Q MAVERICK: JULIA HOLTER
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.
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.