When you love what you do and have such a passion for it, you never work a day in your life. For folk artist, Holcombe Waller, performing and making music is his passion and what keeps him going. Waller, an artist who is a stage actor, writer as well as an acclaimed musician who is originally from Palo Alto, California but now lives in Portland, Oregon, is making his music and being shaped by the experiences around him. Holcombe would never admit that he was born to entertain and born to perform; he found his talents and passion while studying at Yale University. "I started singing when I was 18, I really didn't sing before that," Holcombe told me when we spoke over the phone. "Yale has a lot of singing groups and most people think of me as a singer." After Yale, Waller moved to San Francisco, where his world opened up. "I started singing in open mics, in the tail end of the 60s hangover and holdover, and right before they were completely obliterated by the dot com boom, and that really shaped my folk sound; and then when I moved to Portland, I got really involved in theater and performing arts and shaped things further." Though he picked up something about himself in each city it all would be an amalgamation and morph into his own brand of folk music.
Waller, who just released his latest record, Into the Dark Unknown, in February, shows an intimate and personal side with his latest collection of songs. Yet, he keeps his music simple, natural and stark; with Into the Dark Unknown he created a record that is very organic and recorded in a very old-fashioned way -- with no new technology and recording everything analog in a minimal way. The record sounds, at points, as if there is a full orchestra behind him, yet it is just a few musicians. "One thing you do in theater is there are a lot of smoke and mirrors. You do not have a lot of money, you don't have a lot of lighting, you don't have a lot of people, but you want to make it this huge show. And there are the tricks you learn to do that, and it's a lot about what you don't see, and it's a lot about the elements that you bring in and how they interact with each other," Waller says about arranging the record and getting its sound to exactly what he wanted, drawing on his theater lessons and creative side, he got the album to sound the way it should. "When I was arranging the record, I was drawing on that from theater, how to make a big majestic moment with just five people."
As his experiences from the stage may help shape the sound of his music, it is his experiences and lessons out of the theater and from life that will help give verve to his songs. Waller, who composed the music to the documentary We Were Here: Voices from the AIDS Years in San Francisco, took to the project not just because of its message and thesis, but because it hit home. "I lived in Palo Alto, which is a suburban bubble, we had no exposure to what was happening in San Francisco," Waller says of growing up in 90s suburbia. Before Waller moved to San Francisco in 1994, he lived in LA for a year and had a record deal with someone who mentored him, a fellow by the name of Wayne Hendrickson. "I knew he was gay, I knew I was gay but was not out. I knew he was gay but didn't know he was HIV positive. This is '94 and he actually, right before I got to LA, started having AIDS symptoms." As Holcombe moved in with Hedrickson and his lover, Hendrickson was dying: "That happened to me when I was 18 and before I went to college." Such a strong and powerful sentiment to see while coming of age. With his personal story, Holcombe brought the same passion and organic song structure to a film that is extremely important and documents years of medical mystery in finding a cure for AIDS.
Whether it is on stage, scoring films, making music -- Holcombe Waller is making art and making the art that is feels is necessary to make. In a business such as this, to find the zest that he has and his way of storytelling, it's clear he will be doing this for the rest of his life.
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