“It’s Just a Matter of Putting Everything Where it Belongs”: An Interview with Julia Holter

Cory Lomberg speaks with Julia Holter about narrative, Greek tragedies, and recording in a studio versus by yourself.
By    February 3, 2016

julia holter

Julia Holter’s Have You In My Wilderness is a balancing act. In matching a cello’s rich ring with synths, it tests the pairing of acoustic and electronic. The effect is vaguely oceanic—each song, in its own way, rushes up to meet you. But in no way is Holter’s latest album an ode to her native California climate. There’s a warmth to the record, but it’s a dark, dense kind. From the first track, a rain-slicked fantasy called “Feel You,” she admits: “You know I love to run away from sun.”

Holter’s albums don’t abide by any generic patterns. That’s not to say her discography possesses no continuity, but rather that Holter routinely challenges her listeners as much as she challenges herself. Trained in composition, she forges a new relationship between arrangement and storytelling with each project. Some albums, like the early Eating the Stars and 2012’s Ekstasis, present every song as an independent tale. Her works attribute a vast set of inspirations as well. Tragedy speaks to certain characteristics of the Greek drama. She developed the central story of Loud City Sound from the 1958 French film Gigi, in which the title character is haunted by societal standards.

Elaborate inspiration can lend itself to Holter’s work as obscurity. Blurriness has been a point of both strength and consistency for her; she’s never been one to spell things out for you. Despite its radio-ready warmth and sense of familiarity, Have You In My Wilderness is no different. Holter sets us off in the dark, occasionally shining a light on passing figures or sights. She lets us decide what to make of it all. —Cory Lomberg

Recently I went back and listened to Eating the Stars. When was that, like 2006?

Julia Holter: Yeah, 2006, 2007.

Some of your albums have central narratives that lead through. Was that the case for Eating the Stars?

Julia Holter: No, not that one — Ekstasis, Have You In My Wilderness and Eating the Stars are all examples of no-narrative. Only Tragedy and Loud City Sound do that. There wasn’t really a story here.

 I really like all the medieval elements to it. Do you remember where you pulled those from?

Julia Holter: I was just super into Medieval stuff. I love Medieval art. The drawing on the cover of Eating the Stars was my fake Medieval art that I would make. I was like 20, 21, so I was really playing around at the time. I had just gotten out of music school which I found to be kind of restrictive and hierarchical. I just didn’t feel like I fit into the Classical music realm and Medieval music or Medieval anything just felt like a kind of break from that approach.

Monk art, for example—it’s kind of amateurish, it’s these people that aren’t really artists but they’re making the art. Also Medieval music as well as Renaissance music and early music in general—I think all these kinds of music intrigue me because they don’t have the same kind of obsession with development that you get with Classical. That’s what appealed to me. There’s no sense of progression in any specific direction and it means—who knows? A lot about God, I guess, and people interpreting their experience with God. It’s just totally a different world to escape to.

Are there any specific places or people within Medieval times that really spoke to you?

Julia Holter: On Eating the Stars, there’s this song called “Je Vivroie Liement” and it’s actually by [Guillaume de] Machaut. He’s the most famous composer of Medieval times. When I first heard that song in school, I was blown away. It’s just one person singing, so I just took the lyrics and wrote a completely new song. I had trouble writing lyrics at the time. I wasn’t really used to it.

Did you continue working with Medieval themes when you went to CalArts? I feel like I read somewhere that you worked with manuscripts.

Julia Holter: Oh, not really. We don’t have Medieval manuscripts at CalArts, but I just got into the idea of Medieval manuscripts and I made my own Medieval art. It was pretty crazy. It was weird. I don’t know exactly what I was trying to do there, but I was just digging deep into my soul. Maybe I’m kind of a freak. I made these texts by playing with text from newspapers. It was actually kind of cool. I think I could have done a better job with it, but as an idea, it was cool. Basically, I was intrigued by the way monks used to write these manuscripts and how writing was seen as an oral activity, an activity that you hear. So for instance, back in the day, you used to only read aloud. It was almost a very musical activity. It wasn’t a silent, personal activity like it is now.

I hear lots of different kinds of literary influence like that come through in your music. Was there a specific work that inspired Tragedy?

Julia Holter: Yes, it’s inspired by Euriphides’ Hippolytus. I think I was at CalArts and I was a little bit overwhelmed by contemporary art critiques and all this stuff, so my response to it was to read classical stuff, and then I just wanted to read Greek tragedies. The one that really stuck was Hippolytus. I liked the story, the dynamic, the hopelessness of it, how everything was so doomed and how the character couldn’t control anything herself. It was all fate. The tragedy of it, literally, and all those emotions seemed fun to work with. I think I had some ideas in my mind of what I wanted to do and then at one point I realized I just wanted to make a story based off of this story.

It sounds like there was a lot going on at CalArts. Did they give you a lot of creative freedom?

Julia Holter: Yeah, that was good. You don’t really have rules there. And at that point I was like 21, 22, and I really needed to have freedom. I didn’t need any more structure at that point. I had enough structure in college and I was tired of it and I just wanted to do my own thing so it was perfect.

Do you try to link your albums to one another? I was wondering about a connection between Tragedy and Ekstasis, because you put “Goddess Eyes” on both.

Julia Holter: I actually think of them all as really different. I put “Goddess Eyes” on Ekstasis because of a label issue. It was really silly. It had nothing to do with the music. It was more of a strategic choice. But I see all of my records as being very different, different projects with very different intentions. My next record will not be like Have You In My Wilderness. I don’t know what it will be like, but I’m pretty sure it won’t be like this one.

So when you write music, do you write songs for different projects at the same time? I know you’ve been playing some of the songs on Wilderness for a long time.

Julia Holter: Yeah, totally. I had them waiting for a long time for their place because they didn’t fit on my other records. They didn’t fit on Tragedy or on Ekstasis or Loud City Song. It’s just a matter of putting everything where it belongs, and that can take a long time. You don’t just put songs on the record if they’re done, you know? I feel like they need to have their place within context.

Right. And I definitely felt like Loud City Sound was a leap from Ekstasis in a few different ways. That was the first time you recorded in a studio, for one. How was that?

Julia Holter: It was definitely exciting because when I was making Tragedy, it was kind of hard doing everything myself. I kind of want to do it again now, but mixing everything yourself, I probably won’t do that again. It was just too many things. I love a lot of layers, so it was just endless layers of things everywhere. I remember with Tragedy, there was this one point where I was kind of going crazy with the last track which is called “Finale” and I had like 8 layers of vocal choir, which is just me singing, and I had 8 layers of a saxophone and for some of that record I was using Audacity, which is this really rudimentary audio software that’s free and not very dependable. Just crazy stuff. So I think it was a little overwhelming.

When I got to work with Cole [Marsden Greif-Neill] on recording, it made everything much easier because I still had freedom. For the last two records, Cole was the one behind the computer—not me. But I made all the songs at home first as demos, so I was able to have that intimate writing experience the same way I had in the past, but I didn’t have to recreate everything perfectly as if I was recording it myself. In a way, it freed me up a lot. I also think with that kind of recording process, maybe I can be the one behind the computer in some cases, but for these two records, it was really good that I did it with Cole. I think he was so crucial to getting it to happen because Loud City Song was kind of theatrical and dramatic and Have You In My Wilderness was really warm and big.

With Wilderness, was there a conscious decision to make a warmer, sunnier album? Was that something you wanted to do?

Julia Holter: Well, I actually think this record is very dark. I think Have You In My Wilderness is pretty dark for me. I was really just trying to make these, you know, ‘60s ballads. I wasn’t trying to make ‘60s music, but that was an inspiration, production-wise. Most of my records aren’t directly connected to any musical genre, even though this is a loose genre. I wasn’t trying to make something warm and sunny. I don’t think I’m ever trying to make something warm and sunny, but I think it’s maybe the most familiar sounding to people because it did have that musical inspiration. I had never done that for a whole record.

And it’s also the first time I’ve really heard your vocals front and center.

Julia Holter: That was just part of the aesthetic of the record.

When you’ve been playing this album live, how do you position your vocals?

Julia Holter: I think that my vocals are always in the forefront live. Live, you don’t get the same kind of contrast as in production because I don’t play my shows with a ton of effects. I have reverb and delay, but other than that, I don’t have a ton of stuff simulating the records. So live, it’s a very different experience altogether and all the songs have the same production treatment for the most part, including songs from different records.

You mentioned that you wanted your next album to be very different from this one. Would you ever go back to the single, linear narrative that Wilderness didn’t have?

Julia Holter: I don’t know what I’m going to do. I think I have to figure it out. I don’t really decide until I decide. I don’t make rules until I have an epiphany about what I’m going to do. It could be just a group of songs, it could be based on something, it could not. I’ll figure it out when I get a chance to write music, which won’t be anytime soon, but hopefully at some point.

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