Holland evokes the full range of that elusive emotion in her recordings, capturing performances unlike any in ages, clearly standing out among the crush of contemporary sounds mostly characterized by aimless wandering in a cultural desert. Holland could lead the lost all back home. Her newest album is called Light on My Path, and it shouldn’t just be heard: it should be studied. Lessons abound in it on hope and hurt, testing and triumph, but always with an eye toward something higher. It’s also a textbook on arrangement, craftsmanship, harmony, layering, exquisite musical taste, adroit mingling of styles, and captivating emotional investment. Other than her previous album, Journey to Miracle River—equally astonishing—there hasn’t been a more significant recording released in a very long time.
Holland, wife of music legend Michael McDonald, performs this Saturday at Maryhill Winery during her husband’s set. (If you’re quick, you might still be able to get tickets through MaryhillWinery.com.) The two have been married since 1983 and have two children, Dylan and Scarlett.
“I’m really singing background for [Michael] in his show,” she says, “and I sang a song with him on his newest CD that’s coming out. I think the single’s been released. There’s a song on the album called ‘Hail Mary,’ and he featured me on that song. This tour is really promoting his new record. I’m out there, and I sing that song with him every night, then I’m on the other background singer, and I’m having a ball. His music is really fun to sing. And we’re getting to spend time together because he’s gone a lot.”
You can hear the couple in the song “Prove That By Me,” a duet by the pair on the new CD. It’s the music equivalent of potato chips—you can’t listen just once.
A Holland tour could be on the horizon. The Grammy-nominated musician is putting the band she worked with 35 years ago back together, and the group is working on a set list. And she’s enjoying special recognition for Light on My Path, which has earned high praise from famous peers. One of them, David Crosby, ended up on her album on a song called “Gravity,” so tight with three-part harmony it’s sometimes hard to tell where the lead is. The album came together with incredible speed—14 tracks were recorded in just two days. “It was amazing,” Holland recalls, adding she remembers how recording used to be. “Mike and I used to sit and order pizza in the studio. It could take six months to get a track down.” The blazing pace was set by producer Fred Mollin, with whom she’d worked 30 years before. “Then I got pregnant with my son, and I had some difficulties with the pregnancy so I couldn’t continue at that point,” she says. “And then I had my daughter, and then I was a stay-at-home mom, and took that path for a while. I didn’t plan on staying away so long. When I got sick, that ate up a lot of time.”
The illness was cancer, hitting her a pair of decades ago. She’d been carrying water for her plants when a pain struck her. She was diagnosed with breast cancer; doctors ordered her into surgery immediately. For a time she pictured herself as Ali McGraw in Love Story, fated for an early death. Surgeons removed a tumor and 14 lymph nodes. Eleven of them were cancerous, and it was feared the cancer had spread. But one day she heard a voice inside utter five momentous words: “You’re going to be okay.” The voice was right. “For every hopeless moment, there’s a God who provides,” she wrote later of that time. In Journey to Miracle River, she memorialized the experience with this line: “When you finally reach your destination, fall down on your knees and thank your maker for all the crosses and the blessings on the journey to Miracle River.” You hear that humility and gratitude in her touching title song on the new album, “Light on My Path”: “We all have our burdens, we all have our cares / And mine are no bigger than any and theirs / But I’m lost and I’m drifting like a train off the tracks / Please Lord shine a light on my path.”
Fast forward: Holland is amazed at what producer Mollin did with Light. “I think Fred did that beautifully. All the songs work together. And I’m not a round block in a round hole. I’m kind of a square block trying to get in a round hole. So for me it was fun to try these different things, like the two jazzy kind of songs. I love those.”
Holland has come a long way from her hit single “How Will I Survive,” a driving pop tune that hit the charts while she was still in her 20s. Over the years she’s released four CDs, best thought of as carefully distilled snapshots of her personal history, the triumph of quality over quantity. (Let’s recall that all of The Beatles’ recorded music is only about 10 hours in total.) Holland considers her recent opus to reflect a more sophisticated view of life and love.
“I’m a little more grown up now,” Holland says. “My first album was much more pop oriented, and I have one song on this new record called ‘Walking on a Wire’ that you might consider pop. It’s just taken a natural progression. I’ve matured, and I think some of the songs are a little more mature than what I was singing back then in my 20s, when it’s, ‘I love you, you love me, you hurt me, I am broken’—it’s deeper than that this time. You see more introspection, a little more experience.
“I try to pick songs that do that, because it’s hard to really pull something off when you don’t mean it or you don’t relate to it. I mean, I couldn’t pull off a rap song. I just wouldn’t be able to. I’ve always been more of a ballad singer in some ways, certainly singing lyrics about love and hope. Your priorities change, and also your life experiences change a lot of what you think about. And certainly when I went through that illness, it definitely rearranged my head a bit. So I came into this project with a lot of gratitude. I tried, as much as it is possible, to be teachable and be willing to try things that were suggested and not just say, ‘Hey, I want to do it my way.’ So I just put myself in Fred’s hands, and I really love what he did.”
After the tracks were recorded in Nashville, Holland went home where she and McDonald have a studio to complete the vocal tracks. “That was really comfortable,” she recalls. “It’s just funny that I’m turned out four albums altogether in my career, and they take on their own personality. They just sort of morph into things that you didn’t think would happen.”
Openness, gratitude, humility, vulnerability. Add to all that incredibly good songs, performed to perfection, brilliantly produced, and reaffirming a standard of songwriting and singing too easily lost in an age of musical indulgence—that’s where you’ll find Amy Holland carrying the banner of heartfelt excellence.
Amy joins the John Lennon Bus! Tour Bus Strikes Right Chord With 4 La Colina Students.
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