Chosen One: Julia Holter
Interview with Julia Holter by Cillian Murphy.
“Leave well alone. Don’t meddle any more. Can’t you see she is far beyond us?”
She pointed to Gigi, who was resting a trusting head and the rich abundance of her hair on Lachaille’s shoulder. The happy man turned to Madame Alvarez.
“Mamita,” he said, “will you do me the honour, the favour, give me the infinite joy of bestowing on me the hand…”
(—Excerpt from Colette’s 1944 novella ‘Gigi’)
Interview: Cillian Murphy
Illustration: Craig Carry, Introduction: Mark Carry
An incomprehensible beauty forever lies at the heart of the work of L.A. based artist, Julia Holter. The latest masterpiece ‘Loud City Song’ is the gifted songwriter’s third in as many years, and is the highly anticipated follow-up to last year’s sublime ‘Ekstasis’ album. Having first heard ‘In The Same Room’ many moons ago – a single taken from ‘Ekstasis’ – the vital significance and preciousness of Holter’s art became immediately apparent to me. The swirling notes of harpsichord and keys drift slowly amidst Holter’s captivating voice, evoking a daydream sequence washed in a lifetime of distant memories: “I can’t remember your face / but I hope the ship will carry us there.” Fleeting moments of life’s unfolding mysteries are embedded in all three records – from 2011’s debut ‘Tragedy to the latest ‘Loud City Song’ – that endlessly reveal new meaning and hidden depths of truth.
‘Loud City Song’ showcases Holter’s rare gift for the creation of highly innovative and utterly breathtaking contemporary pop music. A sense of mystery and intrigue is interwoven between the tapestry of beguiling sounds and vivid colours conjured up by Holter and her ensemble of peerless musicians. At the heart of ‘Loud City Song’ is a story, inspired by the musical ‘Gigi’, whose central character – the innocent teenage girl, Gigi – someone Holter closely identified with, having watched it many times growing up. ‘Loud City Song’ has been described by Holter as a search for love and truth in a superficial society. Set in turn-of-the-century Paris, Colette’s timeless novella (first published in 1944) offers a user’s manual on how to live fearlessly and joyfully. Similarly, the sonic creations of ‘Loud City Song’ documents the hopes, dreams and fantasies of Gigi – the album’s loosely-based narrative – that creates an entirely unique world for the listener to become part of. Themes such as pressures from society, individualism, loneliness and celebrity culture are etched across the resolutely unique canvas of ‘Loud City Song’. ‘Gigi’ is merely a starting point, as the plethora of characters and multitude of emotion cast, results in a deeply enriching experience of the human condition. ‘Loud City Song’ is indeed “like an audio cinematic experience.” From the album opener ‘World’, which serves ‘Loud City Song”s enthralling prologue, to the heart wrenching ballad of Barbara Lewis’ ‘Hello Stranger’, a world of love, fantasy, “winter words” and “falling leaves” beautifully encapsulate the world of ‘Loud City Song’.
all the heavens of the world.
Are you looking for anything?
Heaven with eyes bright green
Everyday my eyes are older,
I grow a bit closer to you.
Similar to ‘Goddess Eyes’ on previous album ‘Ekstasis’, the tour de force ‘Maxim’s’ is present on ‘Loud City Song’ as two separate versions; ‘Maxim’s I’ and ‘Maxim’s II’, providing the focal point to the album’s narrative. The song is named after the storied Maxim’s restaurant in Paris that is prominently featured in the musical, ‘Gigi’. A key scene which resonated for Holter was the scene in which Gigi enters the bustling Maxim’s only to be greeted with complete silence as the restaurant’s patrons gaze at her judgmentally. Holter sings on the chorus, “Into Maxim’s we will see them walk / Will they eat a piece of cheese or will they talk?” as the orchestra of brass and string sections create a frenzy of commotion, depicting the loudness of the superficial society that surrounds her. A parallel can be made between Colette’s early twentieth century Paris and that of Holter’s native L.A. In many ways; both societies share common celebrity culture, where the setting of ‘Loud City Song’ could easily be that of modern-day Los Angeles as much as Colette’s depiction of turn-of-the-century Paris. The frantic tempo of ‘Horns Surrounding Me’ evokes the sound of paparazzi chasing after an identified celebrity, where the sound of a marching band storms to the foreground of the mix. At the core, a feeling of pain and isolation radiates from the ‘cold night’ as Holter sings “Moon, they forget how soft heart is, unfolding over time.”
Unlike the previous two records, ‘Loud City Song’ is the first album Holter recorded outside of her bedroom. The songs were written and composed by Holter – some as far back as 2011, at the time of debut album ‘Tragedy’ – later to be worked on (mixed and co-produced) by Ariel Pink collaborator Cole Marsden Greif-Neill (who also mixed ‘Ekstasis’). Holter would join an ensemble of musicians in a professional studio in L.A. for six days to record the layers of tracks. Joining Holter (keyboards, vocals) were the brass section of Chris Speed (saxophone), Brian Allen (trombone) and Matt Barbier (trombone), violinist Andrew Tholl, cellist Christopher Votek, Ramona Gonzalez (Nite Jewel) on backing vocals, Corey Fogel on percussion, and Devin Hoff on bass. The time-staking process of mixing Holter’s vocals came later. The result is a performative record where undoubtedly the acoustic instrument of Holter’s voice provides the aesthetic that graces the divine beauty of the album’s timeless soundscapes. Other sources of inspiration came from Joni Mitchell and poet Frank O’Hara. The spirit of Mitchell is particularly evident on album closer ‘City Appearing’, a whirlwind jazz odyssey that lies somewhere between ‘Blue’ and ‘Hejira’. Holter asks on the opening lines of the second verse: “Is it the hand of love so rough / what we’re feeling for the first time?” Much like O’Hara’s poetry, which were based on his observations of New York life, many of the characters and songwriting stemmed from ‘Loud City Song’ can be seen as Holter’s observations of L.A. life, where I feel poems such as ‘1951’ and ‘A City Winter’ could find a deserved place in Holter’s audio poem-come-song cycle.
The sequencing of ‘Loud City Song’ is immaculate as one feels a sense of movement and character progression from beginning to end. Furthermore, the depths of loneliness and despair are overcome as the journey unfolds, culminating in a wave of joy as celebration prevails, as “all the birds of the world make their way over with new softer songs to sing” on album closer ‘City Appearing’. The album’s centerpiece, for me, is the cover version of Barbara Lewis’ ‘Hello Stranger’ which is engulfed in a beguiling and cinematic atmosphere of loss and longing, yet an infinite light of hope shines forth amidst the chorus of singing birds in the background. A consoling ebb and flow of strings accompanies the achingly beautiful vocals of Holter as she sings “I’m so happy that you’re here again” on the song’s close. ‘He’s Running Through My Eyes’ is one of the most beautiful songs to have graced this earth. The delicacy and fragile beauty of this piano-led ballad transcends space and time. The lyric “But when summer’s over, will he remember winter words?” resonates powerfully. The soulful pop opus of ‘This Is A True Heart’ is reminiscent of Arthur Russell, Laurie Anderson and indeed the feel of Colette and Gigi’s elegant Parisienne streets and boulevards. The rise on ‘In The Green Wild’ serves as one of the euphoric moments of ‘Loud City Song’. The peerless musicianship of Holter’s ensemble and daringly beautiful arrangements is on full display.
In the green wild I am gone
my hands, toes, shoulders gone
but the shoes my feet have worn still remain
and they walk toward the sea
there’s a flavor to the sound of walking
no one ever never noticed before.
(‘In The Green Wild’)
Similar to ‘Loud City Song’, Holter’s debut ‘Tragedy’ drew from literature already made, namely, Euripides’ ‘Hippolytus’. One of the songs, ‘Celebration’, centers on Hippolytus worshipping Artemis and purity. A lyric contained in this song, for me, epitomises the truly transcendent nature of Julia Holter’s sacred songbook, that serves the perfect embodiment of Holter’s utterly captivating work: “We are moved by your radiance.” This truly unique voice in today’s music world has created yet another true work of art, in the form of ‘Loud City Song’. A question is posed by the young Gigi in Colette’s novella: “What is an artistic jewel?” For someone asking the same question today, one needs to look no further than Holter’s remarkable ‘Loud City Song’.
‘Loud City Song’ is out now on Domino.
Interview with Julia Holter by Cillian Murphy.
CILLIAN MURPHY: First of all, I discovered your music through ‘Ekstasis’; a record I really, really loved and played it all the time. And then this record, I was really looking forward to it. It has completely bewitched me, I have to say, and I have listened to it a lot. You are in L.A. right? I read that L.A. is a part of the inspiration for the record or features in some of the themes of the record. Is that right?
JULIA HOLTER: Yes, sort of. Well, what it was is I basically grew up in L.A., so for me it’s one of those things where basically I was making a story, and the story was kind of inspired by ‘Gigi’ which is the music from this musical. So, I was trying to build a setting for this story, and the setting was a city – and it could be any city – and for me it’s L.A. because I know L.A. But I’m not enforcing it as L.A. It’s not called L.A. I always think you have to do what you know; you have to write about what you know, to some extent. But, obviously, I don’t know Gigi. I’m not Gigi. But it’s like, you know, you combine what you know with other things.
L.A. is what I know, so it’s the scene. Then there is also a bigger song, ‘Horns Surround Me’ where it’s specifically paparazzi chasing actors. Yeah, that’s what it is sort of in my mind, but it doesn’t have to be though for most people. But in [my] mind what it was, ‘Horns Surrounding Me’ is like a marching band chasing after me, symbolizing paparazzi or something. But that’s stuff that doesn’t happen just in L.A., but it’s definitely a big L.A. phenomenon.
CM: Well yeah, that’s for sure.
JH: And I’m sure you know way more about this than I do.
CM: Well, thankfully I’ve avoided that aspect of what I do. For the most part, I’m incredibly boring and they tend to leave me alone. I know the city just as a visitor, you know, and I always found something about the city that it’s like a public and a private L.A., and it’s a really easy city to hide in, or escape into.
JH: Yeah, exactly.
CM: And a lot of stuff goes on behind closed doors. That resonated with me when I listened to the record. I love that song ‘World’ as well. It’s such a big title for a song but I love how you reduce it down to such small mundane things. And I love that thing about always wearing a hat, and the city can’t see my eyes and stuff. I think that’s a kind of L.A. thing. It really resonated with me and I guess you can apply it to other cities but there is something about L.A. that is unique.
JH: I see what you’re saying, it’s like I think that a lot of times when I’m talking to people in interviews and they haven’t been here at all, and I’m sure you’ve been here a lot. Yeah, I think you’re right. I think it’s something I’m not even conscious of, because I always say, no it’s not just about L.A. but maybe it is specifically this private and public, like you say. I do think though that it’s easy to hide here. There is not as much hype about things like there is in New York or London. More people come out to my shows in London or New York than in L.A. People are more oblivious and everything is more mysterious, and I actually like that.
CM: Yeah, I like that too. And in terms of – you just touched on it there – the music scene in Los Angeles, I would imagine it’s a great place you know, there’s a great music scene and a lot of collaboration between musicians. Would I be right in saying that?
JH: Yeah, I think so. I mean there’s a lot of space in L.A. One thing, I think it’s sort of collaborative I guess – like I’ve done a little bit of collaborating – people can hide away and do their thing and work on it really intensely here. It feels that people can be very introspective and deep into their creative ball and feel comfortable doing that.
CM: Is that what you did, I mean the first two albums were recorded at home, in your bedroom. That’s what I read, is that right?
JH: Yeah, I was really isolated.
CM: Did you find that a good thing? Because I mean the albums are amazing. Did you find that a useful thing in terms of making the records?
JH: Yeah, I think it was good for me to have that experience. It was really hard because mixing your own music can be really hard and especially when there are so many layers – layers of sounds and atmosphere – and every second I wanted to adjust the atmosphere a little bit, so I’m really particular about the atmosphere at every given point. So, I think it was really hard to mix and frustrating but it was good to go and learn how to do it myself.
CM: And this record was different in that it was recorded more conventionally, in the studio with musicians. Is that right?
JH: Yeah, it’s kind of complicated because I actually do a lot of stuff at home as well. I wrote and recorded the demos for the record, maybe a year and a half before the record was recorded. They have a lot of it already planned out and then we called Greif-Neill who produced the record with me.
CM: From Ariel Pink, right?
JH: Yeah, he produced Ariel’s last record I think, and also with Nite Jewel and some friends of mine. It was really nice to work with him because he has worked with Ariel and Nite Jewel, and both of them have started as solo people and then moved on to working in the environment of a studio. Like, they started just working in their rooms, you know. So he really knows that transition. So, he heard the demos and he was really into it and he made this plan. And his plan always puts in mind that I’m always used to working in my own space and time on my own. And so he made it. So, what we did was that I arranged all the parts for the musicians first and we recorded them for six days in a professional studio with an engineer and everything and friends helping out with the engineering. The whole rest of the album was months and months of recording my vocals, which we did at Cole [Greif-Neill]’s house at home. And then he has this little studio and then recording key parts in my house, like, just myself in my house, recording it. And then mixing it. So it was really the longest part; the post-recording. Recording the instruments was the easiest part. And then it was all about creating the atmosphere and stuff.
CM: Oh wow, so all in all then, from when you wrote the demos to when you finally mixed the record to when you put it out, how long did that take?
JH: I think like writing the demos was two years ago, at least. I mean it’s complicated. While I was writing ‘Ekstasis’, there was a song that was going to be on it and it’s what’s now called ‘Maxim’s II’, and that song ‘Maxim’s’ was going to be on this record. I was like this is so weird because this doesn’t really fit on the rest of ‘Ekstasis’ and that’s how I came up with the idea of ‘Loud City Song’.
CM: I see. And that title by the way, can you elaborate on that at all?
JH: There is this loudness of society, [this] is what I was attracting. And the story of Gigi and the story that I’m bringing out – sort of the individual that is being bombarded by society in some ways, feeling the weight of society, like they’re trying to work against society in some way. And society is very loud in that way.
That’s what I was getting at. Again, the loudness of society and whether that’s pressuring people into doing something, like in ‘Gigi’ or whatever or society itself is overwhelming to the individual. I was thinking for me that how today it’s really true – not just the noise of society but the noise of the media – and when, for example, you turn on your TV and the advertisements are really loud. Sound engineers have talked about how now the commercial pop hit is way louder than it used to be, like all distorted compared to commercial pop hits of twenty years ago. So, it’s kind of like an overall general idea of loudness of society.
CM: Yeah, I mean I can’t get over the way in America, they pipe music in shopping malls but even outdoors from shopping centers. I find that extraordinary. An extraordinary assault, even when you’re outside, you know.
JH: It’s really horrible. When I was shopping the other day, and it was like, I need to leave right now, it was just so horrible how loud it is. Is this Abercrombie and Snitch or something? [laughs]
CM: I get distressed and I do not want to shop. It doesn’t put me in the mood for shopping [laughs].
JH: I know.
CM: I’m just not a good shopper, maybe. I haven’t read ‘Gigi’, but I have read some of the other of Colette’s books. Would you consider it then, you know, give it the whole “conceptual album” tag, or is that something you’re happy to embrace, or is it more something you are just inspired by, and took some ideas from?
JH: I don’t know. I’m open to either perspective because, for me, it’s really like my record ‘Tragedy’ and unlike ‘Ekastsis’. It is a unified story in a way, not necessarily that it follows a straight narrative, because it doesn’t really. But it’s a story, just like ‘Tragedy’ was a story, and both ‘Tragedy’ and ‘Loud City Song’ are inspired by stories that previously exist. So if people call it a concept album that’s fine. I know it’s kind of like a cheesy genre, people think that it’s kind of gimmicky. I guess I just think about it, like, for me, a record is, you make a record, like a book or anything, like a collection of poems, and there’s something that unites them in some way usually. Like with ‘Ekstasis’ it was all like individual songs, they weren’t united like one story. But they were all planned to be on one record and curated for that purpose, because they were meant to be together on an album but they don’t fit into one story. There is some differentiation you have to make, I guess, with a record like ‘Ekstasis’ and a record like ‘Loud City Song’. And whatever you want to call it, you know, I don’t really mind either way. I have trouble figuring out what it’s called myself. It’s a concept album, that’s fine, you know. I think of it as a story because I don’t want people to think that I have a sort of a message.
CM: Well, for me, the more you listen to it, the more it reveals itself. And now, to me, that’s the sign of a great album. I’m going to quote you something – and I hate when people quote me back on interviews because I never remember saying it – but “I’m basically into creating movies that are albums as opposed to albums that are like sound from movies”. Do you remember that?
JH: Oh right, because basically when people ask if it’s like a soundtrack or something.
CM: I thought that was a brilliant quote.
JH: Oh yeah, thanks. That’s something I’m really into the idea of making an audio poem or something, like an audio cinematic experience.
CM: Well, that’s what you get from it, and I think you have achieved it wonderfully. And from start to finish, your mood changes, like in a film, it elicits different emotional responses.
I went to see Björk a couple of nights ago and she was doing her ‘Biophilia’ show. I just saw the boldness in her compositions and she’s not afraid of concept either in terms of the music she makes. Particularly on ‘Maxim’s II’, it reminded me of Björk a lot, and I was just wondering what you think of her and have you been asked about that comparison before?
JH: Actually, I haven’t been asked about Björk that much. I think there’s something about my style, but I think I know what you mean. First of all, I think that she is amazing and I think she is an amazing writer and interesting, and I admire her a lot. But I’ve never seen her live show, but I’d love to. I’ve heard they’re really incredible. Like she is a totally visionary. But the thing I’ve listened to the most of hers is that soundtrack she did with a Japanese show in it. It’s like a soundtrack she made but it’s amazing. But I love her songs and I think I need to listen to more of her. I still haven’t dug in completely.
CM: I think it’s more in terms of the fearlessness she has and I think that you seem to have it in the music. What I love about your music is that it’s music you listen to, it’s not necessarily music you put on while you’re washing the dishes. I love that and I think that that’s important nowadays.
JH: That’s really cool, yeah.
(Illustration based on the Rufus Norris film “Broken”, starring Cillian Murphy, Tim Roth, and Lily James.)
CM: I just wanted to talk about two more songs on the album. ‘Hello Stranger’, I mean it’s kind of heart-stopping. I just wondered why you decided to use that tune? I don’t know if you’ll agree but it’s a unique interpretation but it’s also, I think weirdly faithful to it as well, if that isn’t a contradiction.
JH: So, I grew up listening to Barbara Lewis’ song ‘Hello Stranger’ that she wrote. And I listened to her version. I actually don’t know any other version, I only know hers. I grew up listening, it was on a compilation my mom had growing up. First of all, I covered it four years ago, like a cover in my room, playing it out loud, live. I recorded it live, like a room recording of me singing and playing on keyboard, pretty similar to the vibe on the final version. So, in ‘Gigi’, the musical, there is a scene, and a song actually called ‘I Remember It Well’ where Lachaille and Gigi’s great-aunt are meeting again, after [having] had an affair like years and years ago in their youth, and they’re having lunch together and reminiscing about it. But they can’t remember it really well. Or, at least that he keeps on messing up, “we had dinner at nine” and she is like , “we had breakfast.” She keeps correcting them. It’s kind of hokey but it’s kind of sweet, like this song.
So, it was sort of, for me, this song ‘Hello Stranger’ is sort of similar in that it’s an exploration of two people, of memory, a version of memory and the faults of memory, and how you recall things from the past but they’re either too vague or they’re inaccurate. So, with ‘Hello Stranger’, the Barbara Lewis song that she wrote, it’s very vague, there’s very little explanation of anything but you have a sense that he hurt her and she’s in love with him still and she doesn’t want to get hurt again, or whatever. So, kind of like that Janet Jackson song ‘Again’, I think, which I also love.
But in Barbara Lewis’ song, it’s like: “Please don’t hurt me”, but that’s all, there is no real detail. So, you have a real hazy sense of what happened. I think it’s the same for that moment in ‘Gigi’. A lot of the songs were inspired by taking off points from that musical, that’s what happened, and I was like, this song would be perfect for this record, even though no one will make that connection unless I tell them about that scene. It’s kind of convoluted but to me I just knew; I trusted that it would work somehow, put that song in there subliminally without people knowing why it was there.
CM: And where it sits on the record too. I don’t know, it’s so warm and it’s just so beautiful. It really is. I love it.
CM: Playing this record live then and touring it, it’s got such an amazing response from everybody; everybody loves it. I just wanted to know how when you record a record and then you have to go and play those songs live. Does that change the songs and how does it feel for you playing those songs in a live setting?
JH: Yeah, live, they start a different life. One of the things I realized early on is that you can’t re-create the record live because you’re in a totally different situation, you got an audience in front of you. Even if you play back the track and sing over it, you’re not re-creating, or even if you press play – you don’t sing and you play the whole track in the room while the audience is there – there is a performance and a visual aspect, that you’re there, you’re performing for people, it’s like a totally different thing. And so I was taking this approach – performance is very different from recording though – like two separate things. So, when I perform them, I arranged the songs particularly for the live set. With this record it’s been so much easier.
Last year, what we did with ‘Ekstasis’, which I recorded all myself except for mixing, and arranged for drum and cello and me, so basically it was me re-arranging the entire record for a new ensemble. Whereas on this record, this time I’m working with the same musicians pretty much, I just have my arrangements from the recording session, notated and a lot of stuff was improvised by them on the spot or we came up with slightly different ideas, because obviously you don’t have as many layers as you do in the recording session. You have to, like, cut down and come up with ways of how to fill it in. For the most part it was a lot easier than last year. It’s been really fun and also because I have a lot more people, and I have saxophone, violin, cello, drums, and me.
CM: And do you play the album from start to finish or do you mix it up with earlier albums, or how do you go about it?
JH: I haven’t done the album from start to finish but that would be interesting. I think one day we will do it for fun.
CM: Yeah, I’d like to be there for that. Because you trained classically and you compose your stuff, and you say, you composed the parts for the other players on the record, does that mean the players themselves have to be able to read music and be reasonably classically trained or how does that work?
JH: I mean I would definitely be into working with people who didn’t and I have. But a lot of times I do like to have people who have, we can have sessions about it and it’s easy to communicate because we all have some background in theory and stuff. But definitely I don’t think it’s a requirement. Because I need people to read the arrangements and stuff for the recording, it was important.
CM: Training as a piano player, is that something you wanted to do? Were you always singing when you were playing the piano, and when did the two sort of come together?
JH: First of all, I played classical piano when I was about eight and I don’t play anymore because of college and then I stopped classical. I was never very great. I really loved it but in classical music there is so many amazing pianists and I was not one of those. I was good because I loved practicing, and I always did [practice] and I loved playing but I wasn’t really great or anything. So I quit the classical piano. In high-school, I started getting interested in the possibility of playing the songs I like and listen to. I started playing Joni Mitchell and started singing along, and I hated my voice. But I loved singing anyway.
When I was younger, even like, Fiona Apple, Tori Amos, The Beatles, Radiohead, the bands and stuff that I liked, and Billie Holliday…so, I was trying out a lot of different voices for fun. I never wrote music until I was, like, sixteen or seventeen, and that wasn’t for singing. Actually, [they were] some of the worst songs but they were from classical piano and not me. It was in classical music and I was writing in composition, and I went into composition in college at grad school, and that was my degree. It was like, I wasn’t seeing myself at all as a performer. I was like a composer who would write music for other people to perform. And I never sang much except I did start choir – because it was mandatory in college – for the first time. But then I got out of that because I didn’t like it. Then, what happened is that I discovered recording. The minute I discovered recording I felt free to try stuff with my voice and I was, like, maybe my voice isn’t that bad, it’s okay. You can mess with your voice and try different things and be poetic, and it was really fun for me, and to discover myself as a singer and a performer was a shocker, for sure. I mean, I didn’t see myself in that way at all. I never get nervous about performing unless there is a reason for me to be nervous, but I actually quite take to it and I like it.
CM: That’s very, very interesting. I identify with that because, well, I played music a bit before I became an actor – to a very low-level – but when I started acting onstage in theatre, I never got nervous. It was weird. I get nervous on film because it’s there forever, it’s indelible, whereas in theatre you can have a better show the next day. The sense of having some sort of control. And when did you reconcile yourself to your voice then because I know that John Lennon, all his life, hated it, he was always double-tracking his voice and putting it through some effect.
JH: I know. I love that effect he uses. It’s that thing, it’s really interesting. I think it’s like a really short delay effect. I think that’s a really interesting topic because I always still have trouble with my voice, listening to it pure, unless it’s really done right. And one of the things I think is that when – you’ll understand this as an actor – when you’re performing you aren’t yourself. In music as well, when I’m performing I’m neither myself – because I wouldn’t be interested in me as a subject – but I’m also not one particular persona, you know how some artists or musicians have a certain persona they always have. So, for me, I take on a different character for every song. Like, even within a record, every song has to have a different character, and for that reason I find it difficult to hear my voice clearly, as if it’s me speaking. And I think there is something that musicians really hate, certain musicians who really care about the colour and the character of every song who are like, really great songwriters, and John Lennon is one of them. They really can’t stand it if it sounds just like them because they’re trying to create something else, they’re trying to make something more otherworldly, and a new character. And that’s maybe the impulse. It’s not just like, oh I hate how my voice sounds, it’s something else, like this is still me and this has to be transcending me, and it can’t be just me, it has to be this different person, you know what I mean?
CM: I do and it’s like using it as an instrument that’s not you, and it seems to me that it does sound different on each track, and even on the three records, you know. But I mean I love that, it’s a brilliant thing and you wouldn’t be able to identify with that immediately necessarily. It’s still amazing on each track. Speaking of that, in terms of the three albums, do you see that as a kind of series in any way? You were saying ‘Ekstasis’ is separate in terms of it’s not thematically like the others. But do you see them as separate or connected?
JH: I see them as pretty separate. I think they could be united by an era in my life or something, at this point my musical life has been short so it’s hard to know. But now, I would see them as being very separate. I think ‘Tragedy’ and ‘Loud City Song’ have similar goals in terms of a similar approach, let me put it that way, in that they’re inspired by a story. But I’m not necessarily going to stop doing that. Sometimes I like doing that, sometimes not, sometimes I like to assemble a collection of songs like ‘Ekstasis’. I think that I’m always going to be doing different things and that every project I take very seriously as a project in itself. But it’s definitely something that some people will see them united in some way that I can’t see because my perspective is pretty flawed of what I do. It’s always hard to judge what you’re doing to a certain extent, and you, kind of, just have to go for it. With this record, ‘Loud City Song’, I was conscious of what I was doing at the beginning, like, I was going to make a bunch of songs that are inspired by moments of this musical basically.
In the interim I kept watching that musical – I don’t generally watch that much musicals ever – but because it was engrained in me from a very young age, like I knew it so well and I could relate to the characters so easily, I just had to do it. And I went into it really blindly, like I wasn’t ever thinking twice about any one song, and I wrote it pretty quickly in a way, without any real trouble. Then I came up with things and went with my instincts and that’s kind of my approach and I’m probably never going to strategize one approach across multiple records. I’m going to just let myself go with each project, generally with a set of limits from the start, and see where it takes me.
CM: Yeah, I think that’s got to be the best. I mean it’s the impulse to do it. If the impulse is there, you just have to follow it I think, and try not to question it too much. I liked what you said as well about the stuff that people read into in records and songs with people, it’s extraordinary and I love that.
Are you touring loads now? Are you in the middle of a tour?
JH: I have a one and a half weeks break, or two weeks break and then we’re going on a shortish U.S tour and then we’re back in L.A. again, and then we go back to Europe.
CM: Are you doing festivals or is that gone now?
JH: We’re doing some festivals but it’s mostly shows this time, which will be really nice because I like shows.
CM: I would imagine your music demands attention, like I said. I’d imagine certain venues are better than others.
JH: Yeah, like some festivals are awesome, like there’s this great one in Poland called the Off Festival. Sometimes the people are most exciting [part] to a festival because there are so many of them and I love when there is a lot of people in the audience. It’s nice fun and [there’s] the energy of people. Like, we opened for Sigur Rós and that was the most exciting thing for me because there was so many people, even if they weren’t all listening, it’s okay. I know there is a lot of them and I don’t judge them for that [laughs]. But I think, in general, it’s nice to have a show where people are focused and listening and generally they are the non-festival ones.
CM: Are you constantly writing? Do you practice the piano? Are you constantly thinking about the next project even while you’re touring this record or how does that work?
JH: Yes, I think about it. I have trouble writing on tour. I have to have, like, a calm atmosphere but I can get ideas and concepts and stuff while we’re in a van for hours, and I can think of something. It’s been a bit tricky right now. I am writing this piece for the L.A. Philharmonic – due in like a month – and I’m going on tour in a week and it’s like really rough because I haven’t had a lot of time to think about it. It turns out that it takes a long time to do promotion for your record. It takes a lot of work. I’ve basically curated my record in all ways, from the artwork to the ways it’s being promoted and everything. I’m basically micro-managing everything, which is cool that Domino are letting me do that and that’s why I love that label, but it’s also a lot of work. It’s funny how much doing interviews and doing all this promotion actually takes time. It’s really scary, so we’ll see. I’m writing right now in my off-time from tour and I hope it’s going to be okay because I grew up thinking the L.A. Philharmonic is like a dream. We’ll see how it turns out.
CM: When is that going to be premiered?
JH: That’s on December 3rd I think.
CM: Well, good luck with that.
CM: I’m sure it will be incredible. Thank you so much for taking the time, I love chatting with musicians, it’s so fascinating. I appreciate it a lot.
‘Loud City Song’ is out now on Domino. Julia Holter will tour the US this September and Europe this October and November. For full dates click here.
Special thanks to Julia, Cillian, Robin and Colleen.