Julia Holter “[Academic music] is music that you can explain, and I find that my music is not always explainable, or ‘makes sense.’”

A young woman falls prey to a bewilderment akin to an infatuation. She dithers, wanting to be overtaken yet afraid of looking like she provoked the plunge. So the chase begins. A pursuit both literal and metaphorical, ultimately revealed symmetric to both sides of the relationship: a young man, just as confused, tries to pronounce his love to a partner who insists on running away. This could be a summary of Julia Holter’s upcoming album, Have You in My Wildernessout September 25. It’s a collection of songs wherein the L.A.-born singer examines relationship dynamics, her obliquely poetic touch in masterful display, rendering these compositions like ethereal versions of courtly love poems.

It would seem Holter has made a habit of releasing a thematic album followed by a dispersed set of songs (Tragedy in 2011 and Ekstasis in 2012, Loud City Song in 2013 and Have You in My Wilderness in 2015), but that’s not exactly true. Though not as cohesively knitted as the Euripides-inspired Tragedy, Ekstasis had Anne Carson’s work as a conceptual umbrella. The same happens with Have You in My Wilderness. Lacking Vincente Minnelli’s musical Gigi as a backdrop the way Loud City Song did, it recalls the spirit of Petrarch’s Ascent of Mont Ventoux. Like the Italian poet, Holter uses journeys through natural spaces to represent internal transformations. It’s a motif that appears throughout the record: “Lucette Stranded on the Island” could read as a highly allegoric sexual encounter on a beach or a scene lifted from a slasher film. “Everytime Boots” hides a meditation on the ways to escape absolute boredom, via images of freeways, stampeding cattle, and motorcycles, in what might be Holter’s version of a country song, etc.

But not everything about Julia Holter is sophisticated pop or intrepid lyrics. There’s a lighter side to her work, evident in her oddly amusing videos, similar in nature to Medieval marginalia, or the Madonna cover she shared just hours before we had a chance to talk — a gloriously goofy team-up with Ariel Pink. With this in mind, over a brief Skype call, we discussed the continuities running across her albums, her use of landscapes and character perspective in Have You in My Wilderness, the way her voice has taken on a more salient role in her recent work, among several other topics you can read in detail below.


I have to start by saying I loved the Madonna cover you did with Ariel Pink. It got me thinking that there is a very playful side to your music — and quite essential to it, too. I mean, sentient horns and talking birds may be a homage to Frank O’Hara or Apuleius, but they are also in the realm of Disney cartoons. Do you think this facet of your work is overshadowed by people making too big of a deal of your academic background?

Yeah, I definitely think calling me academic is a really weird idea — for me, personally. But it’s also a word that people throw around without understanding, or having a decision about what that means. I think my music is really intuitive and doesn’t fit in well in the academic world. I know a little bit about that world, because my parents are both academicians and I went to school for a while, with people who do make music that I would say is referential or based in a tradition. [Academic music] is music that you can explain, and I find that my music is not always explainable, or “makes sense.” It is more playful, as you noticed. I don’t think I’m academic, I just like to use stories that exist, which I think is the way a lot of people like to make music. So, yeah, I don’t really understand that. It’s kind of pretentious and I don’t aim to make pretentious music.

Talking about using pre-existing stories, unlike what you did for some of your previous albums, you have not announced a unifying theme for Have You in My Wilderness. Tragedy had Euripides’ Hippolytus, with Loud City Song there was Gigi and Los Angeles… Is it because these are a loose set of songs? Even so, the songs suggest several lines of continuity among themselves, if not even with Loud City Song’s: mysterious encounters between couples, the desire of running away…

I think there probably are continuities that I don’t know about. They just happen because that’s what my brain decides it’s what it wants to write about. And I don’t think they are intentional, but there is this “running away” thing for sure. It seems to be something that my subconscious is telling me I want to do… a lot. [laughs]

I’m talking about power versus freedom… Maybe versus is not the right word, but issues of power and freedom in relationships. So, that’s more symbolic, rather than just a city landscape you may have, or these expansive spaces.

Another subject that runs through these songs is love. Both Loud City Song and Have You in My Wilderness could be described as being about romantic relationships. Though with a caveat: Loud City Song is more about discovering love and learning how to partake in it — the album ends in a city-wide orgy! I believe Have You in My Wilderness is more about the fear of love, about running away from love, not knowing how to articulate it. Would you agree with that description?

[hesitates] Yeah, it’s debatable. I think [Have You in My Wilderness’ songs are] more about dynamics between people, when there is one person running away and another one chasing her. How that happens in a lot of ways, not just in romantic relationships. [In these songs] there’s people being hunted, or being confusing. People in silhouette…

Yeah, you use those figures — silhouettes and shadows — a lot in this record. Jewelry and pieces of clothing, too. In some cases borrowed clothes.

Yeah. So… in that case [Have You in My Wilderness’ song “Silhouette”] is someone saying, “Well, it’s confusing because he left, but there is a sign that he is gonna come back” [the borrowed clothes he left behind], and then she just sits and waits, thinking, “Maybe he’ll come back.”

Going back to the figures and images these songs conjure, while Loud City Song was evidently urban, in Have You in My Wilderness, your characters appear in empty, open spaces — which could very well be in the middle of the wilderness or a metaphorical internal space. You sing about forests, beaches, highways… Was that a distinction you wanted to stress, after doing a city-bound album?

That’s totally true, yeah. I didn’t think about it that way, but you’re right. The distinctions I make [between Have You in My Wilderness and Loud City Song] are that one is a collection of ballads — which is the best way to put it, because it’s hard to explain the album otherwise — while Loud City Song’s tracks [were] all connected through this loose narrative. There was this narrative based on the story [Colette’s Gigi]. And Tragedy is that way also.

I believe Ekstasis and Have You in My Wilderness are examples of records where I’m just putting a bunch of songs together. They are individual songs and don’t necessarily have connections with the other songs in the album. But I agree there are patterns and themes on this record, and that came about partially by what I would happen to be writing at the time. So, it’s a collection of all these songs I wrote in a specific moment, but I do think there are things that we choose to write about and there’s connections between them, and similarities and themes and stuff [going on between them, through those choices]; and I believe a lot of what goes on in this record is about exploring dynamics, and different perspectives on those dynamics throughout the songs. Some songs are the chase, some songs are [sang from the perspective of] the person being chased, some songs are about what happens after the chase… There’s definitely a thematic connection in that way.

In that case [Have You in My Wilderness’ song “Silhouette”] is someone saying, ‘Well, it’s confusing because he left, but there is a sign that he is gonna come back’ [the borrowed clothes he left behind], and then she just sits and waits, thinking, ‘Maybe he’ll come back.’

Exactly. “Feel you,” the opening track, and the title track, the closing one, explicitly do this. The former is sang from a female perspective, while the last one adopts a male voice, but more or less mirrors the topic, the idea of someone drifting away. The same goes for specific subjects… Swimming, for instance. In “Silhouette” there’s the line “I swim to you,” delivered by a third person to the protagonist, while in “Sea Calls Me Home” it is the main character who claims she can’t swim.

Right. That’s not a structure I deliberately planned, I think it just happened. The subject matter of all these different songs kind of repeats itself, or the same story is depicted from a different perspective [in two different songs]. So it is possible to find a same situation or place described or seen by a different character, or mood [in more than one song].

By the way, have you seen Under the Skin?

Hmmm, wait. Oh, yeah. With Scarlett Johansson, right? I did see that, actually.

Aha. It’s a great movie. And, among many other things, I believe it is a fantastic exploration of female sexuality, with water playing a very clear metaphoric role. I feel Have You in My Wilderness’ songs may do something similar. A bunch of images reoccur through the album, essentially bodies of water: the sea, a lake, rain… Often appearing when a female character is experiencing sentimental distress.

It’s imagery that was in my mind, and that’s the beautiful thing about the subconscious, it creates all these intricate connections without you knowing [laughs]. So I did not plan these things out, but I kept talking about the sea, the desert, these open spaces… But it definitely makes sense, because I’m talking about power versus freedom… Maybe versus is not the right word, but issues of power and freedom in relationships. So, that’s more symbolic, rather than just a city landscape you may have, or these expansive spaces.

Some people have described this as the album where you “unearth” your vocals, even your press release flaunts that. I don’t think you sound that different to how you did in Loud City Song. Moreover, for me this might be your most Robert Ashley-like record yet.

Woo, this one is?

I think so. Yeah.

Wow. Like, in what way? I’m very curious.

Some things you do with your voice. In “How Long,” the song opens with you sounding so different, almost like Nico; then you change your register when you move from the second to the third person. Also, how you try to play with the perspectives of the characters you’re singing about, doing subtle things with your voice, dropping spoken lines in between sung verses to shift perspectives. Not so much on how you process your vocals. But those details reminded me of Ashley’s Celestial Excursions or even Dust.

That’s cool. Yeah. I like that.

But then, why do you think they made a point about your voice being front and center this time around?

I may have helped with that narrative. To me, [to sing in these songs] felt more exposed, usually my voice is more covered. I guess what you say is true to some extent, though. Maybe in “World” and “In the Green Wild” [off Loud City Song], where the vocals start really dry, you could say that I did something like this before, but we brought it out more on this record. Just technically, we brought it up in the mix. It was somewhat of a struggle between me and Cole [M. Greif-Neill, the album’s producer]. I was like, “No, it’s too loud and dry” and he went, “No, because people want to hear the lyrics, and there’s no reason to cover your voice up, it’s a stupid, fearful thing to do.” And I agreed with him, and let him just do it. It was a good idea, though maybe it is not as noticeable in the end, but that was something we kept in mind through the process.

I think there probably are continuities that I don’t know about. They just happen because that’s what my brain decides it’s what it wants to write about. And I don’t think they are intentional, but there is this “running away” thing for sure. It seems to be something that my subconscious is telling me I want to do… a lot.

Although there are no covers in this album, I’m intrigued by your cover choices. You’ve covered Dionne Warwick and Barbara Lewis, among others, but what calls my attention is that these women are rooted in times where pop songs came out of production-line like environments. And this is not a comment on the quality of their music, on the contrary; though they lack the auteurish sheen some sixties and seventies songwriters posses. That’s why I find it interesting that you picked them over more predictable choices, like Laura Nyro, Judee Sill, or Joni Mitchell. Can you tell me what motivated these choices?

I think it’s because I see something in these songs that I believe I could do differently, and sometimes there are songs I like a lot, but they don’t seem to need to have me do something — I mean, none of them need to have me do anything, but there’s nothing in them calling me, saying there’s something interesting I could do with them. I just like the song, but I don’t need to do a cover of it.

But in those two cases, I had listened to “Hello Stranger,” Barbara Lewis’ song, and “Don’t Make Me Over,” a lot. Interestingly, I made both covers at the same time, and those were songs that existed together in this compilation that I listened to as a kid growing up, called Wonder Women — it’s really cool. And it has all these girl group hits… So, I just thought it would be nice to cover two of them, the ones I liked the most and felt I could do totally differently. Anyway, I think that’s the reason to do covers, I don’t find it very interesting when people do covers of songs that sound exactly the same, but with a slightly different voice; it’s like there is no point really.

On the note of the music you listened to while growing up, I remember an old interview where you mentioned you discovered gamelan when you were 15. It may sound unlikely to some, but I can totally relate, maybe because we are more or less part of the same generation [I was born in 1986, Holter in 1984]. I started getting seriously into music via the internet in my teens, and listened to Steve Reich, Nick Drake, Pandit Pran Nath, The Beach Boys, Silver Jews, Alan Lomax recordings, pretty much all at the same time; without ever considering whether they belonged to a specific scene, a given temporality, were mainstream or experimental, or anything like that. Do you think those, people who don’t second-guess whether what you’re doing is experimental, pop, more formal, etc., might be your “ideal listeners”?

Definitely. I like people that are ready for whatever. Because I’m not trying to stick to a niche or anything. I like to do different things. And it’s not like I’m alone, a lot of artists do. No one is really telling me what to do, so I’m doing what I want to do. And I’m really hoping it stays that way. I’m assuming it will. [laughs]

[Photo: Tonje Thilisen]

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