Balancing pop and experimental impulses: An interview with Julia Holter | Bleader

Balancing pop and experimental impulses: An interview with Julia Holter

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Julia Holter
  • Luke Gilford
  • Julia Holter
LA composer and singer Julia Holter has delivered one of the year's most extraordinary albums with her recent Loud City Song (Domino), a stunning collection that balances the songcraft of prerock popular music with daring arrangements and found sound that belies her background in experimental music. Holter has worked in many different contexts in recent years, playing with the Wandelweiser group composer Michael Pisaro—whom she studied under in grad school at CalArts—and with New York composer Daniel Wohl on his recent Corps Exquis project. She's also comfortable on the other side of the music spectrum, working with and hanging out with folks like Ramona Gonzalez (aka Nite Jewel) and Nedelle Torrisi. She's touring with the latter, and they perform together Saturday night at Schubas.

As much as I love her two previous albums, Tragedy and Ekstasis, Loud City Song represents a huge leap. The writing is stronger, her melodies are more sophisticated, her singing is much better, and in contrast with the first two records, which she made by herself, here she's joined by a stellar cast of sympathetic, agile musicians. I spoke with Holter a couple of weeks ago about her intriguing musical dualities, whether they collide, and how she's keeping a balance between the demands of the music industry and her own composing practice.

Peter Margasak: You're from LA and you went to school at University of Michigan and then you went back to LA for grad school at CalArts—did you always write music like this or was this something that happened much later?

Julia Holter: I wrote music very differently. When I was in college, around age 19 or 20, I discovered recording, and that was the point I started using my voice—because before that I sang in choir for one year and I hated it. There's a huge choir at Michigan that you had to take. I hadn't really used my voice much. When I started recording it was really fun, because it was me performing and I got to play around and try things. Before that, I think I was really stilted and confused and distanced from what I trying to do. The only music I made was that way, so I never played around and had fun with music. In general, even with piano I don't think I ever loosened up because it was always in an atmosphere of classical music that was very much, "are you virtuoso or not?" I was never a virtuoso, it was kind of like this or that. I didn't ever feel free to find my own voice; I always felt constricted because if you are not a virtuoso, then you are nothing.

It's true, but sad. I didn't feel like you could be musical and have a voice and not be a genius. I always felt I was amateur and couldn't do music, but then when I was in high school, I decided to go to a music-centered school. I had all the normal classes, but we also had a lot of music classes. I learned music theory and I started being interested in writing music. I started writing music in a classical tradition where I notated it and wrote for different instruments. I grew up listening to pop music but playing classical piano, and I loved classical piano, but it was always very separate. It was strange to jump into making classical music in a classical atmosphere. I struggled all four years trying to make sense of it for myself, in what my teachers wanted and to have to report back to them every week, it was kind of awkward for me.

What made you decide to go to grad school? Were you focusing on composition at CalArts?

Yeah, that was my major, but at CalArts, you can do a major in that and focus on tabla or something. I did composition, but I spent a lot of time there talking and listening to music, playing a little bit of music, making these medieval manuscripts that I drew. I was drawing medieval art in the library at CalArts. Its almost like I was around so much contemporary art that I was craving... right after I got out of there, I started reading Greek tragedies, but one of things that happened there with Michael Pisaro, and what really drew me there, was that he has this thing called experimental music workshop where everyone performs contemporary experimental music as well as our own work . . . we would perform each other's pieces. It was really important for me to see how there could be a serious, focused experimental listening environment that was also not judgmental or hierarchical the way that I had experienced in traditional conservatories. There wasn't any emphasis on technical virtuosity, although some of them were pretty virtuosic. There was more interest in just listening and focus, and for me that was really special. That's what I like about Michael, he's very open to a lot of things. He doesn't want people to make music like him. It was very different and open. My lessons with him would often just be us talking. Sometimes I would just bring in what I was working on, but frequently not, and I would talk about what I was doing and he would be like, "Oh you might be interested in this movie or you might be into this book." He would talk about what he was doing. That is the most inspiring thing for an artist, is to have another artist, especially one who knows a lot about other things, to recommend and to inspire. All of that is to continuing to inspire people. One thing I got out of Michigan was orchestration techniques, but at this point it might be lost on me because it's been so many years. I learned theory, keyboard harmony, counterpoint. I did a lot of ear training, focusing on ear training a lot to the point where I could TA it by the time I was at CalArts and run a class. There were a lot of technical things at Michigan; I also learned English there. So I got some benefit from that. The discovery of John Cage was important for me. Learning things outside of the classical world.

It just seems like listening to the stuff you've done, Tragedy was the first thing I heard and then I was able to find some more of the field recording stuff. It feels like you are in the space where it's really open, you don't draw lines between pop music or this or that, it's all open and you can do whatever. That definitely seems like a product you were talking about, that you definitely got into space from CalArts. I wonder now that you are on this trajectory of making records in a pop world and touring . . . I wonder if you feel like whether it becomes more focused or whether you are more boxed in, that you have this path to follow that might be something you haven't had to deal with in recent years.

No, I was actually worried about that a year ago because I signed with Domino Records and didn't know what to expect. So far they've lived up to what they promised, which is they would let me do whatever I want. I am really free right now and I am happier than I was before because I have support. Touring is difficult because when I travel I like to be comfortable. I like comfort and routines. The thing is that right now I'm in between tours and I am working on a piece for the LA Philharmonic—it's not the whole orchestra, but they have a thing at the end of the year, it's a song and I'm singing it, but it's not pop music and I am surrounded by composers. Those are my main friends so I am not at all lost. I don't feel forced to be in a box, at least not yet. I could see that being a problem. Right now, I am really happy. It's not like I'm famous and I have to hide and can't be myself and live in my shitty apartment—it's not shitty, it's small—I am not making a ton of money, but I am definitely happy because I am making enough in music. I just hang out with composers. My experimental art friends are art pop musicians. I feel very much in control of what I am doing. Domino let me curate that whole record myself, from the album artwork to everything. I control a lot.

That's the thing, the record to me is pop in the sense there are these beautiful catchy melodies sometimes. Structurally, the arrangements are hardly pop in a way. You can definitely hear the experiments, field recordings, the sounds you bring in that aren't produced by instruments. The arrangements are jarring at times and really unexpected. It's not like you are writing simple verse-chorus-verse songs. It just seems you've done all of these different things and when you're focusing on just one thing with more energy and time it could create a hurdle to freedom. But it sounds like you still have time to do other stuff. Does it seem like that is something you have to be conscious of? That you have to not get sucked into this too much, that's its all you ever do? You don't seem like someone that would want to play the same songs over and over.

I actually really like it so far. I don't know if my bandmates do, because they are more experimental. I really like it, I think its fun, but I wouldn't want to do it much more. We have to do it another month and a half so it's like, "Oh god, I hope I get through this." So far the tours have been really fun because as a human being it's just so cool to see other human beings respond in the audience, because it's all about the audience for me. In the performance situation, I have come to realize how important their energy is. That doesn't necessarily mean I would change what I'm doing, but emotionally it changes how I feel. The fact that they know these songs . . . to me it's just amazing that they know my songs, and they are bouncing to it. And it's not even dance music. I think it's really beautiful and cool and I have trouble thinking that's boring. I just wouldn't want to do it much more. What will probably happen is, I will tour next year as well and I don't know what's going to happen. I am going to work on projects, but right now I feel really content.

This new record with a band, was this something you were always interested in, but just didn't have the resources?

Kind of. It was a mixture, but for a long time I wanted to do it on my own. I got to the point where I kind of wanted to do it on my own and try things, but then I thought it would be great if there were other people, so I would ask a couple of friends to come over and do a little guest appearance on the record. Because I was doing it at home, it was hard. What am I going to do, like bring an ensemble into my house? It didn't make sense. I wanted to pay people more. I wanted to wait until I had the perfect situation to record with people. To record them well, I would need an engineer. It gets exponential. With a record, it's like with anything, it's crazy how you can do a great record with no money or with a ton of money. There's not really anywhere in between. Once you bring in some people, then you have to have people to record those people, and you have to have a place and pay that place. It's crazy. If someone gave me $100, it would be worse.

If you keep doing music like this, do you feel like it has given you this experience that it's hard to go back? You have such good players on the record. And it probably makes it a lot easier to record it, working with people like that, to not have to teach them endlessly. It seems like a luxury that once you have a taste of it, it would be hard to give up.

For me, it depends on the project. So I can actually imagine recording my own record if it was like field recording. I would still want to work with an engineer, at least, and probably also a producer like Cole to help me work out the subtleties and the EQs and all that stuff and mix it. I could just do it again, I recorded songs since—-one was a cover of Fleetwood Mac that went up on the internet a couple of months ago that I did for fun or Mojo magazine wanted it or something. It just depends on the project. Everything depends on the project.

Are you juggling a lot of projects? Do you just do one thing at a time and know that there's this on the horizon, or is it more instinctual? Are you getting more projects that are coming your way now?

I actually limit things to what I want to do, and right now there's not anything...there are a couple things, but there's not a bombardment. I don't have a bombardment of people who want to work with me or anything like that. I've had some people, but it's always kind of floaty and usually if they're people that are interesting they're busy too, and you wait and wait. I do have a couple of collaborations that I'm going to try to work on. I do juggle things sometimes, but I juggle maybe two at a time. I can't multitask too easily. Ekstasis and Tragedy I wrote together, but I would be working on one for a week or two, and then maybe work on Tragedy for a bit. I've actually never been good at multitasking so generally I focus pretty intensely on one thing at a time, but have other things in mind. I already have other things that I'm working on, but I work on them very separately.

So you try to conceptualize them or think about them in a loose or rough way and then you dive in all the way. Some of the things to me as a listener, some of the projects are quite different. There's the field recording work . . . it's the piece where you're in the bar, I can't remember . . .

"Bars in Afternoons"

Yeah, there's that. If you play that for the average person and then play something from the new record, they would think that they have nothing to do with each other. I just wondered, for you, do you look at it that way? Maybe this doesn't matter, but I'm always curious.

Yeah, I do look at it like that. I look at like they're really very different. People that know my music probably could hear the similarities . . . I can hear the similarities. At first, when I'm working on something, I'm not conscious of what I'm doing very much. I try to not think too much about what I'm doing when I'm writing. I think thinking is kind of a curse with the creative process. You are thinking, obviously, that's what you're doing, but overthinking it and analyzing it is the wrong thing to do. I plan it out before, though, I have a sense of what I'm doing. It's not like I'm just throwing paint onto the paper or page, I'm just throwing things. But it's very trial and error. That's kind of why I choose to just use my name. I never could imagine having a project name because that would limit me to that project. I see myself, I think, because I started as a composer, I see myself as a composer. I see myself behind the scenes. I don't see myself principally as a performer. So I choose to perform my music, but that's just for now. When I'm 80, I'd still want to make music, but I probably won't be dancing and singing on stage. Maybe.

How important is it and how often do you do the kind of collaborative stuff so that the weight might not be all on your shoulders? Like the Corps Exquis piece or something like that, where you're just singing someone else's music.

I do it kind of a lot. I've been away from home so it's been hard, but before that it's something that I did a lot, but it was all under the radar so people didn't know a lot about it. I did something at MOCA a couple of months ago with my close friends Mark So and Rick Bahto—he did all the artwork from the record, so people know his photograph from that a lot of times. I performed in LA at the Wolf, and it's just for friends and stuff. I do stuff like that. If performing other people's music counts, and I think it probably should, then I do that as much as I can.

You're still doing stuff with Pisaro too, right?

Yeah, he has Tombstones and I performed that in the spring at Oberlin with Jason Brogan and some Oberlin performers and we performed it in New York at this church with Issue Project Room. I'm always into working with Michael because I love his stuff.

It's this kind of interesting thing as a music fan, hearing you know, you're this art pop singer in the indie world, but I also know that you do all this other stuff. I think it's cool that it's still a huge part of what you do. Does it ever seem weird that people are oblivious to that whole side of your musical personality or what you do?

I don't know. I don't think I've ever felt at home in any musical situation, so for me, everything feels equally weird. I've never felt at home at CalArts. I've always felt like an outsider. This is probably a state of mind that all artists are in all the time, but I always feel out of the circle in all situations. So the fact that I feel out of the circle at indie rock festivals is no surprise to me. I don't mean that I feel, "Oh, I'm better than everyone," or like "I went to music school!" I was a total weirdo at music school, I felt totally isolated.

That is, in one way, that's just normal for people, people always feel like an outsider at one point. A lot of people don't fit in these days, there's no rules. Everything is very uncategorized, I think because of the Internet—the fact that I have been able to be so inspired by things like Balinese gamelan at the age of 15, or was able to hear so much different music so easily. You can just go on YouTube and hear so much different music, and people can do sampling and hip-hop, and the fusing of a million different worlds at once.

It might sound cliché, but it's true, when I worked at a high school they listened to everything. They don't listen to one thing, when I was a kid it was Nirvana or Tupac, like when I was 12. Now, 12-year-olds listen to both of those things. They still listen to it too, they love those things, Nirvana. They also love Rihanna, they also love Skrillex, and they also love the Beatles, it's crazy. From all cultures . . . at least the kids I worked with in LA, from all backgrounds, they listen to all this music. It's not all categorizable easily, based on race or ethnicity or gender. So it's really cool and I think it's interesting, but that's just what makes it complicated.

When I get questions about it, "do you make pop music or do you make classical music?" Well, I don't think I make either, I don't really know what it is, but I don't think about it. It doesn't really help me make music to think about it, to be like "what is this?" So I tend to not . . . if I feel a little weird at a festival, it's probably the same way I felt at high school socially. Maybe I just feel awkward socially. Everyone is, though, it's always weird at festivals and you're all eating backstage, and you're all bands, and you don't really know each other, at least I don't,' cause I don't know a lot of people. It feels like the cafeteria at high school. That is more likely the reason why I feel weird rather than "Oh, I went to music school." A lot of people went to music school now. A lot of people in music school are now going into pop music and vice-versa. I know a lot people that never had musical training are going into the academic world in music. It's all really interesting. It's all a blob, there's really no explanation for anything anymore.

Yeah, it almost seems like in a way that means that this new record is your way of . . . you're uncomfortable in an indie rock festival, you might be uncomfortable at CalArts, but here you're creating a space where you are comfortable. Where it's like "this is my space, this where I feel comfortable."

The way it makes sense to me, instead of feeling like an outsider artist—which is one of those terms that I hate so much, it makes me feel like a weirdo—I think it's much better to think of me as a poet, almost. Clearly, if you listen to this record, there are moments where it is jazzy, and this is what a lot of people tell me. I don't know why that happened, I cannot explain to you. My demos are jazzy . . . there's a jazzy upright bass that I made on my keyboard for "In the Green Wild." I don't know why I did that, it just happened. It definitely happened. It's not like when I conceived of the record, it's gonna be jazzy. These things just happen because you have so many influences these days. Things just come through. It's like, how am I going to convey, what's the best way to convey this emotion of wanting to escape. Well, it's got to be kind of playful, then I start playing something playful on the keyboard, it's that simple and then it goes from there. And that's where I come from, I come from, how am I going to achieve this emotion? "I can see you / But my eyes are not allowed to cry" in "Goddess Eyes"—for some reason it just seemed to make sense to use a vocoder there, and I just came up with this mantra, and then just very simple chords repeating and it just happens based on the emotion that you're trying to convey. That's usually where it happens for me.

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