Holcombe Waller
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Holcombe Waller

Portland, Oregon, United States | INDIE

Portland, Oregon, United States | INDIE
Band Folk Singer/Songwriter

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A question: Who is Holcombe Waller?

1. Holcombe Waller is a singer.

And he sings with a voice that initially recalls the modern times folk register of our men of the Pacific Northwest (Colin Meloy, Ben Gibbard, and especially Jon Auer), similarities that hold until Waller’s scary commitment makes you question the aptitude of comparing voices. A singer uses the voice he was given; a brave one lets it rattle all the atoms in his body, giving their echoed image to the listener. Those other men are mere musicians (great ones); Waller was born cursed to sing his way through this world.

2. Holcombe Waller is other people.

The curse persists on Into the Dark Unknown, a new collection of twelve songs culled from a theatrical folk concert first staged in 2009. But the songs, all interiority and bed-ridden body-pondering, rarely suggest a dramatic component, and cohere without it, although the interiority does often seem to belong to characters and not specifically to Waller, as he throws his first-person into nearby ghostly vessels. “Atlas” opens the album in a mode of character sketch—“he’s going back on the drugs,” we learn, while the controlled shakiness of Waller’s voice tells us what that means—but it doesn’t set the pace; elsewhere the songs are so thoroughly stripped down to the physical that the subjects could be anyone.

3. Holcombe Waller is heartbreakingly human.

Muddled in the plans
To be a woman or a man

“Shallow” opens with these words, but throughout the album, Waller overcomes the muddle without sacrificing either option. He accesses the rolling, shifting rhythms of Tori Amos on “The Unicorn,” most eerily at the moment the vocal melody almost interrupts itself with a series of quickening, rising notes that are also the sound of falling, laid atop lulling, sleepless piano. At other times the album proves a perfect companion, or flipside, to the matrimonial bliss of Patrick Wolf’s new Lupercalia, the lonely, naked R&B of How to Dress Well’s Love Remains (“my body’s waiting…”), and The Hidden Cameras’ symphonies of male bodies. Sometimes all three (and their dominant qualities of love, loneliness and lust, respectively) register at once, when a song’s emotional space extends all the way to the farthest reaches of skin in the narrator’s vision, when both solace and solitude are found in the proximity of a lover. The imagery is non-theatrical, except in the sense that it’s so tightly bounded: Waller sings about being the “soft curve in your hard line,” tells of “your bushes and your trees” and, pronouns shifted, “your heart impaled upon his horn.”

4. Holcombe Waller is singularly himself.

Given the closeness of this field of vision, Into the Dark Unknown is necessarily a hushed affair, though between its emotional content, the ambition of its narrative subtlety, its intricate arrangements and the big, big project of a man making his voice a monument (not to mention the absent stage that is the setting for all of this), you might say it’s a startlingly large production. As if in proof, it breaks its silence: a cover of Buffy Sainte-Marie’s “Qu’Appelle Valley, Saskatchewan” opens with earth-stomping dance and a burst of vocal energy, but it’s uncanny the way Waller eventually wraps the starkly contrasting music he finds there, in Qu’Appelle Valley or in the work of Sainte-Marie, into his own version of a song, viewed from the same quiet angle. It’s beautiful, the volumes of existence, so singularly, subjectively contained, found on an album of such unflinching softness.

Through all of this, Waller does not journey into an especially dark unknown (it’s too pierced through with poetic illumination), but an idea emerges: music always enters some kind of unknown, however familiar its mode. The bright, cold morning R&B of “I Can Feel It,” audience-less, a song of awaking that anyone can sing, ends the album, but it sounds just as much like a beginning. - The Big Takeover


Waller’s brand of chamber-flavored folk has understandably garnered him more than a few comparisons to Sufjan Stevens. That being said, after enjoying Risk Of Change a couple dozen times, I can’t help but feel that Waller is packing more than a little Leonerd Cohen in his bag of tricks. Certainly Waller is blessed with a decidedly more impressive vocal range, but with its gently fingerpicked guitars and candid frozen-in-time vignettes of NYC in winter, it’s difficult to ignore that Risk Of Change shares at least some DNA with Famous Blue Raincoat. A great and heartbreaking song, perfect for heavy drinking during the holiday season. - My Old Kentucky Blog


Portland-based singer-songwriter Holcombe Waller‘s music has consistently been likened to that of Nick Drake, Jeff Buckley, and Antony Hegarty (of Antony and the Johnsons) throughout his career. Sure, some biographical parallels surface (theater thoroughly interests both Hegarty and Waller, and a solid case can be made for the sonic similarities between Waller’s high-pitched cooing and Drake’s signature style), but the primary and important quality the artists all share is the minimal, yet inescapable, raw and emotion-ridden aspect of their music that so many try and fail to emulate. An attentive listen to Waller’s latest work, Into the Dark Unknown, cements the case for comparison, as he masterfully tells a heart-wrenching tale of overcoming self-defeatism and the obstacles of daily life, finally putting up a fight against the onslaught of societal adversity.

The album begins with solemn imagery: a boy trying to break free from the confines of a substance-induced prison, and a sedate, unfulfilled life. The chorus toys with Ayn Rand’s Atlas Shrugged and its rational selfishness, bemoaning the fate of Atlas, who “just shrugged, he’s going back to the drugs”, rendering him a helpless victim trapped without identity amidst an indifferent society. That novel continues as a theme, especially as “Atlas” focuses almost exclusively on Waller’s androgynous soprano with a subtle guitar and stringed accompaniment. This serves the heavy lyrical content well, allowing it to fully encompass the listener. Sporadic moments of accentuated strings punctuate the space between verses, but the focal point of the piece is intended to be Waller, and, through the arrangement, is just that.

Strumming guitar and lyrics alluding to “home on the range” results in “Risk of Change” playing like a typical folk ballad, a universally applicable telling of collective history. Its haunting backup vocals cooing “on my way,” and a chorus referencing a conversation about Jeff Buckley reinforce this idea, only furthered as Waller insists “you must walk to that dark place,” encouraging the audience, and perhaps himself, to gather the courage to finally face the problems within. The difference with Waller, though, is that tracks like these are followed with intricately orchestrated outings such as “The Unicorn”, where piano and subtle, slow string crescendos share the spotlight with his vocals, which climb into impressively high ranges. These juxtapositions demonstrate not only what a classical composer who makes folk music looks like, but how immensely powerful the combination can be.

“Hardliners” offers a glimmer of hope amongst the weighty previous tracks that permeate the remainder of the album, with his quivering voice nearly speaking. “There’s no doubt that you are mine” he moans, before emphatically repeating “I won’t stop loving.” The whining cello in the background contrasts the upbeat percussion effectively, conveying the emotional exhaustion of arguing and resolving problems with a lover; There is misery in the process, and happiness in the resolution.

The next song, “Qu’Appelle Valley, Saskatchewan”, abruptly upsets the ambiance of the album, with its upbeat tribal drums and strong, forceful wailing. Into the Dark Unknown, though, was not originally an album, but a theater production funded and performed at the Portland Institute for Contemporary Art, explaining this seemingly random theatrical piece. The variety only enriches and deepens the reach of the album, allowing the listener to visualize the original context of the music, adding another sense to the already incredibly stimulating soundscape.

Into the Dark Unknown is not an original album in content, for the struggles with identity and overcoming societal burden are eternal. It is in this universality, though, and the way Waller successfully puts to words and delicate melodies the dark experiences and memories that most people are afraid to face and verbalize, that makes it such a resounding success. Holcombe Waller’s eloquent narratives and impassioned delivery empower each and every one of us to fearlessly face our own dark unknown, and the resulting catharsis is life-affirming, nothing short of inspiring. The title of the original theatrical production had an addendum: The Hope Chest. The omission of this piece of the name was an interesting decision, for that is exactly what this album is. Waller’s melodies sound like psalms at a church service, ultimately uplifting in the triumph of toil, and the consistently understated instrumentation lets said psalms command complete attention, piercing the depths of the soul with their messages. Heartbreak, lost friendships, and withering family relations are sometimes inevitable struggles of life, but with the Dark Unknown‘s closing tracks and an uncharacteristic upbeat piano melody alongside Waller’s reassuring that “Hey, hey, hey I’m alright,” we know we will be too. - Consequence of Sound


HOLCOMBE WALLER
Album review: "Into the Dark Unknown"

A soul-baring song cycle that’s derived from a performance piece, Holcombe Waller’s “Into the Dark Unknown” is a contender for least macho album of the year. Waller is an arty Oregon singer-guitarist who sings of self-doubt and self-destruction — and occasionally sillier stuff — in a quavering tenor that can climb so high it sounds as if he has handed off the vocal to his sister.

These songs are rooted in 1960s folk-revival balladry, and include an uncharacteristically boisterous cover of Buffy Sainte-Marie’s “Qu’appelle Valley, Saskatchewan.” While such tunes as “Baby Blue” use only voice and acoustic guitar, others enlist rippling piano, melancholy strings and breathy harmonies, suggesting a doleful sort of cabaret music. In fact, numbers such as the Joni Mitchell-like “About Time” were recorded live and originally composed for a revue titled “Into the Dark Unknown: The Hope Chest.”

Waller is an assured writer and performer, and his more eccentric conceits don’t usually detract from his material. He can’t quite balance Ayn Rand references with a druggie parable (in “Atlas”) or pull off a giggle-inducing refrain like “now you are a unicorn” (from “The Unicorn”). But when they sidestep mythical beasts for language that’s direct and personal, Waller’s songs illuminate the darkness.

— Mark Jenkins, June 24, 2011 - The Washington Post


Our music critic Ann Powers is fresh off the SXSW festival. She joins us to talk about the highlights, including the Tune-Yards, Big Krit and Holcombe Waller.

"Holcombe did something very clever during the festival, which was, he didn't have a showcase. So instead, he and and a couple of his fellow singer-songwriters, a woman who goes by Jenny O and one who goes under the name Alessi's Ark, had a little concert in their hotel room. Just for 10, 15 people - including me and somebody from the New York Times! Holcombe Waller is somebody I loved years ago, and I sort of lost track of, and now he's back, and I'm so happy that an invite that sort of just showed up on my cell phone via text, which is a very SXSW thing, lead me to this exquisite moment of music with Holcombe Waller, and now I can share him with all of you." - Souther California Public Radio


Like Rufus Wainwright and Antony before him, Holcombe Waller has a gorgeously androgynous voice, both as a singer and songwriter —­ one that cuts through ordinary and extraordinary situations with delicacy and emotional precision.

Waller's new album, Into the Dark Unknown, is a come-to-Jesus moment come to life,­ a clear-eyed look at confusion that's as arresting as it is intimate. The album leaves Waller's voice front and center, and the result is strong, theatrical and wonderfully nuanced, all at the same time.

"Risk of Change" is a ballad for anyone who's ever faced down a life-altering decision. Waller's voice ­and words ­are tender and bold, his voice clear and strong and a little broken. There's fear, regret and a rush involved in rearranging the pieces of a life, and when the song swells to its apex ­— "I'm on my way" —­ it's clear that freedom, as exhilarating as it is, always comes with a price. - NPR


There were gigs in parking lots, the noise carried off on dusty winds. There were lakeside gigs lighted by fireworks. Gigs in big theaters, at an old power plant, in a “death metal” pizza joint. Gigs — parades, funky drummers, ukulele serenades — in the middle of Sixth Street, the always-mobbed party thoroughfare here. And, of course, there were gigs within, outside and above bars all over downtown.


But the most unusual performance space at South by Southwest this year, and perhaps one of the most effective, was a small, quiet hotel room blessedly removed from all the pandemonium. Just after noon on Saturday, a couple of dozen booking agents, artist managers and assorted friends and relations packed into a room at the historic Driskill Hotel to take in three guitar-cradling singer-songwriters in what seemed almost unthinkably intimate circumstances.

The performers, Holcombe Waller, Alessi’s Ark and Jenny O., all use whisper dynamics to cast their spell — which can be a severe disadvantage at a festival with more clamor per square foot than just about anywhere else in the world. Acoustic musicians hope to land one of the few quiet spaces in town, like the Central Presbyterian Church, or just roll with it, adapting to the rhythm of the metal band next door or to the chattering hum of the crowd.

But at the hotel on Saturday afternoon, they sat at the foot of the bed and played with a delicacy — and a casualness — that would simply be impossible anywhere else here. Mr. Waller contemplated loss as its own sort of protest against war: “Oh my love,” he sang, “I never dreamed that you would die so far away.” (For a couple of songs, he had a cellist, squeezed between the bed and a window overlooking Sixth Street.) Jenny O. and Alessi Laurent-Marke, who performs as Alessi’s Ark, sang so quietly that, even though I was squatting on the floor just a few feet from them, I had to lean in to catch all the nuances.

South by Southwest, of course, with more than 2,000 bands playing up to a dozen gigs apiece, is full of gimmicks to draw the frantic attendee’s notice. And the participants of this hotel gig were as clever as anyone else here in coming up with alternative marketing angles to make people remember them. Mr. Waller was handing out download information for his new album, “Into the Dark Unknown” (Napoleon), attached to samples of high-end chocolate. Shortly before Ms. Laurent-Marke went on, her mother handed me her CD, “Soul Proprietor” (Bella Union), inside a snazzy little pink carrying pouch, which she knitted.

Brilliant counter-programming though this event was, it was born of necessity. A few weeks before South by Southwest, Mr. Waller had a new album but no official shows. His manager, Alicia J. Rose, cooked up the idea of inviting some industry contacts for an impromptu set in her hotel room, with bagels, lox and coffee. One gig, on Friday, went so well as respite from the noise of South by Southwest that they repeated it on Saturday.

“There’s charm in the chaos,” Ms. Rose said of the festival. “But it’s better to put on something special than to deal with the random showcase competition of 50,000 other things going on.”

And like all good things at South by Southwest, it was also just a matter of chance. On Friday night Ms. Rose just missed Ms. Laurent-Marke’s last scheduled show, at the Central Presbyterian Church. Still cooking up a plan for the second hotel show, she made her pitch to Ms. Laurent-Marke for one more gig.

“They handed me a piece of chocolate and asked if I had any more shows, and I said no,” Ms. Laurent-Marke said. “Then they said they were having this salmon breakfast, and asked if I’d play. I said yes, of course. I love salmon.”
- NY Times ArtsBeat Blog


Discography

Into the Dark Unknown - Napoleon Records, 2011
O Come, Custodiangel - Napoleon Records, 2010
Troubled Times - Napoleon Records, 2005
Extravagant Gesture - Napoleon Records, 2001
Advertising Space - Napoleon Records, 1999

Photos

Bio

"Like Rufus Wainwright and Antony before him, Holcombe Waller has a gorgeously androgynous voice, both as a singer and songwriter —­ one that cuts through ordinary and extraordinary situations with delicacy and emotional precision. Waller's new album, Into the Dark Unknown, is a come-to-Jesus moment come to life — a clear-eyed look at confusion that's as arresting as it is intimate. The album leaves Waller's voice front and center, and the result is strong, theatrical and wonderfully nuanced, all at the same time." - NPR.org

“Holcombe Waller’s new song ‘Hardliners’ seems to perfectly balance pop hooks with dark instrumentation and backing vocals to create a song that is equal parts catchy and haunting. – Paste

“(Waller’s) new album, Into the Dark Unknown, is stunning—a wonderfully nuanced affair that touches on life's messy emotions in the most subtle and beautiful ways. Naked and vulnerable, fierce and resolute, it's one of the year's best records.” – The Stranger

Somewhere along the line, terms like “artsy” and “theatrical” started to take on an aura of detachment and overly erudite intellectualism, but don’t tell that to Holcombe Waller. The singer, composer and visual/performance artist may have graduated from Yale University with a degree in art, but there’s a vulnerability, humanity and warmth that runs through all of his work - particularly in the five albums he’s released thus far. As a self-produced indie running his own Portland, Oregon label, he's making big waves: his unofficial hotel "bed-in" showcase at SXSW 2011 earned him "Top Three of SXSW" title from Ann Powers and got feature-length coverage by Ben Sisario in the New York Times.

His latest album, 2011's Into The Dark Unknown, is his best yet. Fragile, fierce, yearning and determined, it uses Waller’s most powerful instrument – his voice – as the centerpiece. But it also draws on its creator’s visual and theatrical background, deftly utilizing arrangements and dynamics to bring the story off the canvas and into the three-dimensional world of flesh and blood. In fact, the album evolved from Waller’s theatrical folk concert “Into the Dark Unknown: The Hope Chest,” a performance commissioned by the Portland Institute for Contemporary Art. The two-act show defied genre by exploring the innate theatricality of your average folk concert and augmenting it with crafted monologues, video, and scenic and lighting design. The effort proved a surprise hit in the performing arts world, traveling to such internationally renowned venues as the Under the Radar Festival (NY Public Theater), Seattle's On the Boards, PuSh Festival (Vancounver, B.C.) and San Francisco’s Yerba Buena Center.

The results, according to such acclaimed outlets as NPR, Spin, Paste and esteemed pop music critic Ann Powers, are transcendent. Starbucks and iTunes were even impressed enough to feature his song “Hardliners” as a “Pick of the Week” download in cafes throughout the US and Canada this past August, soaring past 100,000 downloads.

Whether crafting critically lauded albums, creating and touring interdisciplinary performances that meld his songwriting and video design within a theatrical context, collaborating with choreographer, video art stars and film directors or winning over devoted fans with his stunning live performances, Waller continues to prove himself an insightful and exciting force to be reckoned with – not to mention an expert at turning “art” into something palpable and universal.