In June 2016, I interviewed Holly Bowling for a summer issue of Surrender to the Flow. Only about a quarter of the information below made the final article due to length limits, but what Holly shared with me was fascinating and inspiring, and in honor of her recent successes, I thought you’d be interested in how this talented and creative musician came to be. Congrats to Holly on the successful crowd funding and forthcoming release of her newest album Better Left Unsung, which she teases at the very end of this full transcription, and her recent sit ins with Phil Lesh, American Babies, and so many others. You can see Holly during the New Years Run in NYC pre-Phish and on her 2017 winter tour.
CS: When/what was your first Phish show? Was there a single song/show that got you hooked on the music? How many shows have you seen since?
HB: My first Phish show was New Year’s 2002. I got into them during the hiatus and never thought I’d get to see them play, so when they announced New Year’s and the three Hampton shows, there was no question whether or not I was going. I was already really into the music, and predictably, seeing them live only furthered the obsession. I ended up seeing all but 4 shows in 2.0, I was really determined not to miss out since I had missed so much already. I put off going to school and traveled around the country seeing Phish and learned more that way than I think I would have in school at that point in my life. Made a lot of friendships too that are still a huge part of my life. I slowed down a little in 3.0 and stopped catching quite as many shows, but I still see a lot. I’ve seen around 300 to date.
What’s been your favorite time or tour in the band history musically?
Everything from 1997. Fall 2013. Summer 2015. Summer 2016 (I hope!) I really love the thematic, focused style of improvisation that’s developed in the last few years.
Have you gotten any reaction from the band/members to your music?
Mike Gordon showed up at one of my shows in Philadelphia. I gave him a copy of my album. He stayed and listened to the whole Tahoe Tweezer and I think he gave me a thumbs up on his way out the door. Other than that though, I have no idea what they think of it.
When did you start playing piano?
What did you do before this project?
For a living? I was teaching music. I ran my own studio. I actually miss the kids I worked with a lot. Seeing kids begin to understand music and watching the concepts click for them as they discover all these experiences is really the coolest thing.
Did you always want to be a professional musician?
Yes! Since I was a little kid. But I had kind of given up on that working out as a realistic career. Then a few years ago I dove back in and haven’t looked back.
When/how did you get the idea to reinterpret Phish songs?
It wasn’t something I sat down and decided to do one day after thinking it over and searching for an idea for a project. It just developed naturally out of my experience with the piano and my love of Phish. I play what’s in my head, and what was stuck in my head a lot of the time was Phish. I’ve been doing that for a long time, but approached it with more focus and discipline recently and actually worked through some of the harder parts that I’d been stuck on for years when I was just casually exploring the music.
Was the Tahoe Tweezer your very first piano arrangement?
The Tahoe Tweezer was the first Phish song I worked on in depth, and the first complex piece of music I ever transcribed and arranged. Not exactly a logical choice for a “starter project”, haha! But definitely a good one to learn from. The music is so varied and covers so much ground that it taught me a lot. And I mean that both in terms of texture, what to leave out, what to keep, and varying that over time, and also in terms of how to express different sounds and timbres on the piano. Sounds that either are pretty far from the piano to begin with or sounds that don’t translate well. Like really heavy distorted crunchy stuff, or really quiet delicate drawn out ethereal passages. Or interesting percussive sounds and patterns. Long sustained sounds, either from Trey’s guitar or from Page’s organ (which can hold a note indefinitely, and the piano can’t). Sweeps on the synth that move continuously rather than having discreet pitches. All kinds of stuff. So yeah… not a great starter piece to work on, but also in another sense, the best one to work on, because it covers so much ground. I learned a ton. I know if I did it again today my process would be very different. I think the end result would sound different too since I’ve definitely changed and grown as a musician since then. It’s funny. The original is a snapshot of Phish at that moment and in that period of their improvisation. And then my arrangement is a snapshot of me in that moment, of my style as a musician. So it’s like a musical snapshot of a musical snapshot.
What has been your favorite arrangement thus far?
As far as the jam transcriptions, I think maybe the GD’s ’74 Eyes of the World. But that might just be because its the most recent complete one I did and I’m always learning from each one and trying to make the next one even better. As far as arrangements of compositions and songs, rather than jam transcriptions? I really loved the challenge of It’s Ice. It takes a lot of focus to play and I spent a ton of time figuring it out, it was a really rewarding project to tackle. But that’s a really tight technical arrangement and consequently there’s less room in it for my own musical voice (aside from the middle section, which I’ve been taking liberties with for sure) because the composition is so complex to begin with. I really like how the arrangement for Scents and Subtle Sounds came out. I did a lot of playing around with the different registers of the piano and moving the melody line around from to another, and trying to make use of all of the areas of sonic space. Another favorite is Pebbles and Marbles. I feel like the arrangement is still settling a little. But in the right setting on a really good piano, I think a lot of emotion comes through on that one, which is what I wanted. I think it’s a really powerful song to begin with and I love the lyrics, and the build. The feeling I wanted to come through in the arrangement is there, and there’s a lot of subtle delicate stuff before it gets heavy. Across the board, really any of the arrangements where you get to hand off a part or a melody from one hand to the other, sort of like passing a baton, or I guess ideally maybe something more graceful like a trapeze artist moving from one flying trapeze to another… any of these are physically fun to play, just the physical motions you go through as you try to keep that melody line intact as it shifts.
What’s one of the hardest songs and/or jams to reinterpret? Easiest?
Simple songs with four chords are easy to learn. Sometimes they’re harder to make something special out of them, especially in a purely instrumental context. If there’s a lot of repetition, which is fine if there’s great lyrics over top, it can be hard to make that translate to an instrumental setting without it getting boring. So in that sense, the stuff that’s easiest to arrange can also be the hardest to do well. Then there’s stuff that’s hard just because its technical and complex. I really want to learn All Things Reconsidered but its just insane and I’m not sure how I would cover all the parts and do it justice. But really the thing I find hardest in general is arranging parts of jams where the meter becomes ambiguous and time falls apart for a while. When there’s a structure and a framework to fit the pieces into, it all makes sense, even if its really hard to figure it out. There’s an order and a right answer. When the meter disappears, its really hard to pin things down to paper. And there’s not really notation for things that are that loose, or if there is, I don’t know it. So my scores in that part end up being descriptions to jog my memory of what that section sounds like as much as exact directions of what to play. And in the case of these jam transcriptions, I’m not looking to be too free with it and just do my own thing – I do that in my improvisation, but in this case, I’m trying to recreate and re-orchestrate something, almost like making a piano reduction of a symphonic work. So I want to be as true to it as possible. It’s funny how difficult it becomes when the underlying structure becomes a question mark.
How do you select songs or jams to arrange?
Lots of times, I pick because a section of a jam is stuck in my head. So I’ll pick favorites, or stuff I’m listening to a lot. Sometimes, with songs especially, I’m more picky about the criteria. Like if its really focused on a drum groove, 2001 for example, I’m not gonna do it. I don’t think it would be in service of the music really. And some stuff is just physically basically impossible on the piano, due to the constraints of the instrument. You can’t repeat notes as quickly on a piano as you can on a guitar, because the actual mechanism in the piano doesn’t work that fast. You can’t sustain notes indefinitely, or bend notes, which pretty much rules out doing one of my favorite jams ever, the Camden Chalkdust from ‘99. I’m still trying to figure out a way to do that one though. It’s so good.
How does it feel when you first perform them?
It’s always harder performing things in the very beginning. There’s something cool about stuff that’s really fresh, but I’m also often learning things at the very last minute so the music isn’t as comfortable under my fingers as it will be a few performances later. It takes more concentration and there’s less room to take chances with it or let it open up a little. That usually comes later.
What’s your relationship with The Grateful Dead?
I never got to see Jerry, I was 11 when he died. I grew up listening to the Dead because my parents did, so I’ve known a lot of the songs as long as I can remember. I fell in love with the music on my own terms later, sometime in high school. I mean I liked the music already, but there’s a difference between knowing and liking music you hear growing up versus seeking it out yourself and really diving in to it.
What was the first Dead song you reinterpreted? Hardest/Easiest?
The ’74 Eyes of the World jam transcription was the first one I transcribed and arranged. Another interesting choice as a first project, haha! Go big or go home I guess. I mean I’d played around with tons of their songs but just casually, figuring out the chord progressions and playing that way. I’d never sat down and rearranged all the puzzle pieces and tried to weave the threads together in a really deliberate way, and rearranged, and rearranged again until it seemed right. I would just play. I actually arranged that one because JamBase wanted me to do a song for the “Songs of Their Own” series they did leading up to the Fare Thee Well shows, and no one had picked Eyes yet, and I had coincidentally been messing around with that song a few days before, playing around with the timing moving from 3 to 4 and back again. They asked me to do a jam transcription or at least include a tease of a notable jam, and I wasn’t going to, I didn’t think I had time to get it finished before the deadline. But then I listened to the Louisville Eyes and just decided I had to do it. I worked on it pretty much nonstop for several weeks. It was kind of nuts.
What has been your favorite place/venue/show to play so far?
Jam Cruise has to be one of my favorites ever. I think it has to be probably the only music festival ever where you show up to play your set and they happen to have a beautiful grand piano just sitting there waiting for you all ready to go. I mean obviously if you’re Dr. John or someone like that, you get that at every festival you play. But as an emerging artist, it’s hard to find that, much less in a festival setting. So that was pretty rad.
I also really love the Massry Center in Albany. People show up there really prepared to listen and get into the music and let it take them away, no distractions. That’s a really cool thing. There’s also an amazing piano and the acoustics of the room allow you to play completely unamplified. Another place like that is a new favorite of mine that I just played for the first time a few months ago called The Old Church. It’s in Portland OR and as you would expect, it’s an old church… but its no longer religiously-affiliated and is purely a performance space for arts and music now. The space is beautiful and the acoustics are too, and the whole vibe in there is just really special. I love spaces like that. I really like when I have the opportunity to play in spaces that are different from the usual places we’re used to going to see music.
Who have you played with that you were particularly wowed by (either because you didn’t know them at all, or because you knew (of) them very well)?
I’m grateful to have played with so many musicians who have wowed and inspired me. Obviously getting to play with both Aron [Magner] and Joel [Cummins] during my Jam Cruise set was really special. If you had asked me a few years ago if I thought I’d share the piano with both those guys, in the same set no less, I don’t think I would have believed you.
What other bands/interpretations do you incorporate into your sets?
I’ve done a few songs and teases of songs by the Disco Biscuits. There’s some long-form compositions in their catalog I’d like to explore more. The one I’ve worked on most so far is Magellan, which has always been one of my favorites of their songs. And then I’ve thrown in some Greensky Bluegrass teases and references. That started on Jam Cruise ‘cause Paul and Anders were there and I wanted to give a little musical shoutout to them. And then after I got to sit in with them in Eugene, which was such an honor, I snuck some GSBG references into my sets the rest of that tour. Phish and the Dead are the bread and butter of my sets right now but it’s always evolving.
How do you see yourself expanding your repertoire or performance as you grow from here?
I love the piano, and I always will, but I’m excited to expand out into other keyboard instruments as well. I’ve been having a ton of fun playing around with all the less expected sounds you can coax out of a piano and expanding the palette of sounds I have to work with, and I’d like to keep moving in that direction. I’m also working on some original music. That’s something I want to let grow in something other than a solo setting though. Maybe a trio.
What do you hope to see this project accomplish/become?
My goal is to make music that connects with people. If that nonverbal conveyance of emotion is happening, then I’m doing it right. Obviously there’s plenty of things on the creative and logistical end of things I’d love to see develop, but really, goal number one for me is connection. If I’m connecting with the music I’m playing emotionally, and someone out there listening is too, I think that’s what it all comes down to.
Anything else you want to share?
Yes! I’m making another album. It’s the music of the Grateful Dead reimagined for solo piano, and I’m unbelievably excited about how the sessions have gone so far. I can’t say any more about it just yet, but keep an eye out for it! It’s gonna be good!