Cover Story

10 Things to Love About Peter Bolland

by Sven-Erik SeaholmNovember 2014

Peter Bolland. Photo by John Hancock.

Bolland at the CD release of Two Pines, which earned him a nomination at the SDMA for best Americana album. Photo by Dennis Andersen.

Bolland at the CD release of Two Pines, which earned him a nomination at the SDMA for best Americana album. Photo by Dennis Andersen.

Bolland, performing with the Eve Selis Band. Photo by Dennis Andersen.

California golden boy Bolland, 1978.

Bolland with his band, the Coyote Problem in 2007. Billy Fritz on the left; Danny Cress on the right. Photo by Gail Donnelly.

They should have never asked me to write this article. I mean, what were they thinking? First off, Peter Bolland is one of my dearest friends and a trusted confidant. We also infrequently perform together in a side-project called Allied Gardens. I’ve produced and recorded two albums for his former band, the Coyote Problem, as well as his recent solo outing, Two Pines. This is, of course, in addition to the Allied Gardens album and the dozens of other sessions we’ve worked on for countless other artists. The guy has even written about me, fer chrissake. It all adds up to an incredibly blatant conflict of interest… Not to mention the fact that there was never a popsicle’s chance in hell that this story would ever appear to be anything so much as an overt tribute of love, legend, praise, and adulation from one mostly heterosexual man to another, but screw it. It’s too late. They asked. I quickly accepted. And hey, you’ve read this far anyway, right? Let us proceed within the light of that humble acknowledgement, although you may want to imagine yourself seated at the Kennedy Center and that Morgan Freeman is wearing that ornately ribboned medal and reading this to you. Okay?

1. He’s a Damn Fine Singer. Peter Bolland is one of those guys whose voice surprises you upon hearing it for the first time. On stage, he’s relaxed and charming, disarming the room with his quick wit or a personally revealing anecdote, softly strumming his acoustic guitar and all the while gently welcoming and surveying the crowd. His is a presence that is at once vulnerable and beguiling. As he makes his way to the microphone, there is an air of anticipation like that of a long, uphill start to some sort of roller coaster ride. And then he drops that voice on us and we all plummet into its every burnished and beautiful twist, turn, and nuance.

Almost immediately, it seems apparent that his singing comes from a very deeply lived-in place, littered with the same contradictions that make us all that more human: Wizened but hopeful, wounded but healing. Speaking in anger while acting from love. All of these emotional touchstones feel as if they’ve wound themselves through the darkest corners of his heart, taking on a preacher’s booming resonance as it passes through his chest and is subsequently married to his upper timbres, which have been freshly squeeeeezed and pushed through his sinus cavities until those reedy vibrations trumpet like a wasp in a conch shell. Well, I mean… you know, if Bakersfield had conch shells and stuff.

It all adds up to something that I once heard described as “Kind of a cross between Neil Young, Buck Owens, and Roy Orbison” and I have to admit: that triumvirate of purpose, pain, and passion do equate to a pretty fair description of his vocal instrument.

His masterful use of it is characterized by his laser-like pitch and a twang so genuine that he could easily have a career just singing country covers, but…

2. He’s a Damn Fine Songwriter, Too. As the saying goes, Peter’s one of those artists who could “sing the phone book and it would sound great.” Thankfully, his songs are a whole lot more compelling than the offerings of that weighty tome. They are not merely vowels and consonants strategically arranged for maximum enjoyment, either. They are all little worlds unto themselves. Snatches of time. A peek through the blinds. His albums feature romantic vignettes alongside mountaintop orations. They are universal universes, wherein the big topics brush up against life’s little tendernesses. From baby birds to Palestine, no subject has been too large in scope nor tiny in significance under Peter’s practiced pen. He shows us the whole world in spite of all its ugliness and because of all its glory. He does this from every possible point of view, be it with a jeweler’s loupe or from 60 miles back. The guy even wrote a song that simultaneously captures and illustrates the essential grace and power of commitment and unconditional love…and it’s about trees (see: Two Pines).

Although its generally understood that we artists hate to be pigeon-holed, labeled, or otherwise categorized, much of the musical side to Peter Bolland’s songwriting could easily summed up with one totally overused, yet completely apropos word: Americana. Whether his lyrics roam from the Dust Bowl to the Washington Monument, the shores of California to the mountains of West Virginia, his music is always right there, too, lending conviction with a pure and honest authenticity. I mean, Peter Bolland is so Americana that when I went to his show, I smelled hay.

3. He Can Play a Guitar Like Ringing a Bell. I alluded earlier to having recorded in the studio with Peter quite often (although he has worked with countless other artists and producers) and would estimate that 90% of those sessions were dedicated to his guitars.

Also mentioned previously was his acoustic guitar playing, whose arpeggios, strums, plucks, and textures provide fittingly evocative accompaniment to a variety of settings and genres. He may only be playing D, G, and A chords, but his relaxed and intricate lines connect them with a gentle elegance that is slightly decorative, but never showy.

Slide and lap steel guitars are also specialties of his. His playing whispers, groans, wails, and soars; heightening and illuminating the song’s emotional thread; grasping for its very heart.

His dobro and banjo playing are more recent passions of his, blending even more of those deeply rooted colors into his musical palette.

Strap an electric guitar, like say a Fender Stratocaster on this guy and he becomes even more of a musical chameleon. From Nashville-like layers to Tex-Mex leads and Johnny Cash-styled “Tic-Tac” guitar, Bolland finds all the right places to be, inhabiting them with humility and imbuing them with a dazzling spectrum of flattering light.

But it’s the black and white Les Paul Custom-slinging Peter I’d most pay to see. That thing’s gotta weigh 20 pounds or more and like the true rock star that he is, he wears it really low. It’s a menacing, “hide your daughters” kinda low. Like, Slash low. When he plugs it into his amplifier and cranks it up, all that swagger and attitude instantly make total sense. This ain’t no costume, it’s a uniform. Whether channeling David Gilmore’s endlessly sustaining blues or Crazy Horse’s reckless abandon or any other of the hundreds of influences he shares in common with his audience… it is always all the way. When this dude throws down with this gun, he doesn’t just own the song, or the solo or even the room. He owns us.

…And don’t even get me started about his harmonica playing.

4. He’s Wicked Smart. Peter is professor of philosophy and humanities at Southwestern College, where he’s been teaching since 1991. In fact, he’s the Humanities Department Chair, in addition to teaching courses in world religions, Asian philosophy, world mythology, and ethics.

I’ve never taken one of his classes, but over the years I have met several of his former students. Every one of them sang his praises as an interesting, compelling, and generous instructor. I would imagine that he’s really quite interesting to listen to. He draws examples, anecdotes, and insights from his obviously vast well of knowledge and introduces them into a conversation so naturally that it just sort of makes you feel a little smarter, realizing that you’re communicating with someone else at this high a level.

5. He’s an In-Demand Public Speaker. In addition to his academic teaching, Bolland also lectures extensively on an impressive assortment of philosophical, spiritual, and mythological subjects at venues like the Osher Institute in the College of Extended Studies at San Diego State University and Oasis San Diego. He’s also a frequent guest speaker at a variety of New Thought churches like the Unity Center, Unity of El Cajon, and Vision: A Center for Spiritual Living where he also leads a Satsang the first Wednesday of each month.

I know this to be true, because I copied and pasted the preceding paragraph from his website, and left it virtually verbatim. However, I did look up what the word Satsang meant: (Sanskrit sat = true, sanga = company) in Indian philosophy means (1) the company of the “highest truth,” (2) the company of a guru, or (3) company with an assembly of persons who listen to, talk about, and assimilate the truth.

So he’s a guru, too? Okay, now that’s badass.

6. He’s Socio-Politically Outspoken. Anyone who is Peter’s acquaintance on “The FaceBook” knows that there is virtually no topic that is safe from Peter’s skew or scorn. From Ebola to redistricting, health care to gun control, he weighs in. With passion and insight. Frequently with questions that provoke and incite and make us laugh. Sometimes not. I remember one particular diatribe/post that featured his observations on yoga pants, of all things. Of the hundreds of (mostly inflammatory) responses, I can’t remember even a single one of them being in agreement with any part of what he said. He took it like a champ.

Most of the time he’s challenging. Challenging unquestioned authority. Challenging us to dig for better answers. Challenging this world to check itself before it wrecks itself.

7. He’s So Damn California. In fact, he’s lived here nearly all his life. Whenever I’ve heard him talking about growing up in the beaches-and-oranges town of Ventura, I’ve had a recurring picture in my mind: I can see teenaged Peter: tall, bronzed, blond, and smiling; as if captured in golden-flared, Super-8 home movie footage. He’s standing next to his surfboard with a guitar in his hand. Squinting hard into to the soon-to-be-setting sun as if gazing forward for some glimmer of the future. I think of how perfectly odd and oddly perfect it is that such a man as he would be forged from such an idyllic environment. How all of that immersion… in the ocean, in the music, in the very moment has manifested itself into to this remarkable human being. This artist. This activist. This servant.

8. He Says and Writes Things That Make You Want to Pinch Him, or Yourself. That word “servant” triggered a memory of something Peter told me recently.

He said, “Right now, I’m just all about making stuff… I just want to keep producing content and serve people. It’s a very busy time in my life, but very gratifying as well.”

That nod toward service reveals one of the traits that most sets Peter apart from many other artists: he’s always more concerned with what he can give to you than what he can get from you.

Witness the words-for-free aesthetic of his own writings at or on his Facebook page. He writes a column in this very publication called Stages: Philosophy, Art, Culture, and Music, as well as a column in Unity Magazine called A to Zen.

For all of his straight-up mastery — in music, in writing, speaking, and let’s face it, just about everything — he’s just so damn humble. As his friend, I find this and all of his other slightly angelic qualities somewhat irksome. I’ve informed him of this from time to time. Still, it is one more reason to love the guy.

9. He’s An Excellent Collaborator. Peter Bolland is a team player in all of the best ways. In my experience, he’s always been prepared and organized, yet open to last-minute changes. He shows up on time and checks his ego at the door. Once the game starts, he becomes just as much a cheerleader as a star athlete, inspiring and encouraging others to bring their very best to bear. Writing, recording, performing, or digging a hole… this is the kind of guy you want by your side.

10. He’s A Great Friend. I’ve known this guy for 10 years now. Like most good friendships, we’ve seen each other through soaring highs and vicious lows, sharing the wins and the losses together, no matter how infrequently we saw each other. Peter has always seemed to magically emerge from the ether like some huge Dutch leprechaun at the very times I most needed him to.
With a grin.
An ear.
A hug.
A really good sentence or two.

Maybe this will pay it all forward somehow, by introducing folks to Peter Bolland’s music and words with the knowledge that it was created and rendered by such a fine person, artist, and gentleman.

I told you they should’ve never asked me to write this.

Peter Bolland! You’re welcome.

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