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Holly Montgomery: “Playing John Paul Jones’s basslines and singing Robert Plant’s lyrics is no joke”

Holly Montgomery
(Image credit: Pippa Ferguson)

Raised in Louisville, Kentucky, Holly Montgomery first picked up the bass guitar at the age of 14 and later moved to Los Angeles, where she blossomed as a songwriter and versatile hired gun, playing bass for country band The Mustangs, the folk singer Dan Bern and rapper Ice Cube. 

“Music was always in my family,” she tells us. “My father was a classical piano player and my mother was a country singer-songwriter, so music was always there, no matter how crazy family life got.”

She adds, “We had a piano in the house, and for the longest time I played that, but it wasn’t something I was really motivated to practise or get better at. I picked up a bass by accident, because somebody had left it at our house – it was one of a few ‘A-ha!’ moments I’ve had in my life. I play guitar when I have to, but it’s funny – so many bass players are guitarists that started playing bass, and I’m really not one of those.”

Holly divides her time between the East and West coast of the USA, running bands on both sides of the country. 

“I have a little bit of a strange career right now,” she admits, “as I lived in L.A. for years, but I left as I didn’t want to live there. I moved to the Washington D.C. area and came to find out that there’s a lot of live music here, and a really deep music scene with a lot of great players. I started getting out on that scene and I was really busy, playing almost 300 gigs a year.

“I couldn’t believe that you could have a middle-class career as a musician, because when you live somewhere like L.A. or Nashville, the gigs don’t pay that much because so many musicians are willing to do it for free. Then I started making my own records here, living the middle-class musician dream – and now I have a record deal in L.A., so I’m going back and forth.”

Like me, Holly is a frontwoman who sings lead and plays bass: we connect over the rarity of that role. I wonder if she comes across the same issues that I do when leading a predominantly male band.

“Always! Even when a band gets along well there are always problems, but you can’t really talk about it because it gets downplayed. It’s not always easy, but you have to stay firm and plough ahead – otherwise you can get pulled in other directions.

“Guys just don’t have to worry about this,” she adds, “but I get the whole ‘So how did you learn to play?’ question a lot. Well, I learned how to play the same way as everyone else learns how to play, with a lot of practice! Sometimes I can’t believe I still have to answer these questions. It shouldn’t be that big a deal, but apparently it still is, you know?” 

One of the things I love about making my own records is that I can do whatever the hell I want

I completely get that – and I’m sure many of BP’s female readers will too. “At the end of the day I just want to keep it about the music,” she muses.

“I have pretty broad tastes, which I think comes out in the songwriting. For example, a while ago I went to Cornwall, England as I have a friend there who was telling me about so many young people from the area moving away. This is causing the decline of so many villages that it inspired me to write a country song about it. That was written for what that situation felt like – even though we were listening to Judas Priest all day!

“One of the things I love about making my own records is that I can do whatever the hell I want. If I have a grunge song next to a sweet little song then I can do it, because I’m paying for it. When it comes to songwriting, It’s a case of writing from an idea, a lyric idea, and then I figure out what vibe works musically for the lyrics. Sometimes a song comes from a groove on the bass.”

As we’re on a video call I can’t help but notice the pictures on Holly’s wall of Led Zeppelin and Rush, so no prizes for guessing who her bass heroes are.

“For sure, Geddy Lee and John Paul Jones, no doubt about it. Playing John Paul Jones’s bass-lines and singing Robert Plant’s lyrics is no joke – I had to sit down and write out the rhythm of the bass part and the rhythm of the vocals and figure out why I was having such a hard time. It takes a while before you’re able to bring the two together!”

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