Singer/songwriter and Jackson native Claire Holley circles back to the familiar terrain of hymns with her new release, with decades of experience, and experiences, to enrich and deepen the results.
Her new “Every Hour” revisits the genre 20 years after the release of “Sanctuary,” her hymn-centric second CD inspired by a suggestion from her dad. In the intervening years, she’s had two sons, lost both parents and grown as an artist.
“I call it a looking back,” she says, likening the 20th anniversary followup a bit to Neil Young’s “Harvest Moon” return from “Harvest,” 20 years down the road.
Holley, now of Los Angeles, shares those hymns with a hometown crowd in a free public performance at Northminster Baptist Church in Jackson, 5:30 p.m. July 14.
“Every Hour” is co-produced by John Plymale, just as “Sanctuary” was; guitarist Rob Seals also played on both. The new CD is a diverse, inspired and fresh collection that includes a fourth century carol, Southern gospel, a Beach Boys cover and a children’s tune, as well as Holley’s own song about a Bible character, and her music on another hymn.
Recorded at the Texas Hill Country retreat Laity Lodge last November (with additional guest musicians back in L.A.), “Every Hour” also includes input from her sons, Jack and Nate, and her husband, Chad. “Having the family involved felt like another common thread,” says Holley, whose father, Knox Chamblin, sang on “Sanctuary.”
“He loved hymns. Both of my parents loved hymns and hymns were the way that I started to really enjoy music,” she says, listening in church and hearing her dad’s tenor line. Chamblin taught at Belhaven College (now Belhaven University) and was a professor at Reformed Theological Seminary. “Hymns were part of his morning routine, of what some might call mindfulness and other people would call a quiet time.”
Back in 1997, Chamblin nudged her to consider the hymn route for her sophomore release. They were in a church parking lot, right after she’d sung one in a cousin’s wedding. At that point, aside from a cassette in college, she’d only put one record out in the world. “I thought, well, hold on. I’m not a gospel singer. Yes, I am a person of faith, but I don’t want to be labeled as a gospel singer. … I said to him, ‘Dad, sure. Would you pay for it?’” She laughs merrily at the memory. “Seriously, I said that. He gave me that professorial look of like, ‘I’m going to have to think about that.’” He did. And, he funded it.
This time, she turned to crowdsourcing. “I got my courageous hat on. Actually, my fundraising hat — how do I raise $15,000?” She got advice and took the plunge. “I was scared to death. What if I don’t make it? … I did it anyway.” Her effort exceeded the goal, with buy-in from more than 150 people.
Holley, whose “Every Hour” tour reaches a variety of venues, doesn’t see much difference between performing in a bar or a church. “People are bringing struggles to both. I like to think I’m not really singing differently. … I think Johnny Cash would say the same thing. He’s an inspiration, in that when he sings a hymn, you kind of believe it.”
In Holley’s hands and voice, the hymns ring clear and sincere. For recording “Every Hour,” producer Plymale turned the Laity Lodge’s Cody Center into a makeshift sound room/studio, improvising with yoga mats and hymnbooks to isolate each player a bit, yet keep the all-together-in-the-room feel. “Guerrilla recording,” he calls it. “That makes it quite an adventure.” It was a good fit, too, for inspiration and focus to come together, and for the project’s spiritual theme — “a close to nature, close to Earth, close to God and spirit kind of location,” Plymale says, “the kind of place that definitely makes you feel a bit connected to something bigger and enlightened.”
Holley’s eclectic hymn selection satisfies an urge for a record “to interest me … to have dynamic range.” “I Am a Promise,” from a Bill Gaither Trio record from her childhood, popped into her head while at lunch with a friend, just weeks before recording. “I don’t know where it came from, if it was some divine nudge, but it came to me. … It makes me smile,” she said.
Holley also asked around for suggestions. That’s how “Of the Father’s Love Begotten” surfaced. In “Begotten,” ancient monks’ chants are updated to loops, musician Dan Phelps’ percussion includes spoons and forks and Holley tools around with some spontaneous scat singing at the end — all captured in a behind-the-scenes video as well as on the release.
The Beach Boys’ “You Still Believe in Me” is one of two she’d fallen in love with from the “Pet Sounds” album. “What would it sound like to put a teenage love song in the context of a gospel record, and produce it slightly differently — would it be heard in another way? Like, ‘Lord, you still believe in me even though I mess up?’”
Holley lost her father in 2012, and her mother, Ginger, in 2013. While it feels odd to not have them here as “Every Hour” comes out, she says, their presence is felt. “They really helped me to be able to do this. I really believe that. That’s part of the reason that I’m doing this, because of their encouragement. … That starts really young, making you feel like you have the courage to try something, something creative and go out on a limb.” She still has plenty of close ties in the state, with her sister, Beverly Harmon, in Jackson, husband’s parents in Oxford, and extended family. Her musical collaborations include Jackson projects — celebrating Eudora Welty’s 100th and a live show with Ballet Mississippi — as well as work with filmmakers and more on the West Coast.
Her father, she thinks, would be elated that she recorded more hymns, she says, noting they were always “hugely supportive” of her endeavors. And, even if this collection of sacred songs might take a little more getting used to than the bluegrass/folk realm of “Sanctuary,” “my Dad could definitely surprise me,” Holley said.