"In Bed With" is a Dallas Observer series in which we delve into the homes and personal lives of Dallas music industry professionals.
“I have a theory that all of our neighbors are swingers,“ says musician Jacob Metcalf as he walks up the stairs to the apartment he shares with partner and artist Hilly Holsonback, “and Hilly and I are a couple of prudes.”
It’s a small complex in old East Dallas, and its courtyard indeed suggests a swinging good time. In reality, he and Holsonback are the kind of tenants whose suspicious eccentricity would’ve kept nosey Mrs. Kravitz glued to her window.
“The neighbors probably think we’re a little weird,” Holsonback says, thinking back to the times they’ve exited the building wearing varying costumes and wigs.
The wigs are lined up in Holsenback’s small studio space in the apartment, next to a colored array of hanging backdrops, which forms a sliver of a rainbow on the wall. It’s where Holsonback takes her photographs, using herself as subject, though her presence is often indiscernible. She calls her art “a mix between Richard Prince and Cindy Sherman.” Prince is known for appropriating other’s imagery, while Sherman too places herself into her art.
“I’ll project advertisements or headshots of people onto me,” Holsonback explains. ”The genesis of the idea is to talk about identity construction — all advertisements, everything, influences who we are. It’s a comment on that.”
Whether Holsonback is immune to ads or whether she runs to switch to Geico is a different question.
“I’m made of bullshit,” she says.
“Our senses are under assault every day,” adds Metcalf, “your pieces and my new album both deal with sensory inundation and lens distortion.”
Holsonback is preparing to perform The Alexa Dialogues, which runs through the upcoming weekend with three performances at the AT&T Performance Center. The experimental play, created by Dean Terry, uses Amazon’s virtual assistant Alexa as a central character. It makes an impressively innovative use of accessible technology, exploring human relationships to artificial intelligence. Metcalf reminds Holsonback of a string of performances that got shut down by the fire marshal beginning in 2016, including a planned preview for The Alexa Dialogues. It was a time of tenacious efficiency on behalf of the fire department to ensure that DIY venues were up to safety codes, and Holsonback and her group responded by forming part of an event called “The World’s Safest Art Show,” which attempted to live up to its name by following codes to absurd excess: performers shielded with hazmat suits and goggles.
Holsonback and Metcalf knew exactly who the other was when they first met. He’d seen her the year prior in a play he remembers as “very jarring and assaulting.” When he spotted her out in a Deep Ellum venue last year, he became a tongue-tied mess of flustered thought.
“I made this long walk toward her and the whole time I was thinking, ‘She doesn’t know who you are, this is ridiculous,'” he recalls.
"My voice cracked,” he remembers of his first words.
“I knew you had shown up to my things,” she replies while patting him on the leg, ”‘cause people act like [Holsonback drops her voice to a whisper] ‘ooooh, Jacob Metcalf is here,' so you were a big deal in my mind.”
Metcalf made that whispered name for himself with his debut album, 2015’s Fjord, which showed an elevated taste for orchestral folk and cinematic sentimentality. He is set to record a follow-up album, Monitors, which he’ll preview live with a full-band show at Small Brewpub on May 31. Unlike he did with its acoustic predecessor, Metcalf intends to allow for some level of electrical aid with his follow-up album.
“I’m willing to see the studio as an instrument itself,” he says. “The album-documenting process is another artistic foray.”
He spent almost all of the last year touring solo, covering 50,000 kilometers coast to coast with his exotic instruments as company, usually two guitars, a singing saw or else a glockenspiel.
“I feel like I’m bulletproof solo,” Metcalf says. “Playing with a band is really fun and exciting, but when I’m solo I can make decisions and do things in the moment that I don’t know how to do with a band.”
During that tour, Holsonback bought a ticket to visit him in New York.
“That was a huge leap,” he says. “We weren’t even romantic or anything.”
They spent four full days in the city, sharing a first kiss and train rides without destination; landing in the worst parts of the Big Apple.
“We sat a café, and the server was a Southern Georgia transplant,” Metcalf recalls, “and at one point I pulled my chair back and knelt down to tie my shoe and [the server] goes [Metcalf breaks into a loud Southern accent] ‘Oh Jesus, he’s about to propose.'”
“Apparently people think I’m about to propose all the time,” he says, as Holsonback nods in agreement. “If I bend down for any reason around Hilly people are like, ‘Jesus where’s the camera?”
For effect, Metcalf pantomimes a person’s hands wrestling with an impossibly slippery imaginary cellphone.
Toward the end of that tour, Holsonback visited again in L.A for a week during Thanksgiving. In the three months in between, they spoke on the phone for three or four hours per day until one of them fell asleep on the phone; usually Metcalf, who says he’s generally in a state of near narcolepsy.
“We talked about everything,” they say in unison. Metcalf expands, “Conspiracy theories, the Illuminati, lizard people, JFK, the moon landing, ‘What is real? Is any of it real? Are you real?'”
Within a month of that last visit, they were living together in Dallas.
“I liked how considerate you were,” Holsonback says, recalling a time when Metcalf waited outside for her even when she’d left the door to her apartment open behind her. “You said, ‘I don’t want to impose,'” she reminds him. ”People don’t act like that — it was nice.”
Holsonback also reminds him that she first suggested he take down her number, and how she texted him on one occasion while he was onstage after he ignored her, even though they’d made eye contact earlier at the event.
“I pretended like I didn’t know who it was,” Metcalf admits. “I was like ‘new phone, who dis?'”
“Basically I wear the pants in the relationship,” Holsonback jokes, and turns to Metcalf, “I asked you to be my boyfriend, too.”
It was Holsonback’s artistic commitment that first intrigued Metcalf.
“You’re brave onstage,” he tells her.
Holsonback is a middle child raised in Garland. While her brother is a professional musician, her father’s artistry was culinary, as he’s a retired chef. Metcalf is out to learn the secrets to his Italian sauces.
“Her dad is a Michelin chef,” he begins to say, before she interrupts.
“You made that up,” she interjects.
“OK, he is a fabulous chef, I get so inspired,” he continues. “She loves to eat,” he says of Holsonback, who interrupts with a laugh.
“Most people love to eat.”
“Yes we all try to eat every day,” he says, “but because of her dad she has high standards.”
Holsonback earned an MFA in art from the University of Texas in Dallas and lived briefly in New York before deciding she liked Dallas better. Her life evokes an album of enthralling, absurd snapshots, like when she ran around in diapers with her performance art collective outside of restaurants in the West End, in high-heeled glitter boots and dog masks, holding up signs that said “Eating contest.” She says they were carried out by the police shortly after.
Another vivid image includes the time she and fellow performer Danielle Georgiou were asked to perform onstage at a $100-per-ticket New Year’s Eve party, and they shoved Oreo cake into each other’s mouths through chicken wire masks, while in lingerie.
“It was very sexual and very unsettling,” Holsonback says. “I was interested in what it was like being the art, and I would go out and do something weird in public and examine how people were looking at me."
The couple moved into their current place in March, and it’s sprinkled with teensy string lights that pop-up like fairy dust in random corners. Their living room wall is barricaded with amplifiers, perhaps meant to protect Metcalf’s adjacent WWII-era pump organ. The only framed photos in sight are a standing group shot of four U.S. presidents and a photo of Dr. Seuss on the kitchen counter. Metcalf shows off their new fern in the living room.
“We’re trying to be a part of Plant Parenthood,” he jokes.
The thermostat on the wall has been covered up with a photograph of red roses to conceal its otherwise offensively mundane presence.
While the couple’s theatricality is neon-colored, their bedroom is a muted gray, with endless green gushing in through an ivy-framed window. Next to their bed they keep an unexplained collection of Sharpie markers.
“We’re reclusive,” Metcalf says from their bed. “We’re both perfectly happy to drop off the map for a month.”
The couple spends time playing music together (Holsonback plays guitar and Metcalf is teaching her to sing), discussing art and potential business ventures.
“How to sustain ourselves doing what we love,” he says, ”and still use our short time on the planet well.”
The pair sometimes ventures out to play the jukebox at a nearby bar, which they refer to as “going to Target” in order to keep their hideaway’s location secret.
Metcalf says Holsonback has introduced him to artists like Godard and Captain Beefheart.
“She’s leading me by the hand to these waters I’ve never sampled,” he says, “things I don’t have any vocabulary for.”
One of their goals is to learn to play the entire Beatles catalog. They have an entire list of joint aspirations, which Metcalf pulls up on this phone. The first two items relate to food, but it becomes progressively fanciful. Highlights include: “Wrestle an alligator,” “ride a hot air balloon,” and “save the whales.“ (“All of the whales,” Metcalf interjects). Marked off are “eat sushi in a graveyard,” which they say they did on their first date — at night; and “nominate Jacob for CIO of Taco Bell.”
The couple says they’re influenced by the disparate cult film couple Harold and Maude, which explains the item “fake our own deaths.” Finally, a very specific fantasy: “Pioneer time travel to 1946 Prussia.” At times Metcalf achieves the illusion of time travel, often dressing in Russian hats and elegant coats, seeming like an Eastern European boulevardier of another era.
Metcalf’s demeanor alternates seamlessly between slapstick improvisation and spontaneous philosophizing, expressing himself often through the use of metaphors.
“I love theories and ideas more than I love concrete realities,” he says. “I don’t know how to think in a linear way.”
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“But you’re very poetic,” Holsonback tells him.
Metcalf sees himself as a “perennial optimist,” and he assesses Holsonback as a pragmatic realist.
”Fortunately I think she balances me,” Metcalf says of Holsonback. “Because I’ll be standing in the middle of the road and a tomato truck is about to barrel me and I’m like, ‘Oh, my God it’s so pretty here,'” he concludes, “and Hilly literally saves my life half a dozen times a day when we’re in a major city.”
As they walk down their complex’s hallways, Holsonback and Metcalf greet every cat by the names they decided they should have. One expects them to hop back onto Dr. Parnassus’ caravan rather than a standard apartment unit. Metcalf breaks into a spontaneous dance on the stairway. Sadly, no neighbors are around to catch a glimpse of it.