Desert Hollow is a young, California-based folkie duet consisting of Xander Hitzig and Nicole Olney. The duo is both independent songwriters who have come together in love and creative collaboration and are creating a totally unique sound. “We have a lot of things to say, and even more to play,” quips Olney. Their name, Desert Hollow is a definition of their combined geographical and artistic influences. Hitzig is from West Virginia and Olney is from the California desert. They both share a love for early traditional folk and bluegrass but are equally passionate about indie-folk and alt-country music.
Both Hitzig and Olney wrote and sang on their debut 5-song EP, Thirsty. Hitzig also contributes lead guitar, fiddle, mandolin, penny whistle, kazoo and 5-string banjo, while Olney provides guitar, banjolele, and kazoo. They brought in guests Matt Lucich (Paula Cole, Kate Pierson) on drums and percussion, James “Hutch” Hutchinson (Bonnie Raitt, Bob Dylan) on bass, Johnny Hawthorn (The HawtThornes) on steel guitar, and Adrienne Isom (Nocona and Mule Kick Records) on bass. The record was produced by Steve Berns (who also engineers) and KP Hawthorn (Mule Kick Records, The HawtThorns).
The two met and clicked on the set of a country musical, Sneaky Ole Time in which they both had lead roles. The creative and biological chemistry was apparent from the start. Their voices meld in a way that old bluegrassers would call a “blood harmony” and when they come together to play, it’s like two puzzle pieces clicking together. “Xander and I both have a knack for writing a unique song,” Olney notes. “And those words we write are known to rest on a solid musical bed created mostly by the multi-instrumental genius that is Xander Hitzig. I think we are also at this point known for our in-between-song banter. We do solid banter.”
The EP kicks off with the title song, “Thirsty”, written by Olney. “I felt more like an archeologist than a writer, scraping away the dirt from the bones of the thing. Once I finally had the words and basic chord progression, I shared it with Xander and he picked up his 5-string banjo and started playing along.” She adds laughingly, “The song didn’t originally have a penny whistle. I went downstairs to get coffee for five minutes and I came back to a three-part penny whistle solo.”
Hitzig was inspired to write “I Can’t Wait For Summer” visiting West Virginia in early spring. “I was sitting on the porch plucking my banjo on my parent’s farm and realized the firewood was getting low,” he mused. “Looking at the dwindling firewood pile, I thought, ‘I can’t wait for summer.”’
“Look At Those Birds” was also crafted during a visit to West Virginia, but Olney had the beginnings of this song. On their way to a family dinner party, she looked up and saw birds circling in the sky. In a fit of goofy inspiration, she blurted out the melody and words that hadn’t been written yet, “Look at those birds, flying high up in the West Virginia skyyy…” Hitzig declared it a song and she finished writing it the next day. “We flew to Austin for SXSW a few days later and in our hotel room, Xander used the picking pattern he made up and his impeccable ear to create the perfect guitar part for the song.”
Hitzig wrote “Take Me Back To Nowhere” long before meeting Olney. It’s a song he used to perform with his group Brownchicken Browncow Stringband. He was inspired after living in a van in New Orleans with the five-piece band for two weeks. “You can image that ‘nowhere’ seemed like a good place to get back to as quickly as possible.”
Olney wrote “Mary” after a panel at the Grammy Museum in Los Angeles. “There was a guy telling a story about asking his songwriting hero about how to write a song. He responded with ‘take a song of someone else’s you really like and re-write it. Then just change the chords.’ So, I gave that trick a whirl. I took a song that I loved by Gregory Alan Isakov and ‘Mary’ popped out. Xander wrote that brilliant lead guitar part for it, which holds the song just as much as the words.”
Meeting KP Hawthorn and Adrienne Isom of Mulekick Records (and formerly of Rebelle Road Productions) was a huge milestone for the couple. “We are so grateful for every opportunity they have given us and everything they have taught us about navigating the music industry,” said Olney.
The beginnings of the record happened when Olney and Hitzig were at SXSW working a Rebelle Road showcase. Hitzig was backing up Nocona and Alice Wallace, and Olney was working as an MC. Hitzig had a solo set on the last day of the festival and asked Olney to get up and sing a few of their songs with him. KP Hawthorn, co-creator of the showcase spoke with them afterwards about how much she had enjoyed the songs and wondered if they wanted to get in the studio one they all got back to L.A. “We agreed!” said Olney. “Once we were back, KP introduced us to Steve Berns, and a few weeks later we were recording at his studio, Fitting Room Studio.”
The pandemic had a change of plans for everyone in 2020 and Desert Hollow was no exception. “This last year has been challenging, that almost goes without saying,” states Olney. “However, it was also one of the greatest years of our lives. We raised money to film our music videos in February and in April we purchased our home on wheels, a Toyota Dolphin RV named, Dolly. We crossed the country back and forth and lived on the road for a while. We regularly hosted Facebook Live shows and even had a few socially distanced outdoor shows. The music never stopped.”
In September, they put Dolly in storage and flew to Maui to rest for a while. And they are still there today, as they prepare for the release of this very special debut album. “I want people to know that this album is truly the tip of the iceberg. Xander and I are sort of songwriting machines and we are just so excited to release this music so that we can release so much more music.”