Talisha Holmes is ready to burn it all down

Andy Downing
Talisha Holmes

Talisha Holmes wrote “America” in 2014, the verses taking shape almost immediately after she learned that police had shot and killed Michael Brown in Ferguson, Missouri. At the time, the musician was overcome by grief and anger, struggling with the reality of constantly being asked to pledge allegiance to a country that offered few protections in return.

A burning resentment surfaces in lines such as, “I don’t know how to deal with this damnation,” which could just as easily be heard as “this damn nation.” In fact, Holmes has written the lyrics out both ways at alternating times.

“I went to elementary school in Galloway, Ohio, and when I was a kid I knew 15 gazillion patriotic songs. I knew the preamble [to the Constitution]. I knew ‘The Pledge of Allegiance.’ I knew all of that stuff. It was something they drill into you: You’re patriotic, and you live and die for America. … But I’m a Black woman, and it’s more likely going to be ‘die,’” said Holmes, who learned of Michael Brown’s death while on a road trip with her mother, recording early sketches for the song as the two traveled by car in Washington D.C. “Growing up Black, I had my first experience with the police when I was 11 years old, and I was walking around my neighborhood in Urbancrest, Ohio, and I got stopped by the sheriff. They stopped me and asked me for my ID, and I was like, ‘I don’t have an ID,’ because I was 11, but they continued to harass me. … Fast forward to me being an adult and hearing about Michael Brown, my first thought was that this isn’t a new situation.”

While Holmes has performed “America” regularly in concert in the years since, she didn’t record a proper studio version of the song until this summer, holing up with her band at Secret Studio following a new round of Black lives matter protests that started in late May and have injected the track with a fresh urgency, as well as inspiring a new verse that highlights the frustration of continually being forced to fight the same battles.

“We tried your way to make our voices pleasing,” Holmes sings, her words directed at those who argue there is a “right way” to protest. She then turns her flamethrower on the irrevocably broken system, promising to burn it all down and start anew.

“We’ve [protested] every single way, and everything that could be done or said has been done or said. And what has it gotten us? Very little. We’re still saying the same things and chanting the same phrases that we were in the ’50s and ’60s,” said Holmes, whose version of “America” will appear on theSay It Loud Columbus compilation Music for the Movement: Vol. 1, due out digitally on Wednesday, Dec. 2. “We’re still asking to be seen as a full person, which is bullshit. Burn it all down.”

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For Holmes, the process of becoming a musician has involved learning how to more fully step out on her own. She first played cello in the elementary school band, in addition to joining with her sister to perform vocal covers of R&B standards, which continued through high school. Throughout this time, Holmes applied academic rigor to breaking down lyricists such as Stevie Wonder and Denise Williams, writing out the words to their songs and analyzing the structure and language to the point where “it’s all in my brain, sitting there, ready to go,” she said. 

Perhaps because of this, Holmes said her earliest songwriting efforts were often too academic, too stilted. “I read a lot of historical literature, so I had all of these archaic vocabulary words that I was throwing into the thing, and then I was speaking all politically, and it all sounded very convoluted and silly,” Holmes said. “I mean, you’re just playing around and trying to find out who you are, and wanting to express yourself, and it takes time to figure out what you’re doing.”

Gradually, though, Holmes said she has adopted a more open stance in her personal life, which has bled into the songwriting, the musician letting go of long-held hang-ups and writing with inspired directness.

“I’ve spent a lot of time over the years learning to be comfortable with myself and my flaws, and being fat and feminist and outspoken and not religious. And right now I can sit and comfortably say these things to you, but if you had been talking to me 15 years ago I would have been speaking in parables and maybe not telling the truth,” said Holmes, who first saw these developments play out on record with “Heal,” off of her debut EP. “I wrote this song and the chorus is, ‘Dig deep, and when you find it, heal and move on.’ In the verses, I was still trying to say what I wanted to say without really exposing myself, which was a theme in my life at the time, not sayingthe thing. But the chorus felt very out there, very straightforward. It’s taken me years to learn to say the embarrassing, blunt thing, but it’s good to do that. And that song felt like a good start.”