release, a song is never finished. It morphs over time as each listener overlays their own interpretation based on the circumstances around them. It takes on new meanings throughout different points in history. Nashville-based singer/songwriter/guitarist Molly Tuttle decided to embrace this fact by reimagining music by a wide variety of artists on her cover album, …but i’d rather be with you.

Tuttle grew inspired to create a cover album when listening to music helped her navigate anxiety around the Coronavirus pandemic. “Once we were social distancing and staying home, I kept going back to these songs that meant a lot to me,” she recalls. “It was just a way to keep inspired during quarantine. It was a struggle for me at first because I love playing shows with people, but this was a great outlet to play music remotely.”

Her producer, Tony Berg, suggested she record covers and send them to him, then he sent them to guest contributors to add their own music. She selected several songs she’d already covered during live shows, plus additional ones that had special meanings for her.

The Grateful Dead’s “Standing on the Moon,” which she sings soulfully against mellow acoustic guitar, reminds her of her childhood in Palo Alto, CA. FKA Twigs’ “Mirrored Heart” expresses the sense of disconnection she felt from a partner during a rough breakup, and “How Can I Tell You?” by Cat Stevens comforted her during college when she found out her family dog died. In the latter, she sings “Wherever I am, girl, I’m always walking with you, but I look and you’re not there” against emotive cello, evoking the heartbreak of losing a loved one. “Maybe he wrote it about a romantic love, but for me, it was this pure love you can’t really put into words about someone, whether they’re an animal or a person,” she says.

Her triumphant, mystical rendition of The Rolling Stones’ “She’s a Rainbow” is a highlight of the album, with guitar that gives it a psychedelic rock vibe It also took on a new meaning in this recording; regardless of the band’s original intentions, her goal was to celebrate femininity and inclusiveness. “It just reminded me of being at a pride parade or somewhere that was really celebrating all different types of people,” she says. “Songs like that had a really personal meaning to me that maybe felt separate from what the original version was saying or just kind of felt like my own interpretation of the song.”

But perhaps the song she most made her own is “Fake Empire” by The National. In the cover, warped, discordant synths cut into a steady, repetitive guitar track, mimicking the picture the song paints of people “half-awake in a fake empire,” going about their daily business while chaos ensues around them. This image spoke to Tuttle while she was working on the album, as #BlackLivesMatter protests were breaking out.

“People who have the privilege to ignore things going on in our country like police brutality and mass incarceration, people who have been able to ignore it because it doesn’t directly affect their lives, are starting to wake up to it,” she says. In the video for the cover, she used footage from ’50s and ’60s political protests, performing in front of a green screen. “I used other dreamy footage of stars to kind of give it this dream-like quality to go with the lyrics,” she explains.

The album also includes a country version of Rancid’s “Olympia, WA”; a charming, poppy rendition of Arthur Russell’s “A Little Lost,” where Tuttle’s angelic voice captures the wistfulness of new love; and a soft, acoustic version of The Yeah Yeah Yeahs’ “Zero.” She recorded and engineered her parts herself at home, which forced her to improve her production skills.

“I was used to having engineers do a lot of everything, and making all those calls on my own and doing tempos and arrangement, that was really kind of draining to do it that way,” she says. “But at the same time, in my room, I could do everything I wanted. I could turn out the lights and light some candles and feel free to sing how I felt like singing, without a bunch of people in the control room, listening and analyzing different takes. It was actually very freeing to record myself.”

Tuttle grew up learning to play bluegrass from her music teacher father, then began songwriting as a teenager and went to college for music before launching her career. She’s gained particular recognition for her flatpicking guitar technique, becoming the first woman ever to win two consecutive “Guitar Player of the Year” International Bluegrass Music Awards.

…but i’d rather be with you is her fourth solo album, and she’s currently working on another, this time full of her own original songs. “I’m trying to write songs from a really personal place for this next album and just speak to experiences I had that feel unique to me,” she says. “I’m always trying to dig deeper with my writing.”

Follow Molly Tuttle on Facebook for ongoing updates.

HIGH NOTES: 7 Songs About Cocaine That Will Make It Hard to Feel Your Face

When you think of sex, drugs, and rock and roll, cocaine is probably at least one of the drugs you think of. Celebrities, musicians included, have a reputation for snorting coke at their Hollywood parties, as well as in their daily lives — and they’re not afraid to sing about it. Here are some of the most notable cocaine references in music, both obscured and obvious.

“Can’t Feel My Face” by The Weeknd

This one falls into the “obvious” category. If you’ve ever done coke, you probably don’t need me to explain the meaning of this song. It’s right in the title: The Weeknd has ingested so much cocaine that he has lost sensation in his face. Indeed, the drug’s numbing properties are so significant, medical professionals have used it as an anesthetic. Still, “Can’t Feel My Face” can also be interpreted as a love song about numbing yourself to the pain of heartbreak, with lyrics like, “And I know she’ll be the death of me, at least we’ll both be numb.” Perhaps he is literally using cocaine to forget about the pain this relationship has caused him, because it numbs him emotionally as well. Deep stuff here.

“Casey Jones” by The Grateful Dead

This song describes famous railroad engineer Casey Jones “driving that train high on cocaine,” although there’s no evidence that he actually used cocaine during his fatal crash. Nevertheless, cocaine was a major influence behind the music. “I always thought it’s a pretty good musical picture of what cocaine is like,” Jerry Garcia said of the song in an interview for the book Garcia: A Signpost to New Space. “A little bit evil. And hard-edged. And also that sing-songy thing, because that’s what it is, a sing-songy thing, a little melody that gets in your head.”

“The White Lady Loves You More” by Elliott Smith

With lyrics about a loved one ditching the narrator for cocaine, this track is as depressing as you’d expect from Elliott Smith. Some have speculated that the “white lady” is actually heroin, as Smith’s addiction to heroin is extensively documented. Either way, it gives a raw and emotional account of what it’s like to be in a relationship with someone addicted to drugs.

“The Girl You Lost to Cocaine” by Sia

Sia shows the other side of being in a relationship with a coke addict by singing about leaving a partner who can’t get their shit together as the drug takes over their life. Gigwise called it a “strong, confident, infectiously melodic and immensely hummable romp through the highs and lows of Sia’s unique character and upbeat independence.”

“This Cocaine Makes Me Feel Like I’m On This Song” by System of a Down

This song doesn’t actually mention cocaine, though it implies it in lines like “we’re crying for our next fix,” interspersed between nonsense lyrics like “Gonorrhea gorgonzola” — perhaps the way one would talk on coke, with their thoughts racing haphazardly from word to word? The title reverses a common narrative about music making you feel like you’re on drugs, potentially conveying how high the band gets off music itself.

“Coke Babies” by Radiohead

These lyrics are so cryptic, it’s hard to say if the song is really about coke: “Easy living, easy hold / Easy teething, easy fold / Easy listening, easy love / Easy answers to easy questions / Easy tumble, easy doll / Easy rumble, easy fall / I get up on easy love / I get up on easy questions.” That’s it. For all we know, it’s about Coca-Cola. Reddit seems to agree that the meaning is a mystery, but it’s nevertheless one of the band’s most haunting and underrated songs, released as a b-side to the 1993 Pablo Honey single “Anyone Can Play Guitar.”

“Master of Puppets” by Metallica

This brutal depiction of drug addiction seems to be written from the perspective of the coke itself, with lyrics like “Taste me you will see / More is all you need” and “I’m pulling your strings / Twisting your mind and smashing your dreams.” It could be any addictive drug, though lines like “chop your breakfast on a mirror” suggest that it is, in fact, about cocaine.