Songs from the Wilderness
The strange, subtle world of singer and artist Julia Holter
I’ll probably never write songs that are just about my life or directly relating to some specific event. What excites me is storytelling. I continue to think of myself as more of a storyteller than a singer
These are interesting times for Julia Holter. Over the course of her three previous albums, records which were full of experimental derring-do, adventurous sound-beds and esoteric source material, the Los Angeles artist attracted an audience who appreciates her avant-garde leanings. But last year’s Have You In My
Wilderness changed that perception. While Holter still works from the other side of the picture, her ability to pen sublime harmonies, create-ear-catching arrangements and turn twists of off-kilter sound into pop gold has created an astonishing record.
The artist may claim to have not changed much, but those sparkling songs found an audience who hadn’t been around to her house before. “I don’t think my music is progressing along a definite trajectory from album to album,” she says. “I don’t feel as if there is a plan or a process I’m keeping to. I think of each record as different and not having very much in common with what went before or what comes next. Something does develop, though I couldn’t say what it is.”
One quality which you can see developing from record to record is that of confidence. Early albums Tragedy (2011) and Eksta
tis (2012) were full of big ideas and songs which dazzled with their rich, wide swathe of musical and lyrical smarts, while 2013’s
Loud City Song was an abrasive, fully rounded sound portrait of urban life.
Holter credits outside forces for some of this growing confidence and ability to get her songs and ideas across.
“If you listen to Tragedy, it’s definitely got big ideas in it, but it just couldn’t be realised in the same way as I can do now with collaborators. I’m happy that I worked alone on Tragedy, but it’s obvious that I was trying to create something much bigger than I could do on my own.”
That’s where Cole Marsden Greif-Neill comes in. The producer – who has worked with Beck, Ariel Pink, Nite Jewel, The Vaccines and others – has been collaborating with Holter since her second album.
“Cole makes what I’m doing at home sound so much better in the studio. He also adds a lot, so it sounds great and rich and beautiful and clear compared to my self-produced music, and I think that’s really important for a record like Wilderness.”
Kind of chaotic
As before, the bones of Wilder
ness were put together by Holter. “I usually work in a room which is totally cluttered with my mess and there’s stuff everywhere, and it’s kind of chaotic because I am a very messy person. I could totally write in a pristine environment, but it would mean I would have to be at someone else’s house.
“I often find that I like the vibe of not having technology around me. Sometimes, though, I need the keyboard and the computer because I rely heavily on text and words and it turns into this multi media extravaganza. The constants are the piano and pieces of paper to write on.”
To her, the current album feels “rootsy”, though this doesn’t necessarily indicate where she’ll go next.
“I have a different process for each record and what I did on
Wilderness is by no means representative of what I’ll do next. It has a lot more traditional arrangements, like verse-verse-chorus, and a lot more chords than my previous records. The approach here was me sitting at the piano playing chords and singing aloud. I’ve also done a piece which is not on the record where I recite a poem and arranged it for instruments.
“I know that my writing process is always changing, but not in a clearly defined progressive way. It’s very hard for me to see those lines and how they appear to other people, but the more I think about it, I feel the current record may be a lot more rootsy than I realise. As I was writing, I wanted the songs to be on a record that was a bunch of ballads and so I wanted to make a record that did exactly that. Once I realised that this was where I was going, it was easier for me because there was something to bring them all together.”
It’s also an album where Holter roams far and wide for lyrical ideas and concepts. It’s what you’d expect from the woman who has previously incorporated or made use of Euripides’s Hippolytus, a 1920s recipe book and the work of Virgina Woolf, Frank O’Hara and Sidonie-Gabrielle Colette.
On the new album, Holter brings Christopher Isherwood’s The Berlin Stories, Colette’s Chance
Acquaintances, Scott Walker’s Duchess and Mexican bandit Tiburcio Vasquez into the songs.
“It wasn’t planned, it was more stuff I was reading at the time and the characters fitted the song,” says Holter. “I wanted to make sure also that you didn’t have to know about the writers or the stories to get the songs or the records. I’m just using what’s to hand.