Photo: Tonje Thilisen

“I Love Going Crazy in My Songs”: A Conversation with Julia Holter

"I write with a character in mind. I just let myself write whatever comes out without it necessarily being directly a translation of what I'm aware that I'm feeling, you know?"
Julia Holter
Have You in My Wilderness

The title of Julia Holter‘s latest effort, Have You in My Wilderness, finds a distinct polarity between solitude and need. She doesn’t allude to the Wilderness as a place of retreat from civilization, even if she can express herself more creatively in the intimacy of her own bedroom. She refers to the Wilderness as her own personal refuge, where there are strictly no bounds. But the way she phrases it also reads like a warning: this is Holter’s very own Wilderness, one in which ideas runs wild and there’s strictly no order or control.

“In terms of the actual writing I do all that on my own because I can’t really focus. I can’t really write with other people very easily,” Holter says to me with careful nonchalance over a Skype conversation. Holter’s arrangements are woven with such intricate threads that it’s easy to dismiss how her approach to songwriting is simple, almost skeletal despite its lush refinements. “I really write at home on my own and the demos themselves are very similar to the final recordings in a lots of ways.”

She explains her creative process without that much excitement, as if she finds the specificities of writing on an everyday basis as commonplace and mundane. Even if the Los Angeles-based singer/songwriter has gone through a steady evolution ever since she released her debut album, 2011’s Tragedy, she still feels like her approach to every new record remains unchanged. “I don’t think I’m heading in some new direction. To me, this is a project like all my other records are projects. They’re not a trajectory, really,” she remarks with unwavering assurance.

But Holter has come a long way from the sonically complex Tragedy, a wildly recondite effort that relished ominous, atmospheric drone with fragmented piano flourishes. She’s an erudite composer who is unafraid to try unexplored directions that don’t necessarily apply to her academic background. Which is why the former Cal Arts student is vocally opposed to the notion that her music has taken a more accessible approach throughout the years. “I mean, I’m not strategizing some pop breakthrough because I’m not the right person to have some pop breakthrough,” she says. “There’s all these melodic elements that you could consider pop or accessible, and you can find them in my older music.”

Holter doesn’t subscribe to the idea that she makes music for herself, or that she feels she has to shape and mold her more experimental beginnings, and still finds it problematic to really analyze where this impetus to communicate to others stems from, even if she “thinks about it a lot.” “Saying that something is accessible gives it this implication that people need something, and thinking that we know what people need or want is really unpleasant. I don’t like to think that way, like predicting what it is that the people want. I’ve been wanting to do this kind of record for five years ad it’s not signifying some big pop direction.”

Have You in My Wilderness does contain an added sheen that we’ve never seen from Holter in the past. The songs ooze with sultry sadness and introspection, performed over grand, elaborate baroque arrangements with a dash of carefully-considered experimentation. Some of the songs featured, like “Betsy on the Roof” and second single “Sea Call Me Home” go as far as five years ago, even before the making of Tragedy, though she hadn’t found the adequate project to fully draw them up into a cohesive whole.

Holter refers to Wilderness as an album of ballads. With the help of producer/engineer Cole M. Greif-Neill, he helped bring these songs to life outside of their initial piano recordings. What Cole M. brings to the table is a battering of lush instrumentation, from harpsichords and strings to horns and an upright bass, giving these songs a second life from their original treatments. “I wanted to write a warm, loving, soulful record for all these years,” she clarifies. “And then these new ballads came out of me quickly, though when I first wrote them they were somewhat stream-of-consciousness. I fleshed them out later on, but then I thought I wanted to make it sound really great. So Cole is a big part of that because he really knows how to get a big beautiful sound with all these little details. He has an incredible ear to hear everything, so I had the guarantee that it was going to have this warm and glowing sound.”

Have You in My Wilderness is a noticeable departure from 2013’s Loud City Song, a loosely conceptual piece based on French writer Collete’s novella Gigi, not to mention its musical counterpart. It tackles themes like the grandeur of celebrity and identity, finding stark parallels between the sophisticated glamour of turn-of-the-century Paris with the hustle and bustle of current-day Hollywood. It was a fairly desperate, almost stifling experience, coupled with jazzy undertones that gave the album’s quieter moments some much-needed respite.

In Holter’s mind, they both hold a juxtapositional framework even if they’re both different projects. “I had ‘Betsy on the Roof’, ‘Sea Calls Me Home’, and the title track: those three are older, and I wanted to make a record of all of those three songs and approach other kinds of ballads. And Loud City Song wasn’t the right record for that because it was all based on this story, so yeah, I had to wait until that was done. Then I had in mind this sort of record composed of ballads, or ballads that were about love or relationships between people.”

Seeing as the previous albums were bogged with very heady concepts, Have You in My Wilderness has a certain freedom to it, of not having been conceptualized from this rigorous backstory. “I don’t think it’s ever about a concept and I’m not a conceptual writer,” she states with some prudence in her tone. “I think the way that I view stories is the same in this record. I just use them as short stories versus a novel or whatever. So I actually don’t think it’s that different. Because I still have to explain each song,” she chuckles. People sometimes think it’s actually similar, and really, all I’m doing is telling a story and what story it is.”

Holter feels more in her element when she’s writing stories, and Wilderness features ten individual ones that are not necessarily inspired from personal accounts. But you can sense in the way she speaks about storytelling that it fascinates and challengers her in equal measure. “I write with a character in mind,” she notes. “I don’t write thinking directly about what I’m feeling, usually. I just let myself write whatever comes out without it necessarily being directly a translation of what I’m aware that I’m feeling, you know?

“If I’m kind of sad or depressed it doesn’t necessarily help me to write a song about exactly what I’m depressed about,” she sniggers, very aware of what she says. “For me it’s always emotionally cathartic to play with a story that already exists. Although, it’s not like I’m going to build from this character. I don’t strategize it. It usually comes to me as if that’s something that I want to embody right now. I think that’s more cathartic to me than writing a song about exactly what I’m upset about.”

Though it’s debatable to assume that storytelling in music is something of a lost art form, there’s very few current artists who readily admit comparing their songs to narrative prose. These are love stories that hold just the right amount of imagery to compel the listener, but just enough ambiguity to respect those who’d like to construct their own cognitive worlds. It’s also luscious and even sounds joyful at times, though Holter has a wider, more introspective view of their underlying motives. “I think it’s a very dark record,” she notes, “so I think everyone has their own interpretation.

“I mean, I think if you look at the lyrics there’s a lot of …” she pauses. There’s some violence, and some potential violence, so it’s not exactly airy to me. But I don’t care if people feel that. I mean, it doesn’t matter to me. I guess that’s not really the point.”

The interlocking theme in Wilderness is that of unconditional, even obsessive love. One that resonates is the need to find comfort in the absence of those we love. Holding on to those who once were protagonists in our own lives, that somehow leave a gaping hole in our heats. “Hmm, it’s interesting you put it that way,” she mulls over after giving her my interpretation. “That makes me think of the track ‘Silhouette’. That’s one of the few where I really had this idea that I wanted to turn into a story. I had written this piece about two years ago based on this text, and basically it’s just about the idea of going crazy and delusional thinking someone is going to return,” she laughs. I love going crazy in my songs and this is one of them, so basically it’s just someone thinking that her lover is going to return and he never does, and then she keeps thinking he is and keeps pulling on to that.

“There was also this other story about these two women who were waiting for this one man that they had fallen in love to return, and they were thinking he was going to return, or they think he was a monk. So they keep his coats. And I thought about that, which made me write the line, ‘I’ll hand him his coat/it’s exactly where he left it long ago.'”

Though Holter mostly comes across as modest, she does bring a fresh new perspective to pop music as an art form. That urgency to create with true independence does make her a unique songwriter, not to mention that visionary breakthroughs are a much-needed necessity in our oftentimes suppressed musical formats. But mostly, she’s just appreciative, if slightly guarded, of her achievements: “I think it’s definitely weird,” she says. “But with anything that you make that goes out into the public and becomes something for other people is really weird, but I think it’s cool and I still really enjoy that. I just focus on the positive aspects of that, and it’s nice that people are listening to it and making something of it whether it has anything to do with what I make of it or not.”