Folk-rock singer and songwriter Joe Holt graduated from Berklee College of Music in 2015, where he studied composition. Three full-length albums, four EPs, and one acoustic album.
Since then, he’s played at Boston’s Club Passim, the Hard Rock Café, New York City’s Rockwood Music Hall, Boston’s The Bitter End, Nashville’s Bluebird Café, and Los Angeles’ Whisky A Go-Go, among others, and his music has been played on more than 60 radio stations across the world.
In this interview, find out more about his latest album “Tired Of Trying” and how the internet has changed his music career.
What is your real name?
What’s your official Showbiz name?
Also just Joe Holt, but I have a list of like 15 awesome band names I’m just not brave enough to adopt.
How did you get into music?
My parents are musicians – my dad is an organist, pianist, conductor and choirmaster, and my mum is a violist and teacher who also plays the violin.
My brother is a singer as is my sister in law – music has always been around, as long as I can remember. My dad used to play classical music in the car and quiz my brother and me on who the composer was; failing that, quizzing us on the era in which it was composed.
Some kids were out there doing drugs and having sex – I was correctly guessing Ravel’s Bolero on FM radio.
I took piano lessons as a kid, then moved on to trombone for a year and then saxophone for 2 or 3 years. I always held the saxophone incorrectly though, twisting it across my lap and holding it like a guitar – it’s like I always knew what instrument I would eventually land on.
I started playing the guitar at 12 and ended up going to Berklee to major in Songwriting. Studying with Guy van Duser got me into fingerpicking, which led me to my current discipline.
What field or genre are you into and how would you describe it?
Indie folk, though some blogs have described my music as “chamber folk” because of the classical influences. On this new album “Tired of Trying,” one of the songs uses the Libera Me from Faure’s Requiem as its form, and there are strings on 5 of the 10 songs, as well as a French horn on one.
What were your first projects and the people you worked with and which year?
In high school, my girlfriend at the time bought me my first recording software, and I would spend the summers writing and recording objectively terrible music.
I played in two bands in those days (around 2008-2010, this would’ve been): The Naked Welshman, a duo with my friend Tom, and Hot Pants, a band with my friends in our small town in Connecticut. I still keep in touch with all my old bandmates but those formative years were essentially spent fumbling around musically.
In 2011, I met Charles Humenry, a French composer and producer, at Berklee in my freshman year. He helped me record a demo collection in the spring of 2012, which was my first time recording with a producer, although we didn’t think of it that way at the time.
The recording was the magic I had been looking for: at the beginning of the day, there’s nothing, just the hope of a song, some shapeless entity, and by the end of the session there’s a tangible representation of a group of peoples’ dreams and talents and effort.
I live to record. Charles helped me find that love at the time, and to still be working with him (he is the producer and arranger of Tired of Trying) is an honour.
In 2014 I released my first studio recording, an EP named Empty, recorded at Powerstation New England by Gabe Herman, an incredible engineer and kind, generous man who taught me so much and asked for so little.
The next year I successfully crowdfunded my first album, Brighter Moons, recorded in Boston by my friend from Berklee, a producer, engineer, and DJ named Sam “Mili” Milinazzo, featuring a band for the first time (Caleb Barnett on drums, Nate Sabat on upright bass, and a string trio consisting of David Boroff, Mason Lieberman, and my mum Alison).
After graduating, Caleb and I were playing a festival in Connecticut and while drinking beer one evening he told me his brother was building a studio in Texas and that I should do my next record with them.
Meanwhile, my girlfriend and I moved to New York, I started waiting tables and putting money aside, and I released another EP named Headwaters in 2015. That was my last release produced by Mili and mixed by Gabe Herman – not for any reason except for the fact that the Barnett studio was now ready.
In 2016 I drove down to Fort Worth, TX to The Hang Studios and spend a whirlwind week recording my second album The Person I Admire (which looks like my first album on Spotify; I took my older stuff off streaming services because it was representative of a younger, less experienced version of myself).
In Texas, I found a community of artists and young creative professionals who taught me about myself and helped me work towards achieving my goals more than any other group I had ever met.
Ben and Caleb Barnett, Austin Blair Campbell, Ben Crenshaw, and Austin Lege – not to mention their friends who, while not working on my music with me, took care of me while I was in town and embodied the spirit of southern hospitality. Each year for the next three years I drove to Texas, usually at the end of a tour, and recorded an album at The Hang Studios, produced by Ben Barnett and eventually also with Austin Blair Campbell.
Ben Cren filmed all our videos, several of which were featured on NPR, and those weeks we spent are cemented in my mind as some of my most important memories. We all grew up, getting girlfriends, getting engaged and married, having kids, moving through jobs – but the music never changed, and always gave us back as much as we gave it.
This period created 2017’s The Person I Admire, 2018’s EP Something Louder, which was featured on NPR and brought me fans across the country, real people who came to my shows and established a relationship with me, 2019’s A Bigger Fire and another full-length album in 2020 named It’s What We Give, which I ended up cutting down to an EP.
I also co-wrote Austin Blair Campbell’s 2020 album Chaos Within, a beautiful Americana-inspired rock album, which was some of the most fulfilling work of my life. I’ve already gone on too long in this answer to go into detail about these albums, but it’s a body of work representative of a very close-knit community working collaboratively on something they cared deeply about, and I’m very proud of each release.
I still consider these Texas friends some of my best friends, but I haven’t seen any of them since the pandemic and we’ve lost touch as our respective communities have drifted away from each other and as the logistics of travelling in a pandemic have impeded our ability to see each other.
On a trip upstate with Charles in the summer of 2020, I asked if he would consider producing an album for me, and we started recording Tired of Trying in January 2021.
Who or what inspires you or motivates you? And why?
I look up to Guy Garvey, the singer and lyricist of Elbow, who writes evocatively about ordinary things, and recently I’ve found inspiration in the direct empathy of Phoebe Bridgers and Christian Lee Hutson, the latter of which was a direct reference for some of our guitar sounds for this record.
Jason Isbell has been an idol of mine since Austin Blair Campbell showed him to me. In short, I’m inspired by trying to relate to my listener, presenting everyday concepts in a novel fashion, and trying to maintain a sense of originality in conventional song aesthetics and structures.
Any models you look up to? With reason(s) why?
The influences I named above are some that come immediately to mind, but I do also look up to many of my friends and contemporaries. Kat Kennedy, my friend in LA, starts working at 6 am every day so she can funnel her money into her music career, and she’s starting to get the recognition she’s been working towards, which is so exciting to watch.
My friend Griffin moved to Chicago after college, without any kind of support system, to pursue improv comedy and production, and my stays with him on tour were always the bright parts of many weeks of driving… I admired his courage then and still do.
I look up to anyone who doesn’t give up, who finds ways around obstacles and who doesn’t shy away from challenges, and I strive to be that same example for someone else.
What do you look out for in this line of business?
Being incredibly handsome and charming is indeed quite a burden sometimes, so I mostly just have to look out for underpants thrown onstage and paparazzi sneaking into my apartment.
What are some of the challenges you face in your career path?
I mean, it’s not coal mining, right? Like, sure, I work hard. My life is easy though, and my easy life is really hard for me! The challenges are more from the life I want to have one day and realizing that “one day” is coming sooner than I expected – I want a house one day, and I might want to be a dad, and one day it’d be nice to make enough money to not have to stress about spending $4 for an HD video rental instead of $3 for an SD version.
But I have to reckon those dreams with this hunger that hasn’t stopped gnawing at me since I picked up a guitar – I want people to hear my music, and I’m willing to make a lot of sacrifices to make that happen. I’m also bald.
How do you feel the Internet has impacted the music business?
The internet has been a part of the business longer than I’ve been in it, so I have no idea what it was like before. You know, I do think Phil Collins would’ve had a harder time making it these days.
I dunno if looking like some bald dude works anymore – I think we’re all expected to be a little sexier these days, a little more Instagrammable, and a little more homogenized. Although the reach I’m able to achieve is an incredible thing – people in Kentucky hearing my music on NPR and driving to Ohio to see me on tour, for example.
That kind of thing wouldn’t have been so immediate without the internet. I’m resigned to it. Just gotta show more butt pics.
Do you have any advice for aspiring songwriters?
First of all, take care of yourself. Your mind, your body. Learn how to lift weights, go on runs, eat vegetables, and don’t smoke so many cigarettes. It’s not really cool anymore to feel like shit. Second, GO TO SHOWS. I wish I had told myself that earlier.
It’s hard – it’s expensive and when you work a day job you’re tired at the end of the day and don’t want to go out to support your friends. But DO IT. Tell them a week in advance you’ll be there so if you don’t go you know you’re letting them down. Bring friends.
Every time I don’t want to go to a show, I go, and I have a great time every time. Don’t go because you want them to come to your shows (although they probably will) – go because you want your town to have a music scene.
Venues need to survive, musicians need gigs to play, and we all need a way to celebrate being alive instead of just continuously punching the clock and going home and going to bed, over and over and over again.
Thirdly, learn what your sound is and work on refining what makes you unique. But eating vegetables and going to shows is more important lol
What is your current project about?
I wrote these songs during the pandemic so it’s not the most cheerful album in the world, but in sadness, there is also empathy, and my goal in writing bluntly about feeling lonely, feeling lost, and feeling helpless is that someone out there benefits from hearing that someone feels those things too.
I don’t have clinical depression but I do think I just have kind of a lower happiness baseline than other people and the drudgery of life is really hard for me to come to terms with. This album is about that, about finding peace in nature, and about persevering, with all the ups and downs in that process.
The songs are tactile, beautifully arranged and produced by Charles and mixed by Matthew Sullivan, and the music compliments the lyrics in its intimacy and rawness. It’s good! I know I’m biased but really, it’s fucking good. Please listen.
What are your hobbies?
Uh. Well it’s been a weird couple of years, right? I didn’t have any for a while. I’m a competitive powerlifter so I like lifting weights, but gyms were closed in NYC for a year. I got into fly fishing during the pandemic, and have bonded with my friend Jake on our fishing trips.
I think we’re gonna go this weekend. It’s the only way two straight dudes are allowed to be intimate together. I read a lot of history books. I’m boring, man. I read all of Edmund Morris’ books about Teddy Roosevelt.
I’m reading The Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire. I play the guitar and cook and clean and waste a lot of time and feel guilty like 90% of the day. It rocks.
What do you do aside from this profession?
I’m a personal trainer and strength coach – my goal is to have the fattest ass in folk/Americana. Follow me @joeholtstrength and hire me so I can make more music, please thank you.
What is one message you would give to your fans?
Let me be earnest for once in my life. One way training has impacted me is that it’s reminded me that the most important thing is consistency. When working out, it doesn’t matter, not really, how hard you push yourself in a workout.
It matters how often you show up; how often you say you’ll do it and then actually do; how many weeks in a row you can accomplish your simple little tasks. Getting stronger isn’t glamorous. It’s monotonous and dull and yet also incredibly rewarding.
Everything in life is like that. Do you have a goal? Do something little for it, every single day, day after day after day. Make it a habit, make it a lifestyle, and make it engrained in your bones. Everything else is extraneous nuance. The first step is showing up!
Also, buy my album and stream it and share it and buy it on vinyl and get a tattoo of my lyrics and come to my shows. Thanks!