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Julia Holter

Julia Holter

photo by Marc Seti
photo by Marc Sethi

Julia Holter has spent much of her career making music that manages to somehow sound comforting and relatable, while still being the work of a songwriter who is clearly an artist in every sense of the word. Beginning with 2012’s Tragedy, a collection of heavily atmospheric sound collages, all the way through the captivatingly rich art pop of last year’s excellent Have You In My Wilderness, it’s always been clear that Holter is a top-rate and utterly unique talent. Take, for example, Holter’s unique way of approaching her writing process: on previous records she has a used things like the 1958 musical Gigi, the writings of Virginia Woolf and Euripides, (a playwright from ancient Greece) as inspiration for the record’s overall theme. However, the always-evolving Holter decided to eschew this process on Have You In My Wilderness, instead opting to create a collection of separate short stories that are only loosely connected thematically–both in the music and lyrics. The resulting record is a gorgeous collection of off-kilter and densely arranged ballads that was one of 2015’s best albums.

Holter is fond of saying she doesn’t think of herself as a singer, but instead as a storyteller, and that’s something that is certainly on display throughout her latest album. Much of Have You In My Wilderness sounds effortless: the languid pacing of most of the songs, the gorgeously put together arrangements and Holter’s warm voice mix for a wonderfully cozy listen. The songs envelop the listener like an old quilt sewn together by a loving grandmother, and are as comfortable as they are captivating. The recording process was anything but however, with Holter having a difficult time fully developing the songs from their initial raw forms. Whereas Loud City Song (2013) was a breeze to make, Have You In My Wilderness was Holter’s “problem” child, perhaps because she wanted the record to sound so spacious and open. “The songs would just come out of me a certain way,” Holter has said of the process,” but then I had to develop them, and that was really the hard part, because it’s hard to see something raw, in its raw form, and then try to develop it and build it up into something that still maintains the same raw energy.”

Both Holter and producer Cole M. Greif-Neill deserve a lot credit for emerging from the studio with such a fully formed and pleasantly effortless sounding album. Songs like “Lucrette Stranded on the Island” flow so freely you can almost picture a summer field at dusk, littered with dandelions floating on the breeze, and that sort of mental picture appeared for me often through the record. The song, like much of Have You In My Wilderness is also deceptive in the sense that it’s so pleasant and comfortable, you can almost miss just how much is going on.

That theme–of getting lost in the gently rocking sea of pleasure that is Julia Holter’s music–is apparent throughout all of her albums, but is especially prevalent on Have You In My Wilderness. Although her latest record is probably her most straightforward “pop” effort to date, it remains wonderfully off-kilter. Jazz and orchestral flourishes emerge at unexpected, but perfectly timed intervals, rewarding multiple listens as layer after layer of the songs unfurl. As with her other records, Holter’s voice continues to impress– but this time around producer Cole M. Greif-Neill asked Holter to push her vocals to the forefront–and the resulting synergy between music and singing is fantastic.

Although Have You In My Wilderness sees Holter eschewing her previous strategy of using a source material to build her stories around, she and Greif-Neill have done a fantastic job of retaining a sense of cohesiveness throughout the album. The record may be a collection of separate ballads, but both the arrangements and the nature of Holter’s lyrics keep Wilderness thematically unified. The sea, for instance, has a recurring role in these songs, from “The Sea Calls Me Home”, to the line “I swim to you…” in “Silhouette,” and an oceanic theme goes back to my imagery of a dandelion-filled field in that they both evoke wide-openess. On the title track, Holter (altering her voice once again) plaintively sings, “Tell me why do I feel you running away?” over a swell of aching orchestral strings and perfectly placed piano keys that sees the album out in grand fashion.

Although Holter didn’t use a single piece of source material as inspiration on Have You In My Wilderness, the songs seem to have organically become a cohesive whole, with overreaching themes repeating themselves throughout the album. The songs on this album are about relationship dynamics: there are lovers being hunted, and others doing the hunting. Another waits, holding her lover’s coat while she dutifully (and perhaps hopelessly) awaits his return. Often the songs sound interconnected–if only slightly–like a batch of random snippets of a much larger story. It’s almost as if Have You In My Wilderness could be seen as portions of a much, much larger story arch, and it’s a testament to the both the album’s quality and Holter’s considerable talents.

ELEVEN recently chatted with her about her creative process, the themes on Wilderness and more.

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ELEVEN: It seems you often have a central theme to your records, which is very interesting, but I read you didn’t this time–is that always an organic occurrence, or do you consciously think about a theme when you sit down to write?

Julia Holter: I have four records that people are mostly aware of (more that many don’t know about)—two of them (Tragedy and Loud City Song) follow a story, and two of them (Ekstasis and Wilderness) don’t. I find that sometimes it is inspiring to build a record around a story, just because a story can be a fun pivot point—you can feel free to work with a variety of sounds. But other times, I am just interested in exploring different musical worlds with some kind of general world in mind, but not really defined until the end. With Wilderness, I was thinking more sonically. It was the first record in which I wanted to work within a musical tradition—if ’60s love ballads are a “musical tradition.”

11: You’ve mentioned that Have You In My Wilderness was a bit difficult to record and complete, why do you think that was? Did the departure from a central story thematically have anything to do with that?

JH: It was difficult because my studio recording process has been that I make fairly developed demos at home first, and then recreate them in the studio, and with Wilderness, there were songs that were very old for which I had never made proper demos keeping in mind the band. So my “demos” were really just finished solo recordings. So it was making decisions about the arrangement because I didn’t have a demo as a model. Also because I was wedded to them as solo recordings and couldn’t love the band version fully until I let myself.

11: Reading what you’ve said about the recording process was interesting, because these songs seem almost to be scenes from a relationship–or relationships. Any truth to that? Were they inspired by an event or did they just come from the ether? In a sense, everything we create is informed by our relationships I suppose.

JH: I’m not sure why this question ever comes up, but it always seems to! Of course poets and musicians write about their lives to some extent, but what’s the point of knowing to what extent? Is it because the songs are less relevant if they are not 100% based on real events? It’s really confusing to me. Of course everything is not 100% based on real events, and of course some of it is inspired by real events.

11: I really like the title and was intrigued to see you mention that it had to do with the idea of male possession in relationships. As someone who grew up in the south and has since lived in NYC and now Portland, it’s interesting to me to see how that idea (of women being treated equally) changes where you’re located, care to expound on this thought?

JH: I’m not sure exactly what you mean but I suppose ideas about women and their role are different in certain areas of the world and that’s what you mean? I wouldn’t say that the different places I’ve lived in have been oppressive for women in a political sense, in the times I’ve lived. It’s more about the history of western culture and the history of art really being through the eyes of men, even still to some extent, and that can affect our ideas of love still. The stories we read and the films we watch still revolve around this kind of possessive, aggressive idea of love, and I’m not even saying that’s a bad thing always. I have had a very free life as a woman, because I live in a big city in the U.S., and I haven’t faced many obstacles. But I’ve realized how frequently I like to play a man in my songs and I wonder why.

Photo by Tonje Thilesen
Photo by Tonje Thilesen

11: Looking back, was having some difficulty getting the record just how you wanted it and stepping out of your comfort zone writing-wise beneficial in a sense? Or again, was this just part of the process, and since each record is different this really won’t affect your process going forward?

JH: I think my goal is to always step outside of my “comfort zone” and challenge myself, so I’ll keep doing that.

11: Do your records feel interconnected, or is each approached as its own project?

JH: Each as its own project.

11: What, if anything, does the fact that your first two records are Greek-related say? I’m interested to know what about Greek culture speaks to you, many storytellers are intrigued by history would be interested in the stories of Euripides and Sophocles, does your interest go deeper than that?

JH: Actually it says nothing—I only based Tragedy on a Greek tragedy because I happened to read Hippolytus and it moved me and I felt like making music for it. I know almost nothing about ancient Greek culture. It’s a coincidence that “Ekstasis” is a Greek name, it’s just a word/concept that seemed evocative of the vibes on that record, but the album has nothing to do with Greek culture overall.

11: Tell me about the film score you’re working on?

JH: I finished it last year, it’s a score for a boxing film. It’s kind of minimal and bluesy piano music with strings and some saxophone. It was a lot of fun working on it, mostly with the film director Ben Younger.

11: After all of these long-winded questions about the artistic process, it’s time to get down to the real issues: is that your pup in the “Feel You” video?

JH: Ha, it’s my boyfriend Tashi’s dog. He’ll be home in LA when I’m in Portland unfortunately! »

– Donovan Farley