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Af­ter a year of per­sonal tur­moil, the LA avant-gar­dener needed mu­si­cal sal­va­tion.

Life has not been plain sail­ing re­cently for avant-garde LA singer-song­writer Ju­lia Holter. So she did what she al­ways does when over­whelmed: she re­treated into ab­stract sounds of her own mak­ing. Laura Bar­ton hears about the com­fort to be found in waves of har­mo­ni­ums, oboes and bas­soons.

It was some while ago that Ju­lia Holter came across The Book Of Mem­ory, the Amer­i­can aca­demic Mary Car­ruthers’s study of mem­ory in me­dieval cul­ture. To­day she rhap­sodises about it as she sits drink­ing Earl Grey tea in a Clerken­well bar – its pro­found ef­fect upon our un­der­stand­ing of me­dieval cul­ture, how through it she learned that me­dieval com­mu­ni­ties saw “the mind as like a birdcage, as a store­house for im­ages and mem­o­ries, so you have this gather­ing of things in the mind, al­most it’s a way of com­pos­ing…” Be­hind her as she talks stands a taxi­dermy cat in a dress. Ella Fitzger­ald plays across the empty bar. Holter is not your av­er­age singer­song­writer. Wis­con­sin-born, Los An­ge­lesraised, Michi­gan-ed­u­cated, since her 2011 de­but, Tragedy, she has es­tab­lished

“I find com­mu­ni­cat­ing the hard­est thing. And I feel like mu­sic’s not com­mu­ni­cat­ing ac­tu­ally – with mu­sic I don’t feel like I’m say­ing some­thing. And that’s why I en­joy it.”

a rep­u­ta­tion not only for the ex­tra­or­di­nary con­tours of her voice and her sense of sonic ex­per­i­men­ta­tion, but also for an un­abashed learned­ness that runs through her mu­sic. Tragedy, for in­stance, was in­spired by Eu­ripi­des’s Hip­poly­tus; its 2012 suc­ces­sor Ek­sta­sis took its name from the Greek word for “out­side of one­self ”. In the al­bums that fol­lowed – Loud City Song and Have You In My Wilder­ness – there have been ref­er­ences to the 1958 mu­si­cal Gigi, Vir­ginia Woolf and Frank O’Hara, the 17th- cen­tury Parisian pe­ri­od­i­cal Gil Blas, Christo­pher Ish­er­wood and Co­lette. In the au­tumn of 2017 she pro­duced a live score for Carl Theodor Dreyer’s 1928 silent movie The Pas­sion Of Joan Of Arc. That same year she turned Tragedy into an opera – but not a clas­si­cal opera, she in­sists to­day, “opera in the way of Robert Ash­ley op­eras. I thought of it as a long, con­tin­u­ous the­atri­cal thing.” Her new al­bum, Aviary, is no less in­tel­lec­tu­ally ea­ger. Among its many in­flu­ences it num­bers an Anne Car­son trans­la­tion of Sap­pho, an Oc­c­i­tan trou­ba­dour song and a pho­netic trans­la­tion of a song by a Nepalese Bud­dhist nun named Choy­ing Drolma. Its name was drawn from a line in a short story writ­ten by the Le­bane­seAmer­i­can writer Etel Ad­nan: “I found my­self in an aviary of shriek­ing birds.”

Holter is 33 now, though in con­ver­sa­tion she has a self-con­scious­ness that still seems faintly ado­les­cent – she will be­gin sen­tences then end them abruptly, dou­ble back, apol­o­gise, pro­fess to know noth­ing. This af­ter­noon it is her long­ness that is also strik­ing – long beau­ti­ful face and long beau­ti­ful hair, long limbs trail­ing a long draped out­fit, look­ing some­where be­tween a Modigliani and an egret. She is talk­ing about the child­hood sum­mers spent in Min­nesota and the white noise of the LA free­way, the win­ters she faced in Michi­gan: “Cold, howl­ing winds and the sound of snow. Out­side, when it’s on the ground, and there’s a mut­ed­ness and a lack of smell…” De­spite the some­what es­o­teric na­ture of many of her songs’ ref­er­ences, Holter is keen to stress that she is no great mu­si­cal prodigy or rig­or­ous aca­demic. She be­gan learn­ing piano at the age of eight. “But I was re­ally self­con­scious and I had no con­fi­dence. I wasn’t a great clas­si­cal pi­anist, though I took it for years and years and years.” Her school, she adds, was not short of gifted mu­si­cians. “And that in and of it­self made me an out­sider in that I was not a vir­tu­osic mu­si­cian and I was very aware of that early on,” she says. “So I knew that I was not part of this club of tal­ented peo­ple. But I knew I loved mu­sic.” In­stead she lis­tened to her mother play­ing Bil­lie Hol­i­day, and be­gan to buy song­books to play at home – Fiona Ap­ple, Tori Amos, The Bea­tles, Ra­dio­head, Joni Mitchell. “I wasn’t into any­thing su­per avant-garde.” She was 16 when she be­gan writ­ing songs “with a clas­si­cal idea of com­pos­ing” and later ma­jored in com­po­si­tion at univer­sity, but there she felt at odds with the ap­proach of her peers. “The com­po­si­tion world is very com­pet­i­tive,” she ex­plains. “I wasn’t re­ally con­sid­ered very great.” She strug­gled per­haps to find the nec­es­sary bom­bast. “It was very much like, ‘I have a piece and I am go­ing to give it to this string quar­tet to per­form!’” She laughs. “I was more like, ‘I’m sorry you have to play my mu­sic…’” Even to­day Holter feels un­com­fort­able lead­ing the five mem­bers of her band. “I feel so guilty and weird,” she says. “They seem fine. It’s just that it’s not in my na­ture at all.” It was when she learned to record that Holter felt she had fi­nally found her foot­ing. “I got a mic for my MiniDisc recorder that I used to make field record­ings and I started record­ing my voice,” she re­mem­bers. “And I con­nected my dig­i­tal piano to my com­puter and down­loaded an au­dio-edit­ing pro­gramme and I was like, ‘Oh my God, this is so FUN.’ I loved the in­ti­macy and ex­per­i­ment­ing with the sound of the voice in a more play­ful way than just be­ing a songstress.” She did not think of her­self as a per­former then. Nor did she think her­self a lyri­cist. “When I first started writ­ing mu­sic the idea of writ­ing lyrics wasn’t very ap­peal­ing to me,” she ex­plains. “Some­times it still isn’t. It’s the hard­est part for me in some ways.” Some­times she turns to de­vices – the acros­tics en­cour­aged by John Cage, pho­netic trans­la­tions that al­low “a new mean­ing to come out from a col­lec­tion of words” – any­thing to shake off the heavy weight of def­i­ni­tion. “I love play­ing with lan­guage,” she says. “I’m re­ally in­ter­ested in lan­guage as sound but not so much the mean­ing. I just don’t think mean­ing in songs comes through the same way as when you’re speak­ing.” So it frus­trates her some­what that peo­ple get so caught up in pulling out the ref­er­ences in her lyrics. “I don’t have a strat­egy,” she says. “I talk about all these me­dieval things or what­ever, but it’s not im­por­tant for any­one

“I think I was feel­ing over­whelmed a lot last year. And I very much just wanted to be en­gulfed in sound. To be sur­rounded by com­fort­ing waves of tim­bres that I like.”

to know about them. I don’t even think of them as ref­er­ences. I don’t even want to talk about them too much be­cause for me it’s all about the sound, and the sound of the words. These things that I’m in­ter­ested in I’m in­ter­ested in for sonic rea­sons mostly.” She can trace some of those sonic in­ter­ests back to a high school mu­sic class when among the ex­cerpts of clas­si­cal opera played by the teacher (and which she “couldn’t stand”) there was a me­dieval trou­ba­dour song that lit up her 17- year-old mind. “I think I’ve al­ways been drawn to these mono­phonic songs,” she says. “And I would find that when I’d go to the mu­seum I would love the me­dieval art too. Es­pe­cially early me­dieval art. I love the flat faces and the rich at­ten­tion paid to colour. And there’s some­thing about it not be­ing a re­fined art tra­di­tion, but the monks do­ing it in the ser­vice of spir­i­tual pur­pose. It feels very raw to me. And very mys­te­ri­ous. And that’s not to say there aren’t tra­di­tions in me­dieval mu­sic, but it def­i­nitely feels to me like kind of wild ter­ri­tory.” These days Holter still lives in Los An­ge­les, in the east of the city, an hour or so from the Getty Mu­seum where once she would go to look at the me­dieval manuscripts. She has a home stu­dio that is re­ally just an of­fice with a small gather­ing of equip­ment. “It’s just a lit­tle room and I have a piano here,” she mimes out the space taken up by her piano. “It’s a Nord Stage so it has dig­i­tal piano, dig­i­tal harp­si­chord, I use that mostly. And then I have my com­puter here…” Oc­ca­sion­ally she will head to her band­mate’s house to record on his Moog 3, but mostly she works qui­etly alone. “I think I’m much more of a pri­vate per­son,” she says. “In the stu­dio, play­ing with the vo­cal sounds.”

In the mak­ing of Aviary in par­tic­u­lar she was seek­ing a kind of sonic refuge. “I think I was feel­ing over­whelmed a lot last year,” she says. “And I very much just wanted to be en­gulfed in sound. To be sur­rounded by com­fort­ing waves of tim­bres that I like.” The over­whelm­ing­ness of 2017 had many causes, among them surely the al­le­ga­tions of sex­ual mis­con­duct made by mul­ti­ple women against her for­mer part­ner, Matt Mon­danile of Real Es­tate and Duck­tails. At the time the al­le­ga­tions sur­faced, Holter shared her own ex­pe­ri­ence, call­ing Mon­danile “emo­tion­ally abu­sive to the point where I had to have a lawyer in­ter­vene and I was afraid for my own life.” To­day she is keen to paint the dis­tresses of 2017 as a broader ex­pe­ri­ence. “I don’t think [ it was a dif­fi­cult year] for me per­son­ally, but I felt com­mu­nally, for mostly po­lit­i­cal rea­sons, but it’s ob­vi­ously not just po­lit­i­cal,” she says. “I know Don­ald Trump was elected, but there were a lot of other things that al­ready were prob­lems in the world. I do think it’s been a very jolt­ing and un­pleas­ant time for a lot of peo­ple. I think there’s so much com­ing at you and I think it’s hard for peo­ple…” she floun­ders for a mo­ment. “But I don’t know what to say about any­thing. I don’t have any­thing more to con­trib­ute. All I can do is have a sonic re­sponse.” If Have You In My Wilder­ness, Holter’s most com­mer­cial al­bum, was her at­tempt to “have more mean­ing and tra­di­tion of story”, Aviary is “me com­ing more into my more com­fort­able place of sound over ev­ery­thing” she says. “On the last record I was re­ally chis­elling away, mak­ing these bal­lads in cer­tain tra­di­tions, this is a lot more like, ‘Ju­lia, what do you want to do to­day?’” she laughs. What she wanted to do was,

“record and fall in love with cer­tain sounds that come out of the synth and let my­self use them,” she says. “Cut­ting them up and bring­ing that in to the stu­dio, record­ing over the things I’d al­ready done. It was kind of more what comes nat­u­rally to me. It was more cathar­tic, when the last record was more like think­ing about it.” Among the al­bum’s many sur­pris­ing sounds is that of the bag­pipe – the re­sult of her band­mate, the drone artist Tashi Wada’s de­ci­sion to learn how to play the in­stru­ment. “I love it so much,” she says. “I love reedy sounds. Har­mo­nium, oboe, bas­soon. I love sounds that are al­most kind of grat­ing. Eh­h­h­h­h­hhh,” she drones. “Even ac­cor­dion is cool. Har­mon­ica! Or the Ja­panese in­stru­ment the sho. I love this tim­bre!” Also on Aviary is an ex­am­ple of “hock­et­ing”, the me­dieval mu­si­cal prac­tice in which a melody is shared be­tween two or more voices. “Hock­et­ing is present in all kinds of mu­sic around the world and it hap­pens in na­ture, you hear it with frogs,” Holter says. “It’s kind of rep­e­ti­tion, it’s also a rhyth­mic ef­fect that can be ir­reg­u­lar and not based on a spe­cific loop.” She tries a demon­stra­tion: “So if some­one’s like ‘Laalaah’ and I’m like ‘Laa-laah!’ But we share it. So we kind of in­ter­rupt each other, and I’ll stop. There’s this hic­cup­ing ef­fect.” Of all the al­bum’s many sounds she strug­gles to name the one that proved most con­sol­ing to her amid the tur­moil of 2017. “I made I Shall Love 2 by al­ter­nat­ing two chords with this or­gan that has a vi­bra­tion to it.” She repli­cates the or­gan sound now: “Dovvdoov­doovvvduh­duh,” she whirrs softly. “So for me that song is cathar­tic.” Un­der­neath The Moon had a sim­i­lar ef­fect for her. “The idea of it is not so warm and fuzzy – it is in­spired by this thing that hap­pened in the 14th cen­tury, where there was some­thing called St Vi­tus’s Dance, which ac­tu­ally was an ill­ness, but be­fore that and un­re­lated to it, it was a re­li­gious dance. It’s a lit­tle silly to have a song about that, but it’s also about let­ting your­self go in this al­most vi­o­lent way.” The track’s lyrics speak of hys­te­ria and col­lapse, of “cry­ing, fly­ing, rolling”, of the point when, “Words pour out/My holy body free…” as if cap­tur­ing the pre­cise mo­ment when lan­guage gives way to phys­i­cal sen­sa­tion. “I find com­mu­ni­cat­ing the hard­est thing,” Holter says hal­fapolo­get­i­cally. “And I feel like mu­sic’s not com­mu­ni­cat­ing ac­tu­ally – with mu­sic I don’t feel like I’m say­ing some­thing. And that’s why I en­joy it. It’s a sound and it’s a wave­form and you lit­er­ally re­ceive the wave­form. It’s af­fect­ing. It’s touch­ing. Whether peo­ple want to be touched by it or not.” Holter laughs and sits quiet, let­ting the words set­tle into sound.

Pho­to­graphs: Michael Clement

Grave con­cerns: Ju­lia Holter, Clerken­well, Lon­don, 4 Septem­ber, 2018.

Holter: “This new LP is like, ‘Ju­lia, what do you want to do to­day?’”

Pil­lar of the com­mu­nity: Holter, North Lon­don, Septem­ber 2018.

Six ap­peal: Holter’s al­bums from (top) 2011 de­but Tragedy to (above) this year’s Aviary.

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