Romantic ballads by singer Holly Near can be as lyrical as Anne Murray, as earnest as Joni Mitchell or as torchy as Barbra Streisand. All that notwithstanding, she cut four albums that never made AM radio because the issues she raises are often controversial and the love Holly hymns is sometimes lesbian. But now, with her fifth LP, Fire in the Rain, Near is finally, at 32, tapping into the mainstream. She hired radio promoters and a hot L.A.-based PR firm. The result was sales of 30,000 copies in the first month and national TV appearances on The Today Show and Sesame Street. “I’m not willing to change who I am to sell records,” she says. “But being known to the general population is exciting to me. I don’t see that as selling out.”
Small chance. David Rubinson, who managed the Pointer Sisters and now owns a recording studio Near uses in San Francisco, says, “Holly could be as big as Linda Ronstadt without changing her music. But she made a conscious decision to stand by her real fans instead of sacrificing them for megasales.” Onstage, Near croons ruefully about nuclear power, war and the woes of working women (“I’d like some respect to be reflected in the check”). She doesn’t proselytize for lesbianism but sometimes encourages audiences to sing along with tunes extolling gay love. On her new LP, though, one country & Western cut, Once or Twice, is at last getting her some unpurchased radio exposure.
Near, who previously dated men, publicly declared herself gay in 1976 after she fell in love with a female guitarist-composer. Recalls Holly: “I thought, ‘Gosh, can I really deal with what society hands out to a lesbian?’ Then I decided that wasn’t a fair choice—to deny myself a happy and healthy part of life because of social criticism.”
Holly’s parents approve of her career and regularly attend her concerts. Her folks live on the sheep farm near Ukiah, Calif. where Holly grew up. She took voice lessons for nine years, played Eliza in a high school My Fair Lady and then dropped out of UCLA after a year. That was when she was spotted in a campus version of 110 in the Shade and cast with Jennifer Jones and Roddy McDowall in the movie Cult of the Damned. Next came small roles in films including Slaughterhouse-Five and guest spots on TV series like All in the Family and Room 222. “I was very much in demand,” she remembers wryly. “There weren’t many chubby, 20-year-old character actresses in Hollywood.”
Near left Hollywood in 1971 to tour with Jane Fonda’s antiwar revue, entertaining the troops both home and abroad (off-base, of course). When she sought a record deal, Holly reports, “one executive told me I couldn’t be a hit singer because I didn’t have any element of submission in my voice.” So in 1973 she founded her own label, Redwood Records. The company grosses up to $250,000 a year and employs five. Some 75 percent of her audiences, along with all her band members and co-workers, are female, but many are just fans or feminists—and not gay.
At home, Holly shares a modest Northern California ranch house with two Redwood partners. Her current lover, bass player-guitarist Nancy Vogl, lives in Oakland. Pianist Jeff Langley, who once toured with Near, says, “Holly has a considerable ego. She needs to be a leader, but she is an account-able woman.” As Near explains it, “I want to do songs about lesbians in such a way that both gay and straight teenagers will ask their parents to come to concerts. Some rock bands perpetuate drugs and violence. Young people take those ideas into their everyday life,” she continues. “The culture is violent enough now. I wish artists would be more responsible.”