Between her considerable training in classical music theory and her elusive, deceptively homebrewed recording process, there's something about Julia Holter's repertoire that makes it inherently difficult to discuss. It's a catalog that’s begging to be over-intellectualized. In the midst of breaking out to a wider audience, it seems destined to be pigeonholed as something careful, sophisticated, and generally made for smart people who are sitting down. But even when she references situational drama from Greek mythology, as she did on her breakout LP, Tragedy, I’ve always felt that her music possessed accessible, sensual tendencies, in direct opposition to the rigid image that many hold of The Conservatory. Think, for example, of the bass groove midway through "This is Ekstasis;" it's a cut from sophomore record Ekstasis that evokes the raw avant-rock of Eno in Roxy Music more than say, Laurie Anderson, to whom Holter is frequently compared. Still, more than her influences, Holter’s knack for universal human portraiture is what shines through.
It's a gift that feels particularly evident on her forthcoming third LP, Loud City Song, and as we got deeper into conversation in a corner of the Tribeca Grand Hotel lobby, it felt like an affirmation of her true artistic identity. Loud City Song is, by her own admission, her first real collaboration-- most prominently, with Los Angeles indie sound guru and former Haunted Graffiti member Cole M. Grief-Neill as her engineer, producer, and general brainstormer--but it retains the solitary intimacy of her previously mostly-homemade output. Though she still relies heavily on allusion to examine interpersonal relationships, the primary source is something a little chintzier than heavy Greek drama: the Lerner-Loewe musical film Gigi, the source inspiration for much of the album, particularly centerpiece tracks “Maxim’s I” and “II.” During our conversation, Holter talked to me about what it was like working in a new environment and the complexities of making art that references other art.
Ad Hoc: What was different about working on Loud City Song compared to your previous albums?
Julia Holter: It was great, because it was the best of both worlds. I was using material that I’d written alone-- in the same way that I had usually written and had made demos--, but I got to explore a lot of things without feeling the pressure of making those initial demos the final versions. It was actually really freeing. I tried a bunch of stuff being like, “I’m going to do this but when we record it, we can do it better.” So, I basically came up with the atmosphere for every song, and then was able to work with people like Cole, who knows so much about sound and can deal with it really subtlely. I’m so heavy-handed with everything because I don’t really know what I’m doing, so it was helpful getting to work with someone who's knowledgeable about that while I still get to direct the atmosphere. He can just execute things better than I can, in terms of cueing a voice so it’s the way I want it, but he would also make decisions. Like, I would have a recording of a street sound and he would play with ideas of where to put that. And I had these amazing players-- I had parts written out for all of them, but they’re all different. Some of the songs would be wholly written out, but then some would be just chords and they’d improvise within that framework. So it varied. I recorded a lot at home as well-- I recorded all my keyboard parts at home, and did vocals at Cole’s house rather than in the studio. He has a very nice microphone, but it wasn’t a real studio, so it wasn’t like I suddenly had to go full pro. It was a very, very comfortable process, a much better way than I was doing it before.
Ad Hoc: You mentioned that you initially recorded demos for Loud City Song by yourself. Were these initial song ideas floating around when you were making Tragedy and Ekstasis?
JH: I did work on some of it earlier, but not really as an album. In the later part of when I was working on Ekstasis, maybe in 2010, I was working on this song called “Maxim’s” for Ekstasis, and then I was like, “This song does not make sense on this record at all.” And it was inspired by this moment in the musical Gigi where she walks into a room and everyone is staring at her and gossiping. I liked the social dynamic. It was different. I wanted to do something different where I was dealing with a social situation, whereas usually my songs are very introspective or something. So it was a cool change, but I was like, "This does not make sense for this record, so I have to make a whole new record." And that’s the point where I started thinking about what this record was going to have in it and stuff like that.
Ad Hoc: So it all kind of built around that song?
JH: Kind of. It started from that song, and then I would draw upon other themes in that story. Yeah, it started with that song.
Ad Hoc: You have multiple versions of “Goddess Eyes” and multiple versions of “Maxim’s.” What makes you decide to reinterpret one of your songs?
JH: I did that for different reasons. With “Goddess Eyes,” I did that because I was working on Tragedy for Leaving Records, which is my friend [Matthewdavid's] label in L.A., and then while I was working on that, my friend Ramona [Gonzalez] from Nite Jewel sent a mixtape to Matt Werth who runs RVNG Int’l., a label here in New York, and it had “Goddess Eyes” on it. It wasn’t out on Tragedy yet-- Tragedy didn’t come out until two years later. But I was working on it at the time, and he really liked that song and he wanted to release it. So, I decided to do a different version of “Goddess Eyes” for the RVNG version. It was more like a curatorial choice or something, which is weird, but that was the whole reason. With “Maxim’s,” the reason I did it was because I was playing my keyboard one day, and I found this one sound-- it was actually a default sound on the keyboard--and I really liked it. I played these seventh chords with it and I loved how it sounded. I was like, this has to be a song, this is so cool-sounding. And then I recorded what I was doing and sang the lyrics to “Maxim’s” over it just because I needed something to sing over it, and it ended up being great for the record. Having it there twice isn’t a problem to me-- the first one is the sort of welcoming, surreal, invitational one, and then the one toward the end of the record is the more confrontational, in-your-face, unpleasant one.
Ad Hoc: Is there anything in particular about interpersonal relationships that comes through in Loud City Song, given that you were in more of a collaborative environment and the subject matter was slightly altered from your previous work?
JH: Yeah, I think the subject matter was different, but the approach was similar to Tragedy: I’m taking a story that already exists and playing with it and building my own world. Building my own story, really, or another story. If we’re talking about personal relationships and experiences that one has, like how much of it is biographical, I would say it never changes much. I would say the one constant is that my music tends to be very abstracted from my own experiences. But I would never say there’s nothing of them there, you know? I wouldn’t say it’s completely nothing, because you can only think about love or something based on what you know. It’s not like with Taylor Swift, where I’m writing a song about my ex-boyfriend. I don’t think I’ve ever done that, but there’s definitely always an impetus to in your mind to recall what you know, like an emotion you know.
Most of my songs tend to have one sentiment each. Like one of them will be about a yearning for something-- a lot of the time my songs are about a yearning, like a statue wanting to be able to run, like in “Marienbad.” Or someone wanting to escape, like “In The Green Wild.” So those are all things I can relate to and I can work with as subject matter based on my personal experiences. But it’s all abstracted. If I wanted to write a song about my boyfriend or something, I could, but what is inspiring to me is to have other perspectives combined with my own. To work with a sentiment expressed in someone else’s work, like a play or something, and to think about how that connects to my own experience. Or with the new record, it excites me and interests me and makes me want to write music. There’s this song in Gigi called “I Remember It Well,” and the whole thing is cheesy, but it’s this song about-- there’s this old guy Maurice Chevalier sitting down at a table with Gigi’s great aunt and they're having drinks together, remembering a past romance they had with each other. He keeps saying, “Oh, and then we went to Spain, “ and she would say “No, we went to France,” and he keeps getting it wrong. It’s just like slapstick, but it’s also that memory is really interesting in the way it morphs, and.when I thought about that song, I thought, “Whoa, I did this cover of the song ‘Hello Stranger’ like four years ago, this amazing oldie by Barbara Lewis in the sixties." It’s such a good song, and the subject matter is really similar. It’s kind of about memory and the vagueness of memory, and in the “Hello Stranger” song by Barbara Lewis there’s not a lot of concrete imagery. It’s more just like pure sentiment, and it’s exclusively one sentiment. “Don’t hurt me like you did before, but it’s so good to see you.”
The reason I have “Hello Stranger” in there is because in Gigi they have that moment where they’re recalling the past, and I thought “Hello Stranger” was a perfect replacement for it. So the references become really convoluted, because I took a cover I did of someone else’s song and used it in place of another song from a musical, combining these very similar sentiments from different places, you know? Maybe it’s from my own experience or maybe it’s from theirs or whatever. Anyone can remember or imagine a time when you run into someone that you’ve been in love with.
Ad Hoc: It brings out this weird universality between different eras of people doing work, and yet you’re able to relate it to today by adding your own personal details to it.
JH: Yeah, and people sometimes think that I have this obsession with the past or that I always want to do that, and isn’t that weird, or why don’t I just want to write about my own experiences, but I actually think a lot of people do that. Maybe not everyone does Greek tragedies, but the only reason I did that was because I happened to be reading them; it’s not because I’m an expert. I’m not trying to be pompous or something. You just choose from stuff you happened to be looking at because that’s what you know. I mean, Shakespeare did that, he used other stories, right? Well, not Shakespeare, necessarily; but most people use other stuff. It doesn’t have to be highbrow work, you know? It doesn’t matter, because to do something based on a Hollywood musical could be tired, which is what I did. It’s all about what you do with it, I think. You have to be honest with yourself. I was actually embarrassed to present it as Gigi, because I’m not proud of it. It’s not cool or hip to do something based on a Hollywood musical. It’s very, like, grandma.
Ad Hoc: But it’s also cool to do things that aren’t hip.
JH: I guess. I mean, I just do things that are true to me and what I’m looking at and what I’m interested in. I can’t really do it unless I want to.
Loud City Song is out August 20 on Domino Records.