Julia Holter interview: “It could be any place.”

19.08.13

Julia Holter sits in a busied East London café in a hefty trencoat and scarf – no doubt a choice pick for many in London during these still-chilly fledgling summer months. It's early, and she still seems to be coming out of her shell, one that may well have been hardened by jetlag, telling me that she's just been out in Beirut (for a trip that included a collaborative performance with fellow LA artist Chris Votek). Having anticipated some nerves at meeting face to face with someone whose music has had such an intense impact on me over the last few years, I've already gulped down a double espresso before she's even arrived – while her tall glass of herbal tea sits as the picture of Californian calm throughout on the opposite side of the table. That air of calm is the default mode throughout the majority of our meeting, as we discuss the ideas and influence behind her new album. 

'Loud City Song' marks three albums in three years for Holter – a fact that she mostly puts down to her constant focus on music, when it's permitted. What makes this all the more impressive is the shifting and developing of sound across these works. The edgy, city-based field recordings of 'Tragedy' – a record I first experienced sitting in pitch darkness at the back of a Greyhound bus travelling through the East Coast of the U.S – were for the most part a distant memory on the treasure-trove transcendence of last year's 'Ekstasis', a rich record that impressed all the more for, again, being mostly bedroom-produced. With 'Loud City Song' the LA artist has not only carried along both the tension and twinkle that embodied those albums, but brought her writing into a matured stage of performance and craftmanship, showing signs of new sonic influences like jazz and musical theatre.

The origins of this new album came during the writing of 'Ekstasis', with a song that didn't quite make the cut: "I had a song that didn't really work on the record, but I felt that it needed to be its own record, part of its own thing. So I made this whole other record as a response to this one song – which is now called Maxim’s II." Quite some weight on one song – but it's one deserving of it, and one that, crucially, takes influence from Vincente Minelli's 1958 musical Gigi, a coming of age story starring Leslie Caron and Maurice Chevalier, set within the gossip-crazed world of the chattering classes of early twentieth century Paris. Returning to the conceptual focus of 'Tragedy', which reconfigured Ancient Greek Euripides' Hippolytus around alarming city sirens and unnerving sound collages, 'Loud City Song' was written with Minelli's play in mind. Other sources of inspiration included the initimate city writings of American poet Frank O'Hara, while Joni Mitchell's The Jungle Line would figure closely in the writing of In The Green Wild: "she writes about the city a lot in her later stuff, and the way it's orchestrated is really cool. There's a lot of attention paid to the production that I really enjoy". While sound-wise ‘Loud City Song’ may offer something safer than the unnerving sound collages of Holter's debut, of her links with RVNG Intl. and her recent work with Laurel Halo, it's still a work that evokes a genuine timelessness and a deep understanding of how to work with art’s interconnectedness.

Did 'Loud City Song' feel like a more collaborative work and less a solo work compared to your previous albums? 

Julia Holter: It felt like a solo project, because I did a full demo of the album at home, so it felt equally as solo and intimate actually, but I worked a lot with Cole M.G.N. who produced it with me, to really create what I had envisioned. Mostly he’s just really great at EQing, he’s like a scientist in that way, he knows how to bring out certain sounds in a way I wouldn’t know how to do otherwise. Then of course when you have musicians playing the music, I arranged and notated a lot of it, but then a lot of it I left free, I’d give them loose instructions, verbally instead of notated, so then that would leave them free to improvise a little bit, and that was something I’d never be able to do – because I don’t play saxophone, or trombone, or cello, or violin, or drums [laughs]. But there was also so much time spent recording it at my house. I recorded keyboard parts in my house, I borrowed some pre-amps and recorded all the keyboard parts, so then I had a lot of freedom to add as many ideas or layers as I wanted. 

That must have been a really great learning experience for you as an artist, going through that production process.

Right, and especially getting to work with Cole, because he’s worked with people like Ramona [Nite Jewel] and Ariel [Pink], both people who started just like me, self-recording, and then moving into a studio-like situation, so he's really assisted that transition. 

"In the musical Gigi there’s a scene where she goes into a bar and everyone’s looking at her and gossiping, and everyone’s wearing fancy dresses and it’s all very theatrical. It’s voyeurism – that dynamic to me is really interesting. I thought, okay, I’m going to make a record around this theme: society looking at celebrity obsession." – Julia Holter

Cities have played a really significant part in your music before, but it feels like your use of it has changed since you were using it for closely with field recordings on ‘Tragedy’ – when there are recordings on ‘Loud City Song’ it’s more of the natural world. How is the city operating here?

It’s meant to be a location for anyone to insert his or her city into. It’s sort of a blank state in a way. It could be any place. I mentioned Maxim’s II being the start of this record, and in the musical Gigi there’s a scene where she goes into a bar and everyone’s looking at her and gossiping, and everyone’s wearing fancy dresses and it’s all very theatrical. There’s voyeurism where everyone’s watching her – that dynamic to me is really interesting. I thought, okay, I’m going to make a record around this theme: society looking at celebrity obsession, because why am I so interested in this? I’m interested in it because I can see elements of that in my own society, with media not really being on the street but media being on the internet. So when I say “city” it could be the internet or it could be television. Whereas with Gigi's setting media it was just newspapers, or people in restaurants.

I was thinking about all this wonderful stuff you have with hats and the city. It was probably less true in American society but in the earlier part of the 20th century in the UK hats were a way of reading social class. At the end of City Appearing you describe people leaving a party and forgetting to put their hat back on – as if they’re forgetting to take their identity with them. 

Right, that’s really cool. That end track [City Appearing] is meant to be this crazy apocalyptic thing where everyone finds truth and love and has this big city orgy. In my mind there’s fire and everything – that people are just getting rid of their hats, getting rid of their conventions, no longer conforming, you know.

"On Horns Surrounding Me it’s sort of meant to be this guy being chased by paparazzi. This bombardment of an individual by society." – Julia Holter

On World you talk about tipping your hat – as if to seek out a moment of calm from what’s going on around.

Right, like the loudness of the advertisements on TV or whatever. On Horns Surrounding Me it’s sort of meant to be this guy – it doesn’t have to be a guy but in my mind it is – being chased by paparazzi. So, “horns” surrounding him, but there the horns and the instruments are symbolising the loud paparazzi. This bombardment of an individual by society.

World is such a haunting start to the album. There’s this childlike innocence but also this profound uncertainty. Were you dealing specifically with a relationship experience there?

Well, it’s a wandering song. There’s also a feeling of having to escape the media, needing to escape something: loudness, or social conventions, or escaping your mother. So it’s kind of like a coming of age for a young person, that’s how I imagine it when I’m singing it. The story in Gigi is that she never sees her mother much, because her mother’s a minor singer in the opera, and Gigi’s raised by women who are all the unmarried mistresses of rich men. So she doesn’t really have a normal home life and she’s being raised to become one of them. But she’s a very spirited person, she’s a young person, kind of a tomboy, she doesn’t want to do stuff like that. So that's where it came from, but it can be my own questions about the world, it's pretty open to what it could be. 

I wanted to ask about the cover of Hello Stranger. You originally had that on a Live Recordings tape from like 2010 right?

Yeah, the reason that I used it was because I just love Barabara Lewis’s original, it’s so magical. It wasn’t something that I initially thought of but the reason it works is because there’s a scene in Gigi where there are two old people reminiscing about a past relationship or affair they had together. And the song is called I Remember It Well, but the joke is that they don’t remember it very well. So it’s very mysterious, this guy Maurice Chevalier – who’s this total schmoozer – and Gigi’s grandmother, have had an affair. In the movie it seems like she remembers everything, and he keeps saying "remember when we did this…" and she corrects him and says "no we didn’t do that, this is what we really did". So it’s very mysterious and unclear, it’s this thing from the past that you can’t quite remember. In Hello Stranger, the lyrics are very strange and mysterious, they’re just like “hello stranger, it seems like a very long time”. You don’t really know anything about it, but there’s something very romantic about that, it leaves it very open. So they almost like compliment each other in a way, so I thought that cover was like a nice way of singing the same song that was in Gigi but creating a new version of it.

I read this really nice recent tweet from you: "I want to write extremely romantic music in a very medieval way".

That was related to something I’m working on now, that I was trying to figure out. And it’s changing a lot from when I tweeted that actually. Romantic music never moves anywhere in a way, it’s just these chords that keep on going, all these chords leading into each other and are dissonant and never resolving. That’s a very romantic thing. At the same time, with medieval music it doesn’t have that development that you have in classical music, it just keeps going on and on and without a sense of development.

Like some kind of drone?

Well no, more like constant turbulence [laughs]. Maybe undulating, sometimes up and down but never with some big climax at the ending.

"I see artwork in general as a series of translations – you start from one thing, that leads to another thing… or you use stories from other times and places. That’s in a folk tradition, that’s in a classical music tradition. I like to work with precedent and to play with ideas that have already existed." – Julia Holter

How was it working with Laurel Halo and Daniel Wohl at the Ecstatic Music Festival earlier this year?

It was awesome, we’d never worked together before, and it was pretty fun. It came pretty easily.

Some of that was pre-existing stuff and some of it was new compositions, right? 

Yeah, the stuff that we did together, there were chunks we did individually because we didn’t have a lot of time together. Laurel built up these very intense recordings, and then we came up with lyrics over them, and then used some texts she had. Then likewise I had some stuff that was based on a piece called Bars in Afternoons that I’d done a long time ago and I arranged to have them done live, and she sang with me. So we kind of worked on each other’s ideas. She worked with Daniel [Wohl] on bringing out the live instruments with the vocal that she’d created electronically. So we worked more than anything on vocals together, so that’s why I’d like to work with her on other things and see what it’s like. I think something could happen in the future.

Maybe it was less true with ‘Ekstasis’, but do you often need to give yourself stories to work from in your writing?

I am [working from stories] on some of the songs on ‘Ekstasis’. That record wasn’t a unified record like ‘Tragedy’ or this one, more just a collection of songs, but in all of the songs you can see traces of that. But I do like to work off stories that have previously existed and I do see artwork in general as a series of translations – you start from one thing, that leads to another thing… or you use stories from other times and places. That’s in a folk tradition, that’s in a classical music tradition. I like to work with precedent and to play with ideas that have already existed. I don’t necessarily think it’s more interesting than drawing only from your own experiences, because a lot of great work is made that way, and I also make songs that don’t draw from anything else really. But for me it’s a challenge and fun to work with other things, it’s like a little collaboration with something that already exists. I think it’s nice for people to make connections between one thing and another. It makes it more universal than it just being me and my experiences. 

Domino will release 'Loud City Song' on the 19th August 2013.