“I’m not Taylor Swift”: Julia Holter on storytelling and creating her grandest music to date
Whether it’s a Euripides play or a Colette novella, inspirations from Woolf or from her own heart, Julia Holter just wants to tell stories.
In a move away from the album-spanning narratives and lofty-sounding concepts behind previous releases, her new album Have You In My Wilderness plays like a collection of excerpts from short stories. Holter holds up a magnifying glass to specific moments in tales and dreams, obscuring everything that isn’t in sight, highlighting everything that remains in view. It’s an incredibly cinematic, sonically lucid experience guided by gliding string movements, acoustic textures and a vocal performance that veers between commanding exclamations, undirected questions and quiet foreboding.
The first sound on Have You In My Wilderness is that of a harpsichord, igniting the charming chamber-pop opener ‘Feel You’. Whilst not a distinct change in direction for Holter, it shows the artist in a different light; she was last proposed to be an experimentalist after the jazz instrumentation of previous album Loud City Song. We talked over the phone, discussing her position as songwriter and storyteller, the importance of production and collaboration on the new record, and her participation in the “telepathic collaboration” recently released on Nicolas Jaar’s label Other People.
Photography by Gabriel Green
Over the past few years you’ve had a few records come out in a relatively short space of time. People have seen you move from being seen as a bedroom artist into a studio artist. Is the studio where this record was predominantly made? Where do you feel most comfortable?
I still feel most comfortable at home because I initially wrote all of the records there, and I produced the original demos which guided us a lot during the recording process. I’m still kind of doing the same thing I was doing before. I just have this amazing talented producer Cole [Marsden Greif-Neill] to make what I’m doing at home sound so much better in the studio. But he also adds a lot, so it’s kinda different.
What Cole did with this record and the last record is clearly different from when I do things myself. He is able to make it sound so great and rich, and really beautiful and clear compared to my self-produced music. I think that’s really important for a record like this one. I think it depends on the project. It’s not like I’m never gonna work alone, it’s more like I was tired of doing everything myself and really could’ve used someone who really knows how to…
Collaborate with you and help enable what you’re after?
Has collaboration become a part of the writing process at all or is Cole strictly amplifying your direction?
It’s definitely more of a collaboration because he’s completely the one in front of the computer. I mean I made the demos in front of my computer so I came up with a lot of the structure and the sound, the vibe and the arrangement, but he does a lot of the arrangement too because he’s going through all of the takes and choosing the right one, choosing the performances.
“I’m not unhappy that I worked alone on Tragedy but it’s obvious that I was trying to create something much bigger.”
Whether it’s from the bedroom or collaborating with different musicians in the studio to realise your vision, your music’s very big sounding. Even for sometimes quiet music it’s very grand. You have this full world realised around you. Do you think that’s partly due to the production or is that just how you write your music?
Both. ‘Cause if you listen to my early music, music I recorded on my own, it had that same… I’m really into big moments and stuff. So I think that’s just inherent in the music but it really doesn’t come across until you hear someone like Cole get involved.
If you listen to Tragedy, it’s definitely got big ideas in it, but it just couldn’t be realised in the same way. I’m not unhappy that I worked alone on Tragedy but it’s obvious that I was trying to create something much bigger than I could do. You could look at it that way, that I was trying to do something much bigger than what I could do alone.
Speaking of big moments, the album starts with one on ‘Feel You’. It feels a little bit anthemic. But then there’s ‘Vasquez’, the slow-burner, and then you’ve got more pop-leaning things, you’ve got a ballad or two on there, it’s a real mix. Since it’s one of your albums that doesn’t have an overarching narrative, how do you go about structuring all the loose strands?
It was really hard to make this record because there are all these different songs and it was hard for us to decide what we wanted with them, whereas with previous records where there was a clear vision it was easier. [The key difference is that] it’s an intimate record with songs that are more like you’re singing to one person, rather than with Loud City Song [where] I see it as singing to an audience.
I saw these songs as more intimate, and it was hard to figure out where they all belong and what they’re trying to do. We had to redo a lot of recordings. Loud City Song was a very easy album to make compared to this. If you have a song that’s raw, songs like ‘Betsy On The Roof’ [and] ‘Sea Calls Me Home’ that I’ve been playing for years live, solo, it was really hard for me to envision it in a different way that I liked. We tried recording them so many times and I disliked it because it wouldn’t have the raw quality and the strong performance. We finally got it but it was so hard. Both of us weren’t really happy with what was happening and then finally it all came together.
Some of your other albums, we talked about them having narratives where you’ve pulled inspiration from 20th century films or old plays. I read in the press release that a lot of this album wasn’t so premeditated, it just happened when you were playing piano and the lyrics are referred to as “stream-of-consciousness”, so where did you get all the different tales from? You say some of the songs are older, have they been milling around inside your head for a while?
Yeah, the older ones have been around for a long time. The more recent ones, some of them are based on stories and some of them aren’t. ‘Lucette [Stranded on the Island]’ is based on a story, ‘Vasquez’ is based on a legend and ‘Betsy [On The Roof]’ I just totally made up. I don’t know who Betsy is, it’s a crazy subconscious thing I came up with. Sally [from ‘How Long?’] is from the Berlin Stories by Christopher Isherwood – she’s Sally Bowles.
It is more intimate but then I will never be making songs that are just about my life. It’s not really fun for me to just sing songs that are directly relating to some specific event, it’s very unusual. I’m more excited about storytelling. I’d say that it is more intimate but it’s like you’re telling a story of another person or something. It feels a little bit in between storytelling and singing to another person in a ballad. But it is still storytelling I’d say.
“It’s not really fun for me to just sing songs that are directly relating to some specific event, it’s very unusual. I’m more excited about storytelling.”
The way you tell stories interests me because the lyrics are sometimes fully-realised. ‘Vasquez’ totally comes across as a legend, and there’s all this intrigue even though it’s one of the wordier songs on the record, whereas some of the others are snippets of short stories with half of the pages missing. It’s very fragmented and disparate, but you still paint such a vivid picture of what’s going on. You mainly focus on personalities in the first and second person, describing the places around you and how you feel in those places. It interests me that you can portray a narrative without actually overtly referring to a narrative. How do you go about writing and telling your stories? What kind of stories have you been reading?
Most of them didn’t have this, but for [‘Silhouette’] I wanted to make a song that was about a specific thing which was someone becoming obsessive about a person that left them. But with the idea that maybe they were going to come back. This is something I’d been interested in for a long time – I’ve written another piece about this and then I happened to be reading something and it reminded me. It was these two sisters and how they were obsessed with this one person and he left and they thought he would come back and they built their lives around him coming back. And then they had this thing where they were holding onto his clothes and waiting for him to return, and that inspired when I said, “I’ll hand him his coat.” It’s just little things. In that case I had an idea and then I read a story that was about that idea and it was a coincidence. That’s what I love about stories, that they can totally mirror the emotions that you’re feeling either in your life, or just the story you want to talk about that isn’t necessarily autobiographical but it’s such a scenario that you think it’d be fun to portray. That’s how reading other things can affect my work – it can supplement it, it’s fun in that way.
You talk about obsession – I think ‘Have You In My Wilderness’, the title track, feels a little bit obsessive to me as well. I guess many of the tracks are about a strong relationship, whether it’s one-way or two-way. If those are the things that resonate, maybe that’s why people can find themselves in your songs and in your music.
Are we seeing you in the stories that you tell, or are you not even the narrator, is the narrator ambiguous?
I continue to not be interested in thinking of myself as a singer, really, because I’m more of a storyteller and that’s how I wanna be. I don’t think it’s very compelling if it’s just about my life or something. It’s just not very interesting. Of course my life comes through in all of these things, absolutely – a lot of things I do intuitively, which means my soul is basically laid bare. If you do something intuitively your subconscious is coming through, you’re not hiding things. But it’s not clear what everything’s about because it’s also just not the kind of writer I am. I’m kind of impressionistic, I like the impression and the feeling that you get from sounds. For me that’s interesting, and it’s not as interesting to be like, ‘This song was about this’, ’cause it’s totally limiting.
What about the audience – is it really interesting for them to think about what Julia Holter was going through at that time in her life?
Not really. Maybe people are excited about Taylor Swift and her life but they’re different types of people and I’m not Taylor Swift.
I guess if people are thinking about Julia Holter’s life that’s a barrier between them and getting lost in the story.
I also don’t think that many people are thinking about my life. I don’t think I’m that type of person, you know?
Is the aim to get people lost and entwined in the stories then, but this time just on an individual level rather than a collective audience?
What I was really trying to do is to offer the experience that I have. Not knowing what people’s experiences are gonna be, I have trouble assuming what audiences are gonna feel. I listen to a lot of ballads and songs, I’m very much a song listener as you might imagine. I don’t listen to a symphony so much, or sit and listen to long epic things as much as I’m a song listener. I love to feel, to apply things I hear to my life. I cry and stuff, because I’m that kind of a person.
I’m a very normal person, I’m not the most high level avant-garde listener to music. I get right to the basics. People don’t really portray me as that but that’s very much the way I am – I listen to songs, I listen to ballads, I’m into songwriting and that’s what I do. I’m trying to make songs that people can listen to and feel something, and maybe they can apply it to their lives, you know what I mean?
“I’m trying to make songs that people can listen to and feel something, and maybe they can apply it to their lives.”
I wanted to ask about the Terepa EP too. It’s a project that involved several people including Laurel Halo and Rashad Becker – an experimental crowd. How did you get involved with that? You’ve worked with Laurel Halo previously, I believe.
I was in Berlin for a month last year, and a lot of those people were there while I was there, and one night we all had drinks together. Not every single person on there, but most – I think it was Rashad, who I’d never met before, my friend Lucrecia Dalt and Charlotte [Collin] who is involved, and Kohei [Matsunaga].
Kohei was basically the one who wanted to do all of this, who organised it. He’s a musician from Japan who makes electronic music, whatever that means. You know, that’s such a vague description, but it doesn’t matter! We all make electronic music I guess. I think what’s cool about it is that we all recorded at the same time, and I loved that idea, it’s a little Cageian, where you just pick a time and there’s brackets of time within which you do anything. There wasn’t any discussion about what we were gonna do, and that’s what I think is fun about it.
When you know that you have this 20 minutes or so, how did you go about feeling out what you wanted to record and play?
I think I thought about the fact that there were gonna be all these other people doing things, so I left a lot of space and just made sounds that I like within that period. They’re both different, there’s two of them. I didn’t plan it very much.
How do you think it turned out?
I think it’s really great. I had no idea what to expect, that’s what’s fun about it. That’s why I like projects like that.