Songs from the Wilder­ness

The strange, sub­tle world of singer and artist Ju­lia Holter

The Irish Times - Friday - The Ticket - - FRONT PAGE -

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.

Wild in­spi­ra­tion

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.

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