“The joy of making music or writing a poem is to collaborate with something that’s Other,” says Julia Holter. “Normally that means working with someone else’s art and playing off of it.”
Holter’s first two albums proper, Ekstasis and Tragedy, engaged with antique themes and modernist poetry, effecting a complex interplay between the ancient and the avant-garde. For Loud City Song – her latest album, and her first for Domino – Julia Holter perceptively portrays her home city Los Angeles’ fascination with celebrity via Gigi, a romantic novella and musical about a courtesan’s daughter who falls in love with an upper-class Parisian man. Emotional without being autobiographical, Loud City Song is almost meta-fictional, in constant dialogue with both its reference material and Holter’s more immediate environment. Its sound is equally difficult to pin down: a blend of experimental and pop, informed by artists such as John Cage, Laurie Anderson, Joni Mitchell and Robert Wyatt, yet existing in its own captivating world of sound. Its nine exquisite tracks, which Holter laid down first in her bedroom circa the Ekstasis sessions and then recreated in the studio, are bathed in mystery, even as they allude directly to Gigi and the city that inspired it. Though its instrumental palette may be wider than in Ekstasis and Tragedy, Holter is keen to point out that Loud City Song, and her music career in general, is defined not by development or growth but by openness – a curiosity that keeps her sound in constant flux.
Loud City Song moves away from the antique themes of Ekstasis and Tragedy towards present-day LA. How do specific times and places enter the songwriting process?
It depends on the song, and the album. Generally, I have a setting for a song, and I like to work with things that already exist, but I’ve also written love songs that don’t have a particular setting apart from in my mind, regardless of whether or not that’s been communicated. What Tragedy and Loud City Song both have in common is that they’re both built around stories that I did not write, so I kind of see my songs as at once in the world of those original stories and my own contemporary place. And I guess for each song I can tell you the settings that I envisioned, but I like to leave it a bit mysterious so that listeners don’t have to know exactly what I as thinking with each song. It’s supposed to be an experience.
Your field recordings are particularly evocative. To my mind, they’re dislocated from the present, real and fictional at the same time.
I know a lot of people who use field recordings in a very focused way, and I think my approach is a lot looser; I tend to use them as an effect in a song. It’s not very interesting as a concept but it works well in a lot of music, especially pop music. If you listen to Prince, or Thriller for example, there aren’t necessarily field recordings but lots of foley sounds that really work. But I also made some pieces that are pure in form, really about the recording and the atmosphere of it. Because every time you make a field recording you create something that’s not real. Even if it’s a recording of the street outside and it sounds just like what you hear every day, once it’s a recording, it’s this magical thing because it’s not the sound of the birds outside, it’s a recording of what it sounds like. It’s a work of art, basically.
I suppose a good deal of the interest in the field recordings derives from how you frame them.
Yes. When you make a recording, you’re dislocating yourself from reality, you’re taking this sound recording from the environment and making it unnatural. Even if it sounds like a street, there’s something weird about it because you’re listening to the sound of a street but you’re not actually on a street, and I think that magical thing is kind of like a disconnected experience from reality. It may be a little metaphysical or something, but I think there’s something really exciting about incorporating the sounds of the environment into music. You’re kind of building a stage out of material that seems like a piece of reality but really it somehow recalls reality but isn’t it at all, really. You know?
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Yes, you’re stripping away a lot of the referents that surround the original recording. I once saw an interview with John Cage when he was talking about the sounds of the street and traffic. He said he saw music as a whole lot of people talking, whereas a field recording is just sound, and as such it’s a lot purer. Your music betrays a definite Cage influence without really sounding anything like him. Do you think the ideas of sound and recordings are one of the links between your music with his?
I work with sentiment and emotion, and in his music there’s a ton of emotion in the performances, but it’s not ever instructed or even implied. For me, experimentation is about playfulness, and I feel playfulness in his music, and a kind of joy that’s very strong. I’m going to explain this in a very intuitive way: when I listen to his music what I feel is joy, like I’m experiencing something that really embraces life. When I was in college, I was surrounded by a lot of what people might call academic music – a conservative atmosphere, musically, that drew from a lot of Western traditions. I felt very trapped by it, and turned to things like poetry, and my professor eventually introduced me to John Cage. I’d heard of him before, but he wasn’t taken seriously even then. He was still considered weird.
I think it was very freeing for me, and that’s very important with his music; by certain processes he also frees himself. At the time, a lot of this music that | call conservative was pretty tonal, complicated but classical and symphonic, as if you had to plan out your emotion for every song, and how it would all progress, and there would have to be some kind of dynamic progression. It was just never interesting to me. And I was made to feel that that dynamic progression was part of being the craft of the composer, but actually that “development” is a very Western conceit. It’s just one way to make music, and there’s so much music that doesn’t develop in that way. Very little music does that any more. So while we all need contrast, John Cage’s idea of form not needing to be restricted was a fundamental part of his approach that’s really important for me.
I suppose because of that approach, Cage’s music feels intuitive, even a little chaotic sometimes. Similarly, even though you work with stories, Loud City Song and Tragedy can often seem amorphous, as though their meaning and forms bloom quite spontaneously rather than being premeditated.
When I listen to John Cage’s music, the breath is always right – I don’t mean like a person breathing, but the space around the activity. One thing, for instance, that people say about a lot of current commercial music is that the typical hit now no longer has a proper dynamic range. I actually love a lot of contemporary pop music, but that in itself is kind of what my record is about a little bit – that’s what I mean when I say loudness, loud city song. I like a loud city on the one hand. But I also find that it’s important to have contrast, for there to be moments of space. It’s important to me and I think it was important to him too.
This record is explicitly about the city, both an abstraction of a city and your city. You say the novel Gigi was your main inspiration. How did you relate that story to contemporary LA and its media fascination with celebrity?
When I was working on Ekstasis, I was working on a song that eventually became ‘Maxim’s II’ I thought, this doesn’t work with this album, it has to be its own record. And the song was inspired by a musical that I grew up watching called Gigi. As a kid I just liked it but I didn’t really know what it was about, and later I read the book, when I was in college. It’s not specifically about celebrity fascination, but I love this one moment that I wanted to recapture for a song: the main character walks into a restaurant-bar place and everyone stares at her and talks about her because she’s with this socialite man. For me it was exciting to work with the social dynamics. It was a new thing for me to do and it seemed fun and interesting and outward, to think about all these different dynamics within society. I also like the cast of characters – in the musical all these different characters are watching and chanting together and it’s really creepy, and everyone’s wearing these really intense elaborate dresses and I wanted to recreate that moment. But I had to think about why I wanted to do this and why it was interesting to me; did I want to recreate it just for the sake of recreating it, or was it interesting to my own world?
So it just made me think that Gigi could be compared to fascination and the way we idolise certain people, especially recently. It can be unjustifiable – like, why are we interested in Kim Kardashian? I’m not complaining about it, I’m just exploring it, because I don’t see the point in recreating a scene unless you have a bigger vision. This record explores these themes of the individual versus society, and made me think a little about my society, I guess.
I read that the sessions for this record took place in your room and then you recreated them in the studio with instruments. The sonic palette is much wider than on Tragedy and Ekstasis. How does that relate to Loud City Song’s conceit?
This record had a bigger budget and a better quality sound, but I don’t think of it as a development away from Ekstasis, or of Ekstasis as a development away from Tragedy. It just happened to be released later. I think of my projects as all isolated from one another. Rather than looking inward and pulling songs out of myself, on Loud City Song I come at it from a different place and engage with society. I also wrote it with the idea that I’d be working with ensemble throughout the record. That’s something I had in mind with every song and it lends itself to more freedom in that you hear more variation because it’s not all me playing on synthesiser, and there’s a bigger interest in vibrancy and colour. When I wrote Tragedy I saw it as kind of cold and almost black and white, kind of frightening. It had moments of warmth, but the feeling that there are obstacles towards true human interaction, that there are these goddesses who have emotions that they can express. For Loud City Song, I had a lot of colour in mind.
What was the recording process like?
I worked on the record with Cole [Marsden Grief-Neill, Holter’s co-producer], who I had also worked with on Ekstasis. He’s worked with people before who are transitioning from making all the recordings themselves to a studio, and because I recorded a lot of this record in my room and at his house – we recorded the vocals at his house – it was really the best of both worlds. We brought the musicians in first for about five days and recorded them, and then I had these parts come in that were occasionally written out, sometimes with instructions and sometimes improvised. The mixing was the most challenging part.
As well as seeing your recording projects as quite discrete, are recording and performing also pretty separate for you? How are you translating your new album to the live show?
I see performing and recording as very separate things, because they just are. I forced myself sometimes to play the songs from Ekstasis because I knew people knew the songs and I understand that, but I’m not super interested in playing back tracks. I don’t have a problem with it; I just didn’t see it as working for me. So my approach to performance is that it’s a separate art and you have to recreate something to work really well onstage, just not hold yourself back by trying to be like a record. You can try to be as much like the record as possible but you still won’t come close to it because a recording is just a different thing. Like I was saying before about field recordings – it’s a whole new world that you’ve created and it’s not reality any more, and I think the same about performing. For the new album, it won’t be like the Ekstasis tour and we won’t be recreating everything from scratch. It’s still going to be different live, and that’s always going to be the case, and I’m going to accept that.
Or even embrace it – like you say, the performance and the recording are two different things. I really liked how you brought the two together in your cover of ‘You and Me Both’, because it was kind of a field recording of you performing.
That was actually a recording Matthewdavid made, so he gets the credit for the field recording!
Talking of Arthur Russell, when did you come across his music, and what impact did it have on you?
I haven’t listened to him that much but I do really like his music. I learned about him before that show. I guess I was drawn to his exploration of different worlds. One thing I think that’s interesting about him but also at the same time kind of frustrating to listen to is that it’s very indulgent. He kind of just lets himself go, lets it all out. I like a lot of music that’s like that, and I appreciate it for that reason. His singing is very intense and you feel a lot of weight when I listen to it, and he just keeps singing at a timbre that’s almost annoying, and I think I like that. It’s very bold, even overwhelming, and his music is so intimate that I feel his presence when I hear it. His lyrics are really strange sometimes, and you get this sense of what’s going on in his mind, so it’s really personal music, too. Also, he did country music, and he did dance music, so he was kind of all over the place, which is really great.
He probably saw all his projects as being entirely separate as well.
Yeah, I like that. I like how he seemed to embrace all these things equally. He really had experience with what we might call experimental music, and underground stuff, but he was also interesting in the beat and in dancing, and just singing about love a lot. So I think it’s very complicated and mysterious.
I think that’s not so dissimilar from your music: experimental, but with a pop backbone. It’s also interesting what you said about lyrics. When it comes to yours, I feel they’re similar to the field recordings insofar as they’re not fully representative, more like vignettes.
A lot of the songs on this record recreate specific scenes from the film Gigi, so I would imagine that world and build from there. It wouldn’t be a tonal replication of that scene, but that’s what I had in mind. Sometimes I write the lyrics first but mostly I write them with the music. I think with ‘World’ too I wrote the lyrics first and put the music to them. And that’s what I’m doing now with this project and it’s really hard, making the music first, but it’s also really fun and freeing in other ways. In my demo for ‘Maxim’s I’ I used the lyrics from the musical but I ended up writing my own and incorporating a lot of the film’s dynamics into the arrangement. With ‘Horns Surrounding Me’, I started with a sentiment and worked outwards from there, and the concept was running away from paparazzi.
It’s such a paranoid, frantic song.
Good, that’s the emotion I’m trying to get through there! That’s what the lyrics came out as. In certain songs I’ll explore one kind of sentiment but in a lot of different ways, like in ‘Marienbad’, where the story is about statues who’re frustrated because they can’t move and the humans can move, but choose not to. I just did a lot with that particular sentiment. But on the new record, ‘He Is Running Through My Eyes is very focused. For that, I just wanted to make a new version of a song in the musical called ‘Say a Prayer for Me Tonight’, just for it to have a simple sentiment, and not be anything expansive. But mostly, I’m just interested in trying new things in every project I do. I see each project as just being different, not as a development from the last, so I will work on several different projects at once. There’s always so much that’s new and interesting for me to explore.