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Singer Sony Holland

Interviewed by Fred Wasser
(August 22, 2008)


Photo by Terry Dudley
Sony Holland, with Charles McNeal, at Yoshi's jazz club in Oakland, California.

Singer Sony Holland turned her attention to the American Popular Songbook about eight years ago. Since then she’s worked tenaciously at embracing the genre and developing her own style. Originally from Pelican Rapids, Minnesota, she’s lived in an eclectic mix of places—Rhode Island, North Dakota, Denver, Paris, Nashville—in pursuit of a life in music. She now lives in San Francisco, a city she loves.

Sony’s latest recording is Swing, Bossas, Ballads & Blues (Van Ness Records, 2008). The album contains popular standards such as  “Here’s That Rainy Day,”  “Midnight Sun,” and “My Funny Valentine” as well as “new standards” like Paul Simon’s “Fifty Ways to Leave Your Lover” and Ewan MacColl’s “The First Time Ever I Saw Your Face.”

Half the songs on the recording are original tunes by her husband, composer-guitarist Jerry Holland. One of Jerry Holland’s compositions, “You’re the Best” is an homage to Cole Porter’s 1934 song, “You’re The Top,” but without the happy ending:



You’re the best, you’re Madonna,
You’re Dolce & Gabanna.
You told me that when love was new.
You said I was stellar
As a dish cooked by Keller.
And I ate it up as if
Every word were true.


Read the complete lyrics to Jerry Holland's “You're the Best.”

Read a portion of the lyrics to Cole Porter’s “You’re The Top.”

Listen to Sony Holland singing “You’re The Best” (MP3).


Do you play any musical instruments? Other than your voice, that is.
I can play the piano. I don’t accompany myself. I used to when I was a little bit younger. I won a couple of talent contests while singing and accompanying myself. But I’d rather be out front. I never learned music theory. I was too young to care about chord progression. I can plunk out a few things. But I didn’t pursue that.

Your mom.  She was a musician, right?
My mom was a trained coloratura. And she taught piano and voice in her home privately for quite a number of years. And she directed the church choir for years.

Was she any kind of a model for you?
She was definitely my first musical influence. And there was always music in the house. And I have a twin sister and—

No. Fraternal. We always shared a room growing up. And I was always  sort of a night owl. And my folks would either have to leave the radio on in my room and turn it off when they went to bed because honestly I couldn’t go to sleep. Or, I’d ask my mom to sing me to sleep. I had to have music on to go to sleep. I don’t anymore!

What kind of music was that?
I just listened to radio. I listened to rock. Whatever the popular stuff was. But then I listened to my mom and dad’s records. What did they have? They had Barbra Streisand, Johnny Mathis. Those are a couple of their favorites - in turn, two big influences for me when I was growing up.

Photo by Terry Dudley
Sony and Jerry Holland

Your husband, Jerry Holland, has written many of the songs on your current recording. The songs have an autobiographical tinge to them. Do you collaborate with Jerry? Do you discuss the songs as he’s writing?
The songwriting is a totally separate creative effort on his part. He doesn’t want me to have anything to do with his material (laughs). He likes to do it on his own. In fact, if he’s working on a lyric and I happen to pass through the room and the lyric is up on the computer, he covers it up with his hand. “You can’t see this yet!” I don’t suggest anything. I usually like what he’s written. There have been maybe a couple of the songs he’s written for me out of 50 tunes he’s written for me that I don’t perform because they’re just not for me.

Why doesn’t he want your creative input on the writing?
He’s kind of a solo guy. When he was in Nashville [as a songwriter], the political thing to do – the politically correct thing to do in Nashville – was to co-write. But he’s just not into that.

You want the songs you sing to be become your songs. How do you do that?
The thing I’ve learned is that to make something my own, it really helps to have the original song. Because everybody has recorded these other tunes. And it’s just being able to sing them as much as you possibly can. I’ve had three extensive trips over to Asia where I’ve stayed in residence at different hotels. There was one in Tokyo.  There was one in Bangkok. And there was one in Hong Kong.  And I was there for three months at a time and I would work with the house band at the hotels. We were there for six nights a week. And just being able to sing that often helps you develop your own style. The other thing that helped me considerably was when we moved out here [to San Francisco] six years ago I started singing on the street down at Fisherman’s Wharf. They have a certain spot for musicians down at Pier 39.

In a situation like that, you sell your CDs?
Yes. I'd sell CDs and people can throw in tips, too. That was a huge help for me to be able to sing that often. I was also doing the same thing at Ghirardelli Square. So I was singing at least 15 days every month.  And that’s how I was earning money. Now, I’m doing so many other different things.

You’ve had the discipline to sing perhaps even when no one was listening.

Where did you get that discipline? What keeps that alive?
I’m stubborn by nature. So when I want something I’ll just continue to work at it. I guess it’s just the drive to be successful at what I’d really like to do. I’ve done the office secretary thing. Receptionist. That just wasn’t going to cut it for me. I went to one year of college, but I don’t have a degree in anything to fall back on.

Is there a particular song that’s sung by someone else – a particular song that you like to listen to - that gives you inspiration?
One of my favorite CDs is “Perfectly Frank.”

Tony Bennett. (Tony Bennett with The Ralph Sharon Trio, Perfectly Frank: The Torch and Saloon Songs of Sinatra/Columbia, 1992)
Yes. I really love “Time After Time” and “I’ll Be Seeing You.” I know there’s always a time and a place to do a song. I started singing “I’ll Be Seeing You” back in Nashville. I kind of dropped it for awhile and I really don’t know why. But now that my chops are more up to speed, I’m loving singing that song. And I’m singing it with my husband. We actually have a duo. We work together. [Sony and Jerry Holland perform together as the duo, Dos Hollands.]

The process of making these songs your own.  Is it sort of what an actor does making a role their own?
I would say it’s got to be somewhat similar. What I did when I first started singing is I listened to everybody from Tony Bennett to Sarah Vaughan to Ella to Peggy Lee. To all of the great, great voices. You can see them progress from their early recordings to their later ones. Your phrasing changes. Experience helps you make the songs your own. It’s life experience and singing those songs over and over.

Are you a big Sinatra fan?
 I like Sinatra. I wouldn’t say I’m a huge fan. I’m more of a Tony Bennett fan.

What’s the difference between the two of them?
For me, I don’t love the big band thing because it takes away from the vocalist. The Bennett stuff that I like is Bennett with a trio or a quartet. More intimate.



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