Julia Holter: Seems Like A Mighty Long Time

Music Features Julia Holter
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In drifts the melody and you’re smitten. Enchanté. You’ve known of Julia Holter before—which is to say you know her vaguely, know her well enough to know she’s never appeared quite like this. As she sings “Hello Stranger” from Loud City Song, the young artist’s multi-tracked backing vocals eddy and lure—The Supremes by way of The Sirens—raising her gorgeous lead out of a sea foam of muted horns, strings and gently splashing cymbals, presenting a rarely-glimpsed vision of unabashed emotion, as if the singer were embodying romantic love in its pure naked form.

You return again and again, listening closer and closer, until something uncanny sinks in: you realize you already know the song.

“It was actually on an old compilation my Mom would play,” Holter says, struggling to put her finger on the exact wording of the album title (Wonder Women: History of the Girl Group Sound). “It also had ‘Don’t Make Me Over’ [by Dionne Warwick] which I also cover a lot.”

Dating back to before her 2011 debut, Tragedy, Holter’s version of Barbara Lewis’ “Hello Stranger” proves emblematic of the stunning Loud City Song, in which the Los Angeles songwriter synthesizes existing elements into something entirely her own. Out of that perpetual overlap, moving forward while bringing to bear all the places she’s been, Holter creates music that’s millennial yet timeless, a seamless juxtaposition of restless experimentation and classical grounding.

Correspondingly, Holter’s albums haven’t followed a linear pattern of discrete creation. While stitching Tragedy’s avant garde tapestry of field recordings, ambient drones and ancient Greek drama, Holter had already begun the standalone art-pop tracks collected on last year’s Ekstasis. Meanwhile, much as Loud City Song’s lush orchestration and intimate vocals would appear a direct reaction against the robotic grooves of Ekstasis, the inspiration for the new album again arose before and within the last.

“I was working on Ekstasis and there was a song that I was going to put on it that later became what is now ‘Maxim’s II,’” Holter says. “That was the first thing I wrote for this record, though I’d recorded ‘Hello Stranger’ on a tape a long time ago. ‘Maxim’s’ was supposed to be on Ekstasis but it was very much in its own world.”

The world of “Maxim’s”—a très chic Parisian restaurant featured in the 1958 musical Gigi—appears twice on Loud City Song, providing duel centerpieces for the album’s diffuse narrative. Originally unaware Maxim’s was an actual brick-and-mortar destination, Holter shifted that glamorous see-and-be scene to her home city, the locale standing in for celebrity hotspots like The Ivy in Beverly Hills, where the dishes on the menu are the last thing on any patron’s tongue.

“I had this idea to make a song about this scene in Gigi where she walks into Maxim’s and everyone’s whispering about her,” Holter says. “She walks in and everyone’s talking about her and the dynamic between the individual and the voyeuristic society watching the celebrity—I thought it’d be fun to play with. It’s so different than my other songs since the concern is so much more social.”

There’s a head-spinning quality to Holter’s own trajectory, with the singer preparing to lead an expanded band (including a saxophone player, violinist, cellist and drummer) on the type of tour that just 18 months ago might’ve seemed utter fantasy: a spot in the Pitchfork Music Festival in Chicago and a slot opening for Nick Cave and The Bad Seeds in Lyon, followed by stops in Modena, Geneva, Vienna, Hamburg, Helsinki. All the same, Loud City Song isn’t a standard “woe-is-fame” record. Holter assumes characters to investigate a level of notoriety that doesn’t mirror her own, constantly exploring the limits of what might be rather than remaining bound by what is.

Intuitively adapting her cadence and vocal personality to suit the disposition of each song, Holter takes on both roles in a celebrity relationship, saying that the Foley-effects driven, very Hounds Of Love “Horns Surrounding Me” was written from the perspective of the male love interest: “I see that as him—him running away from paparazzi.” While largely inspired by “the internet and reality TV and the obsession with people who aren’t famous for doing anything,” an equally vital relationship in Loud City Song comes across in the immersive and covertly overwhelmed “World.” In that lead track, Holter reflects on the city as something to be part of and distanced from, a sense of place influenced by lauded New York poet Frank O’Hara.

“The way that he [O’Hara] experienced the city is very intimate,” she says. “And I like that throughout his work you get the sense that he’s talking to a lover or a friend and it’s very personal feeling while also being about the city. It comes off as casual but it’s also very observant and intimate and this record is a little bit like that.”

Gigi’s Paris. O’Hara’s Manhattan. Hollywood looms just a few stoplights down Sunset Boulevard from where Holter arranges for us to meet, suggesting a boho bookstore/café in a barrio-nouveau section of Echo Park. The day is dusty hot, no breeze, and Holter shows up prepared for the urban swelter, carrying a wide-brimmed sun hat and a jug of water that could double as an emergency gas can. On the rear patio, amid a jumble of swap meet tables and chairs, we select a pair of seats that back up to the service alley, beginning a conversation where she often averts her eyes, sometimes lost in thought, other times indicating that within her art she’s revealed all that she chooses to reveal.

The daughter of prominent history professors, Holter was raised in Hancock Park, directly across the axis of freeways from where we sit. Studying classical piano, she was never regarded as an elite child prodigy but loved to play and practiced diligently, later finding an ideal course of study through a magnet program at L.A.’s Hamilton High. During those under-confident and over-shy teen years, she learned music theory and notation, knocking off with friends to comb the local used bins for 99-cent classical CDs and harboring no functional dreams of a pop music career.

“I never sang,” she says, describing her academic background. “In high school, I would secretly sing and play lots of Joni Mitchell and Tori Amos and Fiona Apple: kind of the piano pop masters. The Beatles, even Radiohead, all of my favorite stuff I’d play on the piano. But it was all very secret, for me, for fun. I wasn’t going to record myself playing those songs, and it never occurred to me to write a song of my own.”

Instead, she followed a conservatory track to the music department at the University of Michigan, a challenging period during which Holter says she often felt depressed and overwhelmed, struggling on the margins of the classically-centered program.

“I went to Michigan for music because I wanted to go back to the Midwest. I was born there and I wanted a new experience [outside of L.A.]. That was interesting because it was very conservative and I was very confused by a lot of it because I had more of a pop listening background. I had the foundation in Western Classical music because I’d studied theory and piano, but I didn’t have a lot of experience listening to symphonies closely and that was very confusing for me because there was a heavy emphasis on orchestration at Michigan, which is a traditional conservatory atmosphere.”

The collision between an independent mind and rigid traditions form the core of Colette’s novel Gigi, on which the musical was based. In the original narrative, an unorthodox teen girl deflects the advances of a rich older man until—when threatened with the loss of friendship, family and financial security—she ultimately accepts his proposal of marriage, deciding it’s better to be possessed than dispossessed. The MGM musical adapted Colette’s fatalistic capitulation into a blooming, My Fair Lady romance, and with her understanding of original compositions as a malleable element, Holter in turn took aspects of both the novel and film as raw material for Loud City Song.

“I grew up watching the musical so it’s very ingrained in me. When I was a kid I loved singing songs from the film. The impulse to make the record stemmed from the musical and a lot of the songs correspond to those songs,” she says. “But then I thought ‘Why would I make a record about this?’ A record about Gigi? What’s the relevance of that?”

While Holter often felt constrained by Michigan’s conservative dictates, during her time on campus she became familiar with the work of John Cage, and after pursuing post-graduate study at The California Institute of the Arts, she followed an experimental text by Cage which provided instructions for how to turn a literary work into a musical performance. Using field recordings, period-appropriate music, processes of chance and direct quotes from the original text, Holter adapted a 1920s inner-city church cookbook into a piece of musique concrète, an approach that overlaps with Loud City Song and truly comes alive in “Maxim’s I” and “Maxim’s II,” where she captures the clatter of plates and the reel of attention, her compositions a singular admixture of classical strings, theatrical vocals and Chris Speed’s careening No Wave sax.

“We had five days of recording with the musicians in the studio where I arranged the music and notated it and gave it to them and it was a very traditional way of making music. That was the first part—that was actually the easy part. Then Cole [Marsden Greif-Neill, co-producer], and I took the tracks and did all this crazy production on it and that took months,” she says. “But a lot of it—my keyboard parts and my vocal parts—were actually recorded at Cole’s house and my house. So there was a good mix.”

More than the practiced mastery of her instrument, more than her lovely and mutable voice, that intuitive mix—the innate ear for combining disparate approaches and perspectives—marks Holter’s maturing talent. Balancing the gushing piano balladry of Tori Amos and the sonic explorations of John Cage, modeling the auteur independence of her bedroom recordings and the humble grace of her side-woman duties alongside folk-singer Linda Perhacs, incorporating both the rigors of the conservatory and the girl-group compilations her mother used to play, Holter trusts an internal logic and sings half-remembered rhythms back into being. In addition to what’s immediately apparent, that ineffable je ne sais quoi also owes to an understanding of what’s better left behind, such as excising Barbara Lewis’s signature “shoo-bop, shoo-bop, my baby”s from her version of “Hello Stranger.”

“I originally recorded it and I did ‘shoo-bops’ on a vocoder,” Holter says, looking away once again even as she lets slip a wry and knowing smile. “But I wanted to move away from the ‘shoo-bops’—though sometimes I miss them.”