And now, at age 38, she is an unlikely success as a singer-songwriter.
"I never expected to be doing this," Holcomb said, referring to her new niche. The singer - who spent a day engaged in the still-unfamiliar business of promotion here in early fall - will return to Philadelphia tomorrow to play two shows at Old City's new acoustic music club, Tin Angel, located above Serrano's restaurant at 20 S. Second St.
"It's hard, after being an instrumentalist, to begin performing as a songwriter. Things are so literal and specific, where they once had openings and multiple meanings. I've never played music as structured as these songs - I have to be very aware of not losing my place. I'm still much more comfortable playing totally free. But when the songs work, they can be a deeply moving experience."
The songs work. They're unlike just about everything attempted by pop's confessional singer-songwriters - well-ordered pieces that incorporate poetry, homily, gospel lectures, heartland melodies, unusual harmonic progressions and hints of jazz improvisation.
The material on both Holcomb's debut and the current Rockabye are intimate, but offer few clues to her personality. Though straightforward to the point of being plain, they are hardly conventional. They glorify the innocence of an earlier time, but never for mere nostalgia value. Robin Holcomb's work is devoted to illuminating the little details that pop too often overlooks.
"Things move so fast now," Holcomb says. "We take in so much information, and process so little of it. I think a lot of my songs come from a concern for storytelling. The oral tradition is fascinating to me, and it's out of reach for most of us.
"I don't write songs about any one experience," she continues. "They're not so much about me, or places I've been. If I'm writing about a place - and I think storytelling tends to root you in a place - I want to communicate the longing for the place, not just the place itself."
Holcomb accomplishes this over and over, with imagery that could have come
from wilderness paintings or Robert Frost, as the opening verse from "When Was the Last Time" illustrates:
When was the last time
you were the witness to
The blacks of night blurring into blue . . .
The heavy blanket lifted, strange
And each fresh breath, so soft
Can you name that place right now
Where the dawn came over you
Or do you feel like you live too far
from anywhere wild?
Holcomb has no single formula for writing. "Very rarely can I sit down and will a song out," she says with resignation, adding that she often puts work off until the last minute. But she is regularly inspired by paintings and photographs.
"Iowa Lands," another of her new songs, was sparked by photographs of European immigrants who came to the United States early in this century. "I was looking at these pictures, and imagining what it must have been like to come here and be told of a place called Iowa where land was cheap. It seemed like a good challenge to evoke the hope these people had and the uncertainty they faced."
In other hands, these literary aspirations would yield pretentious music.
Holcomb is particularly sensitive to this and, with the help of Horvitz, arranges the pieces so that they are vital musically. She says her husband's instincts complement hers: "He thinks in terms of arrangements and other instruments, where I just work on the level of the lyrics, melody and simple harmony."
The arrangements on Rockabye are dotted with unusual colors and jarring choruses in unexpected places. Sometimes Holcomb's thin, frail voice stands stark and alone and somewhat defiant; other times it is surrounded by the warm, comforting, gospel sounds of the Steele Family.
And for every conventional piano phrase that serves as a song's anchor - such as the Carole King-influenced riff beneath "When I Stop Crying" - there are subversive guitar melodies and knotted dissonances that betray
Holcomb's past work in improvisation. Master guitarist Bill Frisell, a family friend who followed Holcomb to the Northwest, is one guest; accordionist Guy Klucevsek is another. Both add bits of personality and dabs of texture that give Holcomb's songs an orchestral dimension that, amazingly, was spontaneous.
"A lot of us have been working together for a long time," Holcomb explains. "Not always in the styles of music we're doing now, but playing together in lots of different contexts. There's an intuition that comes into it - when we play, we encourage each other to move in ways that maybe wouldn't have occurred to us otherwise."
Holcomb sounds proud that Rockabye captures a bit of that interaction. "I don't write things out very much. I guess I just trusted that the musicians would find what the songs needed. They did."