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Nearer The Heart

Singer-songwriter Holly Near has spent 45 years singing for political change

Folk activist-musician Holly Near is a seasoned singer-songwriter whose recipe is impossible to pin down. Her honeylike yet raspy vocals cry out against oppression, while her tender demeanor draws in crowds who crave a church geared towards a soul, not a deity. After 45 years of performing her highly politicized songs, Near has found herself — on stages, in her audience, and in her own personal struggles with and against waves of oppression.

“People from the audience have often said coming to one of my concerts is like going to church, except there is no religion, no historic icons or spiritual tradition,” Near says. “There is something holy about people gathering together with their best intentions right out front, their hearts wide open.”

Think You Don’t Own Me by Leslie Gore meets a Pacific Northwest women’s festival. At first listen, her songs open with a hymnal’s ambience: Her vocals are rich, stretched to emotional lengths, and her lyrics expand into stories thick with catharsis and prose — as well as, at times, some comical relief. 

Near’s journey as a melodic messenger was less defined in her early career; her path remained self-crafted and geared towards her version of success. After growing up in Potter Valley, California, with musically and politically inclined parents, Near found herself en route to a career in acting, although singing was her calling.

“I thought of myself more as a singer,” she says. “I kept getting acting jobs where I did not sing. I got paid, and I needed to make a living. My first substantial payment for a film job was the start-up money for my record company, Redwood Records.” In 1972, independent record companies were seldom owned, run and operated by women, placing Near among the first women to create what is now referred to as “indie” music.

For 20 years, she shared her record company and resources with fellow artists showing a passion for change and political activism. As her community and audience grew, her songs hung heavy with a call for feminism, anti-racism, tolerance and action. Near has produced 26 albums of her own, each littered with her gospel-like anthems for equality. 

 Near is well aware that a lifetime spent creating and sharing activist music may never result in wealth, fame or mainstream attention. Lyrics that preach about the deaths of African-Americans and women’s rights are seldom heard on the radio, even if Beyoncé is belting them out. “I feel bad for people who don’t know that a group like Sweet Honey in the Rock even exists,” Near says. “Sometimes I think it is harder on the general population not to have access to us than it is for us not to have access to them.”

Near continues to weave her powerful music for the audience that shows up time and time again to share her message of change.

 “I think sometimes people take what they hear at one of my concerts and use it to go back into their jobs or families — in that I mean, the concert helps them improve their activism. I love that part. The songs are healing. The music is entertaining. The evening is meant to refuel.”

Come recharge with Holly Near along with Jorah LeFleur 7:30 pm Friday, May 19, at Unity of the Valley. Tickets are $25 in advance, $28 at the door, and the show is a benefit for Womenspace.  — Kelsey Anne Rankin