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Interview: Holly Ramos Comes Strong Out of The Gate

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Talk about timing — Holly Ramos had flown from sunny L.A. into New York the evening of the great nor’easter. Her plane was delayed some ridiculous number of hours on the tarmac; she finally touched down at 3am. She is zonked, and it’s still pouring outside.

But like the gutsy New York native she is, Holly’s unfazed. “I’m actually kinda digging this weather. Now I can buy a three dollar umbrella in a bodega,” she says with a wicked little grin. “You can’t do that in L.A.” She’s ridden the subway to our interview, and is still impressed at how fast her New York street skills have kicked back in. “I’m dodging around people, yelling, ‘Get out of my way!’ I haven’t used that voice in years.” Clearly it feels good.

Luckily, Ramos has a day to recuperate before her date at the Mercury Lounge, opening for her high school friend Jesse Malin. Petite and pale as she is (no West Coast tan – you’ve gotta love that), she’s got a certain tensile strength I’ll lay my money on.

Speaking of laying money down, I ask her why she’s titled her new solo CD Race Horse. She shrugs, grins, and admits that it doesn’t fit with the image of a blonde girl singer with a kittenish, breathy soprano. But playing against type intrigues Ramos. In much the same way, the CD’s acoustic Americana twang is deceptive, given the urban snarkiness in the lyrics.

Holly RamosThese are songs about people who mope around their apartments, ordering takeout and watching Dirty Harry movies, or who make out with their boyfriends between eating French fries in a diner. Even a song like “Coal Miner’s Lullaby” isn’t really about life in the coalfields – it’s one of what she calls her “I wish songs,” recording a fleeting longing for a different, more straightforward life. “I’m always saying things like ‘I wish I’d been a cheerleader and lived in Queens’ – it doesn’t mean I really want to.” The straightforward life is an alien concept for Holly Ramos. It’s been a long time since her 1990s stint in the downtown punk band Fur, but she’s still got a few tattoos and a discreet diamond nose stud to prove her creds.

So where did the album’s mellow alt.country sound come from? Ramos admits that it's partly a case of growing older, entering a more reflective phase of life, but Race Horse also evokes artists that she’s dug for years like Neil Young and Billy Bragg. “I worked for years as a vinyl DJ in those downtown clubs,” Holly reminds me. “I became kind of a musicologist – plus all those old 50s and 60s singles, I know them all. I wish there was a way to make a living just doing that; I know so much obscure music….”

Holly’s wide-ranging musical passions helped inspired her pal Jesse Malin to evolve from D Generation garage-rock vocalist to Bruce Springsteen acolyte; she and Malin co-wrote two songs for his most recent album Glitter in the Gutter. The process of pulling together her own solo debut album took longer, though. Ramos admits she’s not a disciplined songwriter – the tracks on Race Horse accumulated over a few years, a melodic line here, a fragment of lyric there. “I’m rushing out the door, late to work, and something pops into my head so I run over to the answering machine and stick in on there…eventually my husband says the answering machine’s full and I’d better get some of those off there.” She rolls her eyes.

Eventually the scraps got worked into full songs; to fill out the CD, she wrote three more songs, “Evangeline,” “Sick of Goodbye,” and “Better Yet,” which ironically turned out to be some of the album’s strongest tracks. My personal favorite is “Better Yet,” a series of spunky self-assertions with the cryptic quality of Zen koans – “I’m gonna say what I said and mean what I meant / I’m gonna be where I am and been where I went / I’m gonna do what I do and get what I get / I’m gonna love you / Better yet.” Sung over a simple acoustic guitar, with just the faintest counterpoint of a distant lonely trumpet, it turns simplicity into a virtue. “We did that in one take, you know that?” she says proudly. “I like it when that happens – that rawness, that edge. I’m a big fan of mistakes and messes.”

Then there’s the “Gold and Catholic,” a knotty little syncopated number about the unresolved issues left simmering between a rebellious daughter and her dead father. It’s like years of therapy distilled into one rueful shrug, one of those songs that goes deeper with every listening. The one cover on the album is a curious choice — “Art Lover” by Ray Davies, a lesser-known Kinks track from the viewpoint of a male pedophile. The wistful delicacy in Ramos' girlish voice, though, brings a haunting new dimension to the song.

“There are some people who are singles artists, and there are some who are album artists,” Holly says. “It’s like the difference between indie actors and blockbuster actors.” (For the record, Holly has done a bit of indie acting herself). “I’m an album artist; I like having the whole thing hold together.” Race Horse holds together, all right, and it’s a winner.

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