An avowed fan of blues practitioners such as Memphis Minnie, Ike Turner, and Sleepy John Estes, British singer Holly Golightly is happy to discuss her affinity for the minted-in-Memphis style as she tools eastward on Interstate 8, traveling from San Diego to Tucson on a tour that will land her in the Bluff City this week.
"English people are realists, not escapists. We like the dirt, the imperfections, and the spirit of getting up and getting on with it," says the performer, who will play the Hi-Tone Café on Friday, October 19th. "I'll take Memphis Minnie every time, because I like her grit."
Golightly — yes, it's her given name — acknowledges her grandfather, a Welsh miner who sang in a close harmony choir, her parents, who she says had "fairly eclectic tastes in music," and the punk scene of the early 1980s for instilling her love of blues, rockabilly, and other American roots genres.
Born and raised in Medway, a seaboard town that sits between the Thames river delta and the English Channel ("Living in Medway is like living in a wind tunnel," Golightly notes), the singer began playing music with local cult hero Billy Childish. She then formed an all-girl group called the Headcoatees, a spin-off of Childish's band the Headcoats.
"I went backward," Golightly explains. "My taste developed from going to see punk bands who did covers of obscure R&B songs. I didn't go out looking for this musical style. It found me."
Content to play small club dates and release albums on an array of indie labels (she has recorded 13 full-lengths for labels such as Damaged Goods and Sympathy for the Record Industry in as many years), Golightly has been branded a "musician's musician," an artist who's lauded by the likes of filmmaker Jim Jarmusch and the White Stripes and perennially lands on critics' best-of list. But she hasn't translated that critical acclaim into platinum record sales.
Golightly, however, couldn't care less.
"To begin with, I don't know anything about contemporary music," Golightly says, insisting that her vocal contribution to the White Stripes' "It's True That We Love One Another" is "fairly inconsequential, in the scheme of things."
"Whether people reading my name in their credits equates them coming to shows or buying my records, I don't know," she says. "I've been involved in reasonably high-profile collaborations before working with the White Stripes. I'm playing the same places I've always played, and I'm making the same records I've always made."
Those records, cut at London's famed Toe Rag Studio, run the gamut from Nancy Sinatra-style rave-ups to better than Amy Winehouse blues-powered ballads.
On albums ranging from 1995's Good Things to You Can't Buy a Gun When You're Crying, which was released last April, Golightly offers up a large number of originals along with dozens of well-picked covers, such as Ike Turner's "Your Love Is Mine," Wreckless Eric's "Comedy Time," and Bobby Womack's "It's All Over Now."
"I was the first person to record at Toe Rag. I was the guinea pig," says Golightly, describing producer Liam Watson as a good friend.
"Historically, it's very easy to work with someone you've known that long. We've got very similar reference points, and we both have a clear idea of what we want things to sound like.
"We've known each other since '84, I think. He's always been interested in getting this old gear, and now he's got an empire of amazing stuff," she says of Watson's copious collection of analog recording equipment, which has been utilized by British soul singer James Hunter, rock group the Kills, and pop outfit Supergrass over the last decade.
Then Golightly's mind turns back to the road.
"We just passed an ostrich farm, which was an amazing thing," she says. "You know, I had trouble with my work visa, and we had to cancel the first three shows of the tour. It was a real shame, but now that my visa has come through, I've got three years' grace. A lot of other British bands have been refused, but I kicked up a fuss about it and got an immigration lawyer involved.
"I guess I pose an international threat," she notes with a hearty laugh. "I'm on the most wanted [list] for not being a good guitar player!"