Julia Holter may have gone to school to study formal composition, but she vaulted to prominence on the strength of albums like Tragedy and Ekstasis, which balanced pop pulses and harmonies with harder-to-define explorations, ones that felt more distinguished than the experiments of other home-recording phenoms.
On her new album, Loud City Song, Holter also worked in professional studios, and occasionally with a full complement of session musicians on hand to play her own arrangements. While on a ginger-beer break from a recent sound-check, she spoke with Seth Colter Walls about blending home and studio recording practices, as well as her influences, which range from Joni Mitchell to the post-minimalist opera composer Robert Ashley.
How did recording in a “proper” studio setting, with a full backing ensemble, challenge you or change the process?
Recording was actually really great; it wasn’t uncomfortable. A lot of the vocals I recorded in Cole’s [the producer's] studio at home — which was a more comfortable space than like a professional studio. We recorded the instruments in the studio but also recorded a bunch of stuff at home. Also, I spent a year and a half before that writing and recording demos of all the songs. I could try things out. I didn’t have to worry about the demos being perfect, like in the past where the demos were the final recording. So it was really liberating and fun — it was so much more playful, actually. So I guess the best of both worlds!
Previous projects of yours have had literary inspirations, including Greek tragedy. The influence this time is derived from the Colette novella Gigi.
Well, Collette’s text was an influence, for sure, but it was maybe even more the film that came out of the text — the musical that a lot of people know. I grew up watching that musical, and I’m not normally much of a “musicals” person. I just grew up with that particular one. It didn’t occur to me at first to make a record inspired by Gigi. It’s one of those things that you grow up with that you don’t think of making art out of — because it’s just something personal, really. I guess in the end the only things I really can use are the things that I really love or the things that I respond to the most — and I just have to be honest with myself.
You’ve also mentioned Joni Mitchell as an influence on the record. I was thinking of The Hissing of Summer Lawns a bit on “In the Green Wild.”
Yeah, there’s this one song on The Hissing of Summer Lawns called “The Jungle Line” that musically inspired “In the Green Wild.” It’s amazing just for a simple reason: It’s very percussive and cool. She’s another one of those people that I listened to at a very formative age so much — and I don’t listen to as much now — but I have just in my bones or something.
I’ve also heard you mention affection for the American “maverick” composer Robert Ashley. What about him inspires you?
I don’t know how much I am influenced by him, but I’m definitely very inspired by him. I don’t know how much you can tell of that by listening to my music. But [someone else] told me the other day my music reminded them of Robert Ashley, which I thought was interesting.
I really love his “Automatic Writing” piece. I think it’s one of my favorite things ever: just hearing these utterances and not being sure what they mean or what they’re saying — they’re mysterious, they create a mood. You don’t often see music or art dealing with the psychology of utterances that you can’t understand, and that piece just lives in the world, explores it for like twelve minutes. That’s a cinema of sound.
Do you feel like people have a good grip on “your sound” or your project? And does that change as you move from venue to venue — or even from country to country?
I don’t feel like anyone has a good idea of how to describe what I’m doing — which is good news, I think. Because I definitely change what I do a lot. For me, my records are all very different. It’s probably clearer to other people what makes my songs similar than it is to me actually.
So I’ve chosen to keep just my regular my normal name, my birth name, and not make a project name because of this — to maintain independence form some kind of a project that has a specific goal. I started off making music as a composer in school and in a way I still think of myself as a composer who is behind the scenes, building things. As opposed to, like, a performer, or someone who is doing a specific thing and they have this name that people know them as.
Listening to the instrumental passages on Loud City Song made me wonder if you could ever see yourself returning to those conservatory roots, and making an instrumental album of compositions.
Well I have in the past, but for some reason recently I’ve just wanted to make music with singing. But I don’t necessarily know that I always will!