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The O.K. Show, Episode 13: The evolution of Holly Hansen

Portraits by Nate Ryan/MPR

This week feels like a special show for me, because I have been following Holly Hansen’s career, interviewing her, and listening to her music for almost the entire time that I’ve worked full-time as a professional music journalist in the Twin Cities.

I’ve probably seen her perform with her band Zoo Animal about a dozen times, and I never saw Holly give less than 100% on stage. Zoo Animal played like something massive was at stake — and in its earliest days, there was. Zoo Animal were one of the only bands I can recall from the Minnesota music scene who identified as Christians and made music that explicitly talked about Jesus and God, but who defied the categorization of Christian rock.

It’s one of the first things I remember talking to Holly about, when I interviewed her for the first time l back in 2009. She didn’t want to talk about her religion in that interview because she was leery of limited to that Christian rock genre. But a closer read of the lyrics on her debut album, Young Blood, hinted at an even more complex backstory; even though Holly had embraced Christianity up until that point, she was grappling with how the Bible verses she’d studied could be applied to her evolving identity, and wondering what it meant that her adult life and her religious beliefs were starting to split and go down different paths.

Back then, Holly was in her early 20s, and about to be married for the first time. As many of us can attest — myself included — we learn a lot about ourselves in our mid 20s, and sometimes it can feel like you’re coming out on the other end of that transition period as an entirely different person.

Holly wrote a blog post about a year ago now that explained just how enormous her transition into her late 20s ended up being.

“I made a heavy decision in 2012,” she wrote. “It wasn’t to get a divorce. It wasn’t to come out. It wasn’t to admit I wasn’t a Christian. It wasn’t to pursue the one I love. Though that all happened, it really was just one decision, to be honest.”

When Zoo Animal announced that they would be playing only one more show in December and then disbanding, it seemed like an excellent time to catch up with Holly for an in-depth chat about everything she’s been through and where she’s headed next. We ended up talking for quite a long time, and what follows are the highlights from our conversation.

  1. Listen The O.K. Show, Episode 13: Holly Hansen

A transcript of the conversation is below, edited for length and clarity. Find the full conversation in the audio above, download it on iTunes, or find the O.K. Show podcast through Feedburner.

Andrea Swensson: 2015 was a big year for Zoo Animal, with your last show happening in December. Why did Zoo Animal have to come to an end?

Holly Hansen: I have this thing that happens to me, where I have a gut feeling and then I do it, and then after it’s over I can understand better why it had to happen. And I think even with Zoo Animal, I’m still somewhat understanding why I had to finish it. Because the band played in Duluth maybe a month before our last show, and I still wasn’t sure. So it was maybe a couple days after that, and I let the band know. For me, the band and the name Zoo Animal and all of those songs are wrapped up in all of these things that were me when I was in my early 20s. And I’ve changed so much. The world has changed so much. And I just wasn’t feeling motivated to write, every time I thought about Zoo Animal.

What if I want to work on something in my bedroom for a year before I have to play it live? I need to go back to this space where music is a little playground. And I’m kind of a business-minded person; I like bookkeeping, I love spreadsheets. And I think I got to a point where it was like, “I need to make a living at this so I can make music.” While I was trying to become that thing, I forgot to keep writing. I forgot to keep caring about what I was doing. It just hit me: I have to stop pushing this. Because I love what has happened, but I’m not interested in pushing this anymore.

So, I’m thinking about the first time I met you, and one thing that you were really struggling with at that time was being pigeonholed as a Christian rock band. Fast forward all these years later, and I know that’s something you’re still thinking about a lot; your relationship to religion. Can you tell me a little bit about your upbringing, and how that religious element entered your art?

My upbringing was very Christian. I loved it. I mean, to have passion and to also have intellectual pursuits — not by any means saying I’m smart, but loving to study philosophy — if you live in a small town, really the only outlet for that is oh, I can go to a Bible study. And it’s an emotional connection, and a mental connection, and it turns into this really beautiful coming togetherness of who you are. You don’t have to be embarrassed about being extremely passionate or interested in something. Growing up, it was a big part of my life. And I was always sort of a dissonant note in that community because I didn’t always like the way certain things were talked about. Especially living in a small town and being someone who always had an artistic bent; that’s just not very common in a small town in Minnesota.

My mom and I are very close, and we have the kind of relationship where we would talk; Saturday morning would come and she’s got these two chairs in her dining room that she sits in and does her devotional, and I would join her and then we would just talk. Like it’s not uncommon that three hours go by and we’re still talking about what it means that the stone was rolled away and it was three women. You know, very specific things like that. So Christianity taught me to think, and to care about why I’m alive. But as time went by I realized, I’m a Christian because my family is Christian. And it started to not line up with my values.

It’s not that I wasn’t aware; it’s that I really was in love with this idea that there’s somebody I can constantly talk to. These days, I’m like, I can’t believe I thought — I mean, I love Christians, and I think it’s totally reasonable to have a faith like that — but it came to a point where it was like, “I can’t believe I think I can talk to the person who made the world.” And that I can just sit on my porch and talk to this person. But when I did think that, it was amazing. And it was very inspiring. It really just came to the point where it was like, “I don’t actually believe that.” So when I would do it, I would feel like a fool.

I’m not like a vengeful ex-Christian or something. I do see some of the harm that the entity it is has done, but as far as having belief, I think that can be a very good thing. I just don’t have it.

When I listen back to the earliest Zoo Animal songs, what’s really interesting to me is that you were singing about religion, but you were singing from a standpoint of someone that was highly skeptical, and wondering what it all meant for your identity and your life. Did the questioning start before that? Or was the music a way to grapple with this stuff?

I think if it started anytime before that, I wasn’t aware of it. And the music was sort of me admitting it to myself. I think all three [ZA records] are me admitting things to myself. Writing them down, singing them, and then maybe a year after I write it I’m like, “Wow, that’s what I was thinking.” And it’s almost like I don’t even realize it in the time that it’s happening, and I look back like, whoa, that’s why that was happening in that way. I think that’s maybe why I felt like I had to stop having Zoo Animal; because I feel like Zoo Animal was all about not knowing myself and being super, in a way, angry, because I felt stuck. Young Blood was me finally admitting that I was questioning things, and some of the lyrics were almost halfway sarcastic. Like, things that a Christian would say — like I know the song “My Lord” is pretty darn in your face, if you listen to the lyrics. “You’ll be scared when my Lord comes down.” And I think, in a way, I was bieng like, “Do you realize what you’re saying, if you believe this is true?” And then just play it to a disco beat. [laughs] Whatever.

You were married when Zoo Animal broke out.

Yeah. I wasn’t married when Young Blood came out, but I know when I re-pressed it, I was, because I had to change the last name.

I bring that up because you’re not married any longer, that’s one of the changes that has happened. And I think there are themes on that level as well, questioning whether things were right and examining your life. Was that having an impact on people in your life, that you were saying these things in your lyrics that could impact your relationship?

You know, I sometimes think I would write things in songs to see if I could get a reaction out of people. But no one ever said anything. A lot of songwriters sing like it’s first-person, but maybe it’s not because they’re trying to be in someone else’s shoes, and I think they would assume that. And sometimes people would ask me, and I would tell them that it wasn’t first-person because I didn’t want to deal with what that would mean. So I don’t really know if I ever had someone close to me talk to me about my lyrics. I had people say, “Wow, Departure is kind of dark.” But it wasn’t like, “Are you ok?” It was just like, “Wow, that’s an interesting subject.”

Oh that’s interesting.

It was very Minnesotan.

That’s different.

Exactly. “Interesting…” I’m not going to tell you what I really think.

Where in the process of questioning things did you start to question your sexuality?

Well, the thing about questioning that is I knew that was a part of me since I can remember, but it was if it was right or not. Honestly, if you listen back, knowing that that was something I was dealing with, almost every song has something about that. It’s one of those things — I think these days, maybe teenagers are more likely to express that to someone they trusted, but I never told anyone. No way. Because that changes everything for everyone. And because I literally thought it was wrong. I actually thought it was wrong, growing up, because I read the Bible quite literally. At one point I was a straight-up Calvinist. It wasn’t about admitting that that’s something that was a part of me; it was admitting that it was ok.

My ex-husband is a great person, and the fact that we still know each other and that we still talk — I want the best for him, and he wants the best for me. But the fact that he had to go through this whole thing with somebody, I’m just like, “I’m so sorry.” Also, I’m not a binary person anyways, so it’s not that I’m a lesbian, or whatever. I just don’t have a line. Growing up where I grew up, I didn’t even know the language. I didn’t know how to talk about it. I didn’t even know. And in this weird way, too, I’m kind of glad that when I came out I was already in love. And I’ve just been with her, and I’ll be with her. That’s just how it is.

Also, because of what happened with being pigeonholed as a Christian, I was also worried about being public about it, because I didn’t want to become a spokesperson for that either. So that was kind of a weird decision that my partner and I came to together. Should you even do that? I’m also very conscious that I want to keep communication open with Christians. I want to keep communication open with people who think my lifestyle is wrong, because I want to learn. I want to know why they think that. Not because I want to tear them down, but because I want to understand them. I don’t know if I want to tell you what side I’m on because I want you to know that I care more about knowing you than convincing you of my beliefs. And that’s a really weird — I mean, balancing that out, especially when you’re somebody that has articles written about you, it’s like, how do I navigate this? I have no idea.


The O.K. Show, Episode 1: A candid discussion on mental health with Charlie Van Stee

The O.K. Show, Episode 2: Mary Beth Mueller and her one-woman crusade against cancer

The O.K. Show, Episode 3: Adam Levy’s devastating loss and beautiful new solo album

The O.K. Show, Episode 4: Irv Williams, the elder statesman of Twin Cities jazz

The O.K. Show, Episode 5: Lydia Liza on empathy, anxiety, and staying grounded in the music business

The O.K. Show, Episode 6: Hard-touring rapper Astronautalis talks about staying sane on the road

The O.K. Show, Episode 7: Mayda on her health and her journey as a Korean adoptee

The O.K. Show, Episode 8: Manchita on feminism, rapping, and her relationship with Eyedea

The O.K. Show, Episode 9: Lizzo on self-acceptance and falling in love with herself

The O.K. Show, Episode 10: Rock ‘n’ roll dreamer Dan Israel comes to terms with his divorce and his health

The O.K. Show, Episode 11: Claire de Lune on anxiety, imposter syndrome, and finding herself through music

The O.K. Show, Episode 12: A conversation with Greg Grease on self-care and community building