Believe it or don't, Holly Golightly, the cult-favorite English indie-pop songstress, draws her main inspiration from American country music. All of her songs are structurally derived from that classic form, she says.
"Most of the songs are written as country-Western songs," Golightly says, calling on a break from loading equipment into a nightclub for a gig in Omaha, Neb. "The productions and the recording process change the mood and style sometimes. But I start from a very fundamental foundation of traditional country, blues and folk."
So whether Golightly's songs are draped in arrangements of gritty garage-punk, classic R&B, girl-group romanticism, slow-burn blues, psychedelic rock, finger-snapping swing, exotica-tinged cocktail jazz, rockabilly, Stonesy boogie or, yes, tears-in-your-beer honky tonk, they began as country tunes.
The stark country, blues and folk elements take center stage on Golightly's latest CD, You Can't Buy a Gun When You're Crying, which was released this past spring. So on the surface, it sounds different than previous Golightly records.
"We didn't really know what it was going to sound like when we started, and that's just the direction it went in," she says. "We decided to leave a lot of spaces in the music. It's pretty raw. We wrote, recorded and mixed it in four days."
By "we," Golightly means herself and collaborator Lawyer Dave. Together, they constitute Holly Golightly and the Brokeoffs. The two play guitars and sing, with Lawyer Dave also playing a unique foot-drum kit of his own design.
"We're like a two-person one-man band," Golightly jokes.
Lawyer Dave, by the way, is not a real lawyer. A longtime Golightly backing musician, he has played bass in her band, and for a time was one of two Daves. To distinguish between the two, she and the other band members allowed the two Daves to choose between two mugs.
"The other Dave drank from a mug with a bear on it, so he became Bear Dave. And Lawyer Dave, he drank from a mug that said 'lawyer.'"
Born Holly Golightly Smith in 1966, the singer indeed was named for the character in Truman Capote's Breakfast at Tiffany's. "That's the book my mother was reading when she was pregnant with me," she says.
But she didn't use her middle name until she started performing in the early 1990s.
"When you're at school, you don't want to stand out from everybody, or you're going to get your ass kicked. Everyone wants to be the same. And Holly itself was a very unusual name for a little girl in England in the 1960s and '70s"
Holly Smith grew up in rural southeastern England with her grandparents, who introduced her to old-timey blues, ragtime, choir music and traditional folk songs.
"I didn't aspire to play music when I was growing up, not until really I got older and my dad told me to listen to John Peel in 1976, which was really my first introduction to pop and rock music. That's when I first heard the Buzzcocks, 999 and the Damned."
She started singing in 1991 when her boyfriend at the time, Bruce Brand, was a member of Thee Headcoats, one of the many vehicles for the prolific songwriting of British cult musician Billy Childish.
Childish was the ringleader of the Medway scene, a crew of South London musicians and enthusiasts passionately working to revive the garage-rock style of the '50s and '60s. According to legend, after Brand invited Golightly onstage to sing with Thee Headcoats, Childish was inspired to integrate her into his pet project: the all-female band Thee Headcoatees.
"When Thee Headcoatees was a band, everybody had assumed names. I didn't really have to look for anything else. I became HG."
Golightly says the Medway scene was a close-knit and intensely creative period in her life.
"We were making our own entertainment. You don't have parallels with other artists, so you're not really aware of what's going on outside your little circle of collaborators. That's what really influenced me the most: the ethos of the thing. Now, I fear nothing. I don't really consider how what I am doing is linked to anyone else in the world or what they are doing."
Soon, Golightly was writing her own material. By 1995, she had released a solo album, The Good Things, which has been followed by 14 others, including live recordings and compilations.
Rarely idle, Golightly is almost always being invited to join in other projects. She and Childish recorded the 1999 CD In Blood together. Their work together has been compared to the immortal collaborations of Nancy Sinatra and Lee Hazlewood.
After playing on tour with The White Stripes, Golightly became close friends with that duo. Her career got a huge kick in the pants when she sang on the group's "Well It's True That We Love One Another," a track on the Stripes' 2003 CD, Elephant.
She has also been a guest vocalist on projects by groups such as Mudhoney, Rocket From the Crypt and The Greenhornes, on whose album Dual Mono, she appears. Hip movie buffs may also remember that two of her songs, "There Is an End" (with The Greenhornes) and "Tell Me Now So I Know," were featured in the 2005 Jim Jarmusch movie Broken Flowers.
Although some might consider Holly Golightly's work as being on the musical fringe, she considers it to be fully in the mainstream.
"I feel like my solo stuff has a kind of broader appeal than a lot of the other stuff on the small touring circuits. It might be perceived to be really hip, but I know a lot more other good songwriters who are way more hip than me. I think of my music more as country-blues with a punk-rock ethic."