Julia Holter by Ben Vida

BOMB 125 Fall 2013
BOMB 125
Julia Holter

Photo by Rick Bahto.

Early this summer Julia Holter and I got the chance to meet for the first time. She was in New York from Los Angeles to play a show and do interviews; I drove down from Woodstock where I was spending the summer. We met at the Tribeca Grand in SoHo—both of us arriving from two different iconic towns to New York City, the iconic town of the 20th century. Trying to locate the influence of place, and even more specifically, the influence of a city that functions as an icon, is very much at the heart of Julia’s new record, Loud City Song .

As she puts it: “I think the thing about LA is it’s hard to pin down exactly what it is—what it’s like, how it sounds, how it smells, so when people make music about LA, which a lot of people do, it’s hard to identify particular things about it, and it just becomes this great abstract or collage.”

The feeling of place, the genius loci that resonates and informs a work—it’s a cliché and, of course, it’s totally true. Maybe it’s all about magnetic fields, or maybe it’s about people converging at a specific point on a map, and at a specific moment, and what that convergence and the personal connections of that moment can manifest.

The places we grow up in or, later, the places we adopt as home, become an intrinsic element in our creative process. On her new record Julia braids her interests in the poetry of Frank O’Hara, the music of Joni Mitchell, and the novella Gigi by Colette. She sets it all against the backdrop of contemporary Los Angeles, making the city the foundational component of the work, and in so doing, creates a piece that delivers on a number of frequencies—cultural, historical, and site specific. 

—Ben Vida

Ben Vida We both played Unsound in Poland last year.

Julia Holter Oh yeah!

BV I loved the brevity of your performance. Did you do all the string arrangements?

JH Yes, and it was really scary, it took so much time. That’s why it was short, because I had to arrange everything and I only had time between touring. We played “World,” which is on the new album, as well as two songs I’ve never released.

BV There was a moment during the performance where, for an instant, the strings arrived at this more dissonant chord, and then you resolved back to a consonant space. I remember thinking at the time: What if that dissonant space was the starting point and represented more of the resolved harmonic foundation? Listening to your new record reminded me of this and it made me wonder about your history as a composer, what sort of practice you’ve had away from the pop song structures.

JH My first music was for other musicians to play; I was a behind-the-scenes writer. I had gone to school for composition, and I didn’t think of myself as a performer or a singer, and I didn’t write lyrics until I was 21. I mean, at this point I’m 28 so I’ve been singing for seven years now. But at first it wasn’t normal for me to be singing. I didn’t really like my voice and I wasn’t going to use it much. But now, I don’t know what else to do, I love singing so much that I can’t stop.

BV It’s one of the great pleasures of life, isn’t it?

JH Yeah.

BV I was out playing in Will Oldham’s band this past spring on the modular synthesizer, which is a super weird instrument to be playing—

JH —unpredictable.

BV It can be unpredictable, but very interesting.

JH I like his music.

BV I like him so much too. The group was just a four piece: two acoustic guitars, Will and Emmett Kelly, the modular synth and Dawn McCarthy singing and playing a floor tom, so it was a really cool group. On stage we were all seated around a single microphone and singing four-part harmony. So we were mixing ourselves live, you know, we didn’t have monitors so we had this living-room feeling on stage, even though we were in front of a thousand people.

JH That’s really cool.

BV Singing with those folks was just such a pleasure.

JH I used to have an informal singing group with some composers that I know. It happened to be all women so it worked well because of our ranges. And then Cat left for Bard and my friend Laura went to Stanford.

BV Cat Lamb? I love Cat Lamb’s work with the overtone series.

JH She’s written these pieces for voice that Laura Steenberge and I have sung together.

BV I’ve met Laura. She came out to Bard and she and Cat performed one of those pieces for two voices. It was absolutely beautiful.

JH Yeah. We would get together and sing Cat’s pieces; she’d have the numbers representing pitches in hertz for us to sing. People who didn’t know much about microtones would still sing with us and would figure it out. It wasn’t exclusive to good singers because none of us are trained singers; all of us are composers who have started singing for fun. And secondly, it wasn’t necessarily for people who know how to read music. Although one time we got together and sang medieval motets just for fun; we didn’t sound so perfect, but it’s just great to sing with people who are focused listeners and composers, even if they aren’t specifically trained in singing.

BV Right, that’s less important; it’s more about the situation and just the pleasure of being together and blending voices. It’s so interesting when you start to work with the overtone series or alternate tuning systems, how the ear begins to adjust to it, so even if you’re not trained in microtonality you can still recalibrate and hear it. Did you study with James Tenney at CalArts?

JH Sadly, he had passed away by the time I got there. I did work briefly with Wolfgang von Schweinitz who writes very classical music exploring microtonality. I learned a lot from him about how to hear and listen for different kinds of ratios of intervals. He is a really enthusiastic teacher and interesting composer. I was mainly working with Michael Pisaro, and there was a lot of just hanging out and talking about books or movies I might want to see, things that relate to what I’m interested in, because at that point I kind of knew what I was doing. Michael is great at figuring out what you’re into. He’s a really good mentor in that way, he doesn’t impose things on you; he just helps inspire you, and his music is also so great.

BV When you were in school, composing before you chose to sing, who were you inspired by?

JH I was really confused because I grew up on pop music but was playing classical piano. I mainly listened to pop until I was 15, and then I started being interested in avant-garde modernist-y, kind of European stuff. That’s when I started writing music. But then, when I started music school at University of Michigan, it was very conservative and classically minded and it was too much for me, almost. But I went for it anyway and tried really hard.

Who was I inspired by? I don’t know if I did a very good job at writing music inspired by him, but one person I was inspired by was György Ligeti. Most of the students and the teachers there were interested in his music at the time, so I wanted to learn about what everyone else was interested in. So Ligeti, and also John Adams—if you can imagine what confused music inspired by Adams and Ligeti might sound like—

BV (laughter) I think some of the string sections on your album Loud City Song have a Ligeti-like quality to them. What was your method for scoring those parts?

JH Well it depends which song. “Maxim’s 1” in its home-recorded demo form was just all synth of course, but I imagined it being very cinematic, with just strings and synth and voice, so after I recorded the demo, I came up with a notated arrangement for strings that would also blend with a synth part. “World” was a poem I wrote, somewhat tied to and somewhat separate from a specific melody, written at a piano. Then I just portioned out the parts (which are chorale-like) to different instruments according to their ranges of course. “Hello Stranger” also was written out. That song is very static; it repeats over and over again in a very specific mode; it’s in C. It doesn’t move away chromatically; it stays on C—C, D minor, E minor. It’s very simple because of those chords repeating over and over, but toward the end I tried to create soft high dissonant layers in the “strings” (the high strings in this case were just a violin overdubbed). By the end there was a stack of eight voices—they’re all in a C major scale, but they’re still dissonant because there’s dissonance between a C and a B. That dissonance is really nice. I love major 7ths. That’s why I think I like that song too, because it has a really strong major 7th. I don’t know if it does in the original—

BV —on the demo?

JH It’s actually a cover of a song from the ’60s. It’s a great pop song by Barbara Lewis.

BV As an undergrad I studied music as well. There was this moment after finishing, where I was shedding education and so many of those rules. And then there was the moment of returning to them and finding how they actually fit in with my voice. Are you finding that that’s a possibility, that you have this whole tool kit?

JH Yeah, definitely. For a long time I sheltered myself because I needed to find my own voice, after like, the trauma of being in school. (laughter) So I kind of did, and now I feel like I can deal with the world outside of my own comfort zone.

BV The press sheet that accompanies your new record mentions that the songs are inspired by the novella Gigi by Colette. Do you feel that by reading Loud City Song through Gigi, something in the record is further illuminated?

JH It’s really interesting to me when particular sentiments are expressed in different ways, in different time periods and through different societies—the sentiment, for example, of remembering something about a romance that we’ve had, but it’s vague and there’s mystery. It’s happening in both a Barbara Lewis song from the ’60s and then in the musical Gigi from the ’50s with Leslie Caron, inspired by Colette’s book from the ’40s about turn-of-the century Paris. I love the multitude of settings in which the same sentiments can be expressed. That’s what I worked with in Tragedy, a record I did a long time ago, as well as with this one. But I am also wary of telling too much and spoiling the experience of just listening to something; it’s a big tricky thing. At first I was like, I’m not going to tell anyone it’s inspired by Gigi.

You can only do what you know and what you love. That is very true with me. If something inspires me I have to do it. I was compelled to recreate this scene from the musical, and then it turned into me having to make this whole record stemming from that moment. I struggled with how to present the record and I’ve come to some kind of a happy place, where people can think of them as individual songs and also think of it as a record inspired by this story.

BV It really reads as a complete piece—the way that lyrics come back around to develop themes. There’s actually a line right at the beginning about wearing a hat low, and it made me think of Scott Walker.

JH Cool.

BV An image of Scott Walker in his cap—for me it’s become iconic.

JH (laughter) The hat?

BV Yeah, the little hat. I feel like you are, with this record, trying to solve some puzzles similar to his. This mix of popular music and theater… well, there’s almost something operatic about it. In that way it also brought to mind Robert Ashley’s work, his take on what an opera couldbe. The balance of more traditional pop forms and some of your vocal arrangements fall into that world.

JH Of course, I love Robert Ashley—

BV You know we’re right around the corner from where he lives.

JH Really?

BV Yeah, he and David Behrman have a place, not together, but they’re in the same building, just five minutes from here.

JH Awesome. I had a dream the other night that he was narrating. (laughter) I don’t even know what it was about; all I remember is his voice.

BV The record of his that I thought of was—here, I wrote it down because I can never remember titles—it’s part of the Perfect Lives, Private Parts series, from ’81, called Music Word Fire and I Would Do It Again. It’s interesting because it has this almost no-wave quality to it.

JH I think I know that line, how does it go?

BV It’s got like a coo coo, ka ka

JH Oh yeah, coo coo.

BV You know?

JH Yes, yes.

BV The way you deal with your rhythm section on this record totally brought me back to that record. Ashley does such an interesting job of balancing post-Cage compositional processes, with an amazing ear for developing rhythm out of common vernaculars.

JH I really thought about Loud City Song poetically more than anything. Frank O’Hara’s a big influence, the way he observes the city but tells a very personal romantic story at the same time. When he describes the city in his poetry it feels so intimate, and that weird synchronicity is really inspiring.

BV So how did this group of songs come together?

JH I made demos before we recorded it, just in my room like I usually do, and I had no idea stylistically—I didn’t plan styles. So every song was different, and I was like, I don’t know if this works or not, but I just went with it and I never questioned anything or second-guessed myself. Each song was separate, I didn’t know if it made sense, but I gave it to Cole Marsden Greif-Neill and he was like, “Oh yeah, this totally makes sense.” Trusting yourself and just having the sense that you’re doing something, even though you’re not sure exactly what it is that you’re doing, is actually a really awesome space.

BV Yeah, I think about this a lot, trying to always be working from a place of discovery, or creating systems that’ll result in this reveal, so that all of a sudden the piece opens itself up, and you’re like, “Oh, okay.” And I can definitely see how by working on unique tracks, and then having them open up as a complete piece would be one of these moments of reveal.

JH It seems like there’s magic in the stuff that you do. There’s this mood, this place for mystery.

BV Yeah, with the recent work with text I’ve tried to set up a system—

JH —Was that the video?

BV Yeah, the video.

JH Yeah okay, that was really cool.

BV Thanks. The text in that video is a sound poem I wrote. The idea of sitting down and writing a sound poem seems totally insane to me, that’s not something I would do, but I needed vocal material to create rhythms because I wanted to use the voice as the rhythmic engine of the music. I wanted the performers to voice the poem and I would take those recordings and synthesize beats out of them. I wasn’t voicing the poem as I was writing it, I was just typing it, and it was like, “Well, this kind of looks like four-on-the-floor” or, “This kind of looks like a swing beat.”

JH Oh. Like how words look like beats?

BV Yeah, exactly. And then you know, grabbing Sara Magenheimer and Tyondai Braxton, knowing they’re trusted collaborators, and not giving them any direction. So when they performed the poem, it was this amazing reveal—you know, “Oh wow, so this is what this piece is.”

JH They would speak but we wouldn’t necessarily recognize their voices because there’s something else that’s crazy happening simultaneously. I like the disconnect from the source.

BV (laughter) Yeah, I wanted to push this idea of sense and sensing, where the image and the sound have this disconnect but our mind wants to make sense, it wants to realign things. The sync is there, but the viewers’ relationship to it is complicated by how the voice is acting to communicate—its function has changed. But yeah, it’s been interesting to create situations that expand compositional practice, where it’s almost like inviting the “other” in. Even working through this idea of Gigi, that’s almost inviting a compositional “other” into your practice. Or, it’s a foundation that just gives the work a connectivity. You’re writing all these songs but you’re not sure how they fit together—well, they have this structure that’s already there.

JH Exactly, that’s totally right.

BV Tell me something about the field recordings on the record. Did you make those recordings yourself or are they sampled from different places?

JH They are from this one recording that I made on Hollywood Boulevard. Also there’s this piece I did that was like a field recording, where I’m singing and playing a song on the harmonium, and my friend would run around my apartment complex and then run into the room, my apartment, and then run out again, for like ten minutes. So you’d have this journey and then he’d run into the house and you’d get this Doppler effect.

BV So he would be holding the recording device?

JH Yeah, recording me singing the song and then himself running around.

BV The use of those recordings brings to mind the way Morissey would use sampled recordings from movies with the Smiths. It would be this other layer, this other voice all of a sudden, and it would be so evocative and it would say so much, even if you just heard it for a moment. It works this way on your record as well. It heightens the emotion and the tension of those moments, and deepens this cinematic or theatrical space that seems to be developing over the course of the whole album.

The arc of the record is so fantastic and has this theatrical thing happening. It’s wonderfully dramatic, without being overly emotional. I could see this being staged so easily. The point that I perceive as the arc’s high point has a very Robert Wyatt-y sound where there’s a double-tracked saxophone.

JH In “Maxim’s II” where it’s really loud and crazy and wild?

BV Yeah, yeah. So how much directing were you doing for the ensemble and who were your collaborators? What was it like to take it from your bedroom into the studio?

JH It was cool. In the demo, the first song I did was the one that was supposed to be onEkstasis, and that made me realize it didn’t fit Ekstasis but had to become a whole record. So that song I wrote the longest time ago, like in 2010. It was even posted on Altered Zones, where I did my first interview ever. They showed that song because it was my new song. They called it Gigi— (laughter)

BV Oh, so Gigi has been something that you’ve been thinking about for years?

JH Two years. I was working on Tragedy and Ekstasis at the same time; even three years ago, I was having conversations like: What are you working on now? But I had to finish Ekstasis, and that took awhile. So Gigi: There’s one solo I wrote (sings part) for the saxophonist on the recording, Chris Speed. He’s amazing. I would tell him, “Just go crazy. Everyone goes crazy.” Whereas on my demo, I played that solo and I didn’t get crazy because I don’t improvise.

BV So you’re giving them this launching off point.

JH I wanted them to go crazy. That was my goal, and that’s why I wanted to work with people. That song should be aggressive, in your face, and uncomfortable. It’s uncomfortable for me to listen to a wailing saxophone, although I clearly like it because I’ve done it a lot.

BV Yeah, energetically it’s this moment that seems to rise up above all the others. And the saxophone is such a tough nut to crack, I think. Whenever someone goes for it and it works, you’re like, “Ah, you’ve done it!” You know?

JH Yeah. I do.

Cold Beat by Gary Canino
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“A big part of music for me has always been advocacy, and about having a space where people who feel marginalized by society can do things together.”

Peacers by Meg Remy
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Meg Remy of US Girls talks to the former Sic Alp about anger, publicity, lyrics, and Roald Dahl.

The Go-Betweens by Gary Canino
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Songwriter Robert Forster on his group’s nearly flawless decade.

Originally published in

BOMB 125, Fall 2013

Featuring interviews with Amy Sillman, Paulo Bruscky, Steve Roden and Stephen Vitiello, Gonçalo M. Tavares, Rodrigo Rey Rosa, Ben Rivers, Julia Holter, and My Barbarian.  

Read the issue
BOMB 125