THE BLOG
05/30/2014 03:11 pm ET | Updated Jul 30, 2014

Nashville Rocker Holland Marie Drops Fiery, Heartfelt Debut

You haven't heard of Holland Marie. But you will.

For two years the Nashville rocker has been ripping up Music City's honky tonks, marching across the stage in her skin-tight, black pleather pants, gyrating her hips and banging her long, brown locks with Def Leppard-like ferocity. For crowds at Crossroads and the Whiskey Bent Saloon she regularly pushes past two in the morning, pumping her fists and belting out the best of Pat Benetar and the Band Perry with an uncommon vivacity. These wild performances have been enough to earn the country music singer a legion of devoted local fans. But they haven't sparked any national attention.

Dr. Radio, Holland's fiery, heartfelt debut album, should change all that. The LP, 11 songs written by Holland and several longtime collaborators, catches a significant talent at the height of her powers, bouncing at times with the joyous twang of an amped up Gretchen Wilson, belting with the force of an aggrieved Natalie Maines, before shifting to the gentle, the intimate, like the best of Dolly Parton. Her finest songs rip open the scabs of an uneven life, one with enough highs and lows to fill a dozen country music albums.

Holland grew up in small-town North Carolina, a child rattled by an alcoholic father and endless series of epileptic seizures. The stage became her refuge. At 19, she caught the eye of record producers when she beat out 1,600 contestants to win a regional singing competition. Three years later she followed her dreams to Music City, leaving her hometown and a failing marriage behind. In Nashville, Holland found first-rate bandmates, a new love and a best friend who committed suicide a year after Holland's arrival.

The result is an album with the courage of confession, with characters that sing of drinking and death, heartache and hope, fused together with infectiously hummable country hooks.

Holland spoke with me about her new album, her newfound health and the prospect of national recognition.

Holland: Singing is the only thing I've ever wanted to do. When I was a kid, every Saturday morning, on TNN, they used to have Elvis Presley specials. I was captivated by them. I'd walk around the house singing "Hound Dog." When I got a little older, I started singing at fairs and festivals in town.

Kors: Those went well?

Holland: Oh yeah. I was always one of the youngest people to perform. I'd get up on stage, with the band behind me. And the first time I heard that applause, it was over. I was like, "This is it. This is what I need to do."

Kors: You were addicted.

Holland: Oh, no doubt about it. I told the kids at school, I'm going to be a singer. And for me, it's never changed. After I won the "Gimme the Mic" competition, which was a local spin-off of American Idol, I had the chance to go to Nashville and meet with Ron Oates, who is a big producer in town. He's worked with Marty Robbins, Dolly Parton, the Oak Ridge Boys. He's like, "You got a great voice, a great look. You got to come down here. We can do great things for you." I flew back to North Carolina, sat down with my husband Anthony and told him, "I need to move to Nashville." He said, "There's nothing for me there. I am not moving to Nashville." And I was like, "Well, I am."

Kors: I take it that you guys weren't doing well before that.

Holland: [Holland laughs.] No. No, we weren't. We were just two really different people. I knew before we got married that it wasn't right. But I was chicken, you know? We had bought the dress, sent out the invitations, and the cake was ready. At that point I felt like I couldn't say, "I don't want to do this." We were married for about eight weeks. Then I signed the separation papers, sold everything I could, packed the Suburban full of everything that was left, picked out some roommates on Roommates.com, then drove down to Nashville. I told myself, "I'm going to give this everything I got."

Kors: What did you think when you got here?

Holland: Oh, I love Nashville. This city is seeping with music. You throw a rock, you could hit three guitar players.

Kors: So, how did you get your first gigs?

Holland: [Holland laughs.] Well, when I first got here, I actually had to pay to play.

Kors: Yikes.

Holland: Yeah, that's pretty standard. Then there was this showcase of unsigned singers, sponsored by the Nashville Starving Artists. I got up on stage with some incredible musicians. Played five original songs. I brought out a big crowd from The Cheesecake Factory, where I was working as a waitress. It was a built-in fan base. And they just went crazy.

Kors: [Kors laughs.]

Holland: Soon I got a regular gig at Bootleggers. And Whiskey Bent and The Stage and Crossroads. I was singing four hours, seven days a week. It was crazy.

Kors: I'll tell you what's great about your performances. When you're up there, you're actually performing. You walk across that stage, look at the audience, and it's like, you're tapping into the song. The joy and the heartache. So many of the musicians here just stand there, completely expressionless, as if they're human jukeboxes. Other singers, they kick up the tempo, twist their voices. They're really doing a parody of a song. Or a parody of a musician singing that song. Not you.

Holland: Yeah, it's a jaded town. With a lot of jaded musicians who think they should be bigger than singing in bars. I'm grateful to be there. And when I'm playing "Gunpowder and Lead," I respect what Miranda Lambert wrote. I take it seriously. And if in a few years people on Broadway are singing my songs, I hope they'd respect what I wrote too.

Kors: Absolutely.

Holland: I'm also very picky about my set list. I sing songs that I believe in, songs that I can feel. I'm not gonna play "Cruise," that Florida Georgia Line song. Songs about tan legs and pick-up trucks and blue jeans. And I don't write them either.

Kors: What is your approach to songwriting?

Holland: For me, it's like therapy. I take my deepest, darkest and happiest and put them on paper. When you hear me perform, you're listening to my worst day and my very best day. It's a very vulnerable position to be in.

Kors: You're songs are all autobiographical?

Holland: Definitely. "Both Sides Now," "Gettin' By," "So Far Away." I'd say most every song I've written has something to do with my life. At the same time, I try not to make them too specific. Songs about one particular person. You start describing specific things about that one person, and you lock other people out. I want to write songs that people can associate with, songs they identify with and can sing themselves. There's something beautiful about that. To me, that's the point of songwriting.

Kors: Was there something specific that you wanted to achieve with this album?

Holland: Yeah, I didn't want it to be perfect. [Holland laughs.] That's an odd thing for me to say because I'm such a perfectionist. But I wanted this to be as close to a live experience as you could get with a studio album. Which meant no auto-tuning. That was really big for me. Even the best singers are sometimes a little flat or a little sharp. I did not want to throw auto-tune on top of my vocals and end up with every note sounding clean and perfect and fake. You listen to the radio now, and everything is so pitch-corrected, I think it's ruined our ability to appreciate imperfection. I wanted this album to sound like me. Not a pitch-perfect robot.

Kors: You financed the album yourself and with contributions from fans on Kickstarter. I imagine you've reached out to the labels.

Holland: [Holland groans.] I haven't had the greatest luck with the labels.

Kors: No?

Holland: No. When I first came to Nashville I met with a lot of label people. They wouldn't give me the time of day. I was really big then. And my hair was platinum blonde. I looked like a fat Carrie Underwood. The people at the labels were really blunt. They said, "You're a great singer. You're a great performer. But nobody wants to see a fat girl sing."

Kors: Ouch.

Holland: Yeah, it was depressing. I'd walk around downtown, and at every show, there were all these great singers. They were all tiny, stick figure-type things. And these labels were looking at them and saying, "Yes." I knew I could sing. I knew I could perform. I'd ask myself, "What's holding me back?" It was always my "look." It was always my weight.

Kors: I'm glad you mentioned your weight because you talk about it on your website. It's odd because you're not fat. At all. You're actually really hot.

Holland: Well, thank you.

Kors: And at your concert this week, you were the hottest person in the room. Your bandmates, they're not runway models. And did you see the bouncers?

Holland: [Holland laughs.] Well, thank you. When I first got here, I was a lot bigger. At one point, I was almost 200 pounds. It's in my genes. Both sides of my family are big. And you have to remember, I'm from North Carolina. We'd fry lettuce if we could.

Kors: So what changed?

Holland: I've been Crossfitting, which is this high-intensity workout program. It's kind of a cult. I Crossfit five, six days a week. I've lost 69 pounds. And I'm healthier than I've ever been in my whole life. That means I can move around on stage, run from one end to the other, for four hours, and not get winded.

Kors: You also said that you're not eating gluten or dairy.

Holland: Oh, I have an intolerance to gluten. I have epilepsy.

Kors: Oh yeah? Me too.

Holland: You do? Wow.

Kors: Has the epilepsy had a big effect on you?

Holland: [Holland sighs.] Yes. Definitely. When I was younger, some days I was having 25 to 30 seizures a day. I was on all this medication. And I just felt like a zombie. I couldn't have a driver's license. And my family didn't have insurance and couldn't afford the medication. It was just terrible. A very painful time in my life.

Kors: No doubt.

Holland: It wrecked my memory too. I mean, there are literally years of my life I really don't remember. I have little memories of my childhood, bits and pieces. But like, from age six to nine, I really don't remember any of those years at all.

Kors: Are you still having seizures?

Holland: [Holland smiles.] I stopped eating gluten and dairy almost three years ago. I haven't had one seizure since. And I'm not on any medication.

Kors: Wow. That's awesome.

Holland: My younger brother has epilepsy too—it's hereditary—and I put him on the gluten- and dairy-free diet. Quite forcefully, I should say. [Holland laughs.] He hasn't had any seizures since either.

Kors: You have your health in check. You've finished the album. What now?

Holland: Now? Now I'm gonna sing. [Holland laughs.] I'm gonna sing till my voice falls off.

Follow Joshua Kors on Facebook at www.facebook.com/joshua.kors

Follow Joshua Kors on Twitter at www.twitter.com/joshuakors