For two years in a row, Los Angeles songwriter Julia Holter has made one of our favorite records. Last year her second album Ekstasis used the easy layering of modern home-production software to sound as if she were existing alongside the ghosts of old literature and film, and maybe even a few past selves. Loud City Song, released this summer, is a more refined studio production that fuses the Paris-based bustle of the 50s musical Gigi with ideas about the high-volume cultural din of today's media. Though she's university trained in composition and continually draws on high-brow source material as a prism to reflect her own ideas, her songs have a light and playful touch. Taken together, the recent work marks Holter as one of the most thoughtful and original pop musicians of the moment.
Ahead of a tour that brings her to Brooklyn tonight to play The Music Hall of Williamsburg, we talked with Holter about the how music might be personal without being confessional, how people who assume she is obsessed with the past are wrong, and the way in which she considers herself the opposite of Taylor Swift.
Even though it was a studio record, was your idea to make Loud City Song feel like a concert performance?
I think it might feel that way because I wrote the record in my room, but when I made the demos I left room for performances. I had this space for the players to play in. I had in mind that it wasn’t just going to be me at the keyboard. I was able to channel the life of another person’s performance. So, there was improvising by really skilled players on the record. It sounds like a performance in that way.
Loud City Song was much more collaborative in process, but weirdly it might actually sound a little lonelier than your last record, Ekstasis. Even though all the voices on Ekstasis were you, there were a lot of them...
Interesting. Well, the record is sort of about the individual in society. It’s a lonely subject. That would make sense. “World” is a very lonely song. It’s a soliloquy. It’s a person looking out in to the world and everything that they are describing is from their own eyes. Also, there’s not a lot of layers of vocals. There’s a principle voice, usually. A lot of that has to do with the story, but it also has to do with the production.
In all my recordings I like to have a balance between acoustic and electronic sounds, and I think one of the ways that I got acoustic sounds when I was doing everything myself was singing. I don’t play anything besides keyboards, so I couldn’t bring in these other acoustic instruments. The only thing I could do was add more vocals. It seems silly, but I think that’s a very real reason why I layer so many vocals when I record solo.
The record's idea of being alone among a lot of people, is that all just projected into a character? Do you find yourself observing people in a crowd or are you more interested in interacting with them?
Personally, I’m not sure. I think I have elements of both. I can’t really be alone at all for a whole day, I’ve noticed recently. I have to see somebody. I’m not good at being alone. But on the other hand, I like to work alone and have time to myself because I need to write. I’m not really an apartment type of person. I need to see people. But I love the anonymity of the city, and being able to walk around and not see everyone I know. I think one of the things with my music is that it’s hard to see directly in to my own life. There are definitely aspects, emotions, things I’ve experienced in life that come through in my music indirectly, but you wouldn’t notice where, exactly.
Do you think that people sort of confuse the words confessional and personal? Any work you labor to make is going to be personal in a way, but it might not necessarily be about yourself. Do you know what I mean?
I think that it’s not confessional or personal. But maybe you just have a different definition for personal, and maybe you’re right. It’s not confessional.
I think there was a Vogue interview with Taylor Swift where she was talking about how what inspires her is to write about her life, about her relationships and her boyfriends. That’s really interesting to me because I’m kind of the opposite. What’s inspiring to me is to read or see things in life, one little interaction that you witness, or see in a movie, or you read about, how that can inspire a whole story that you make a song about. That’s what’s interesting to me, that’s what inspires me to do stuff versus actual things, things that are really, real-time happening to me.
With music, people often assume that the people singing are directly expressing something true that happened to themselves. But somebody’s interior life, the way that they take things in and put them back out, seems like it might be even more personal than just reporting what’s happening to them on a factual level.
Yeah, exactly. And one thing people don’t necessarily know if they are not performers is that when you perform, you can’t really be...at least for me, it’s not like I feel like I’m being myself. I feel like I’m channeling another character. It just happens naturally, but I can’t do it otherwise. I couldn’t just sing a song where I’m me, the person I always am and I’m singing this song. It’s basically impossible to do that. Sometimes people will ask, “I don’t know how you do that. How do you get on stage and do that?” It’s weird to me that I do this too, but the way you do it is you go to a different place.
In interviews you’ve mentioned that it’s really common in a more academic, compositional music environment for people to draw on older, classical texts. I wonder if that approach, now that you are embraced by a..."mainstream" isn’t the right word, but a slightly broader indie-pop audience, if you’ve found people’s reactions to that approach frustrating at all?
Well, with Ekstasis I didn’t do that. “Marienbad” was inspired by a movie, but it wasn’t a concept album, or whatever, it was a bunch of different songs. When I do it, yeah, I’m really happy with my set process. In the case of Tragedy and Loud City Song, I was amazed. I kind of had both ideas in an instant, and in both cases it just worked. I never had big crises creatively with those two records. They kind of just came out me and I let them flow. I really didn’t think too much or second guess myself. I trusted that the concept was there. There was a lot of difficult stuff once you get past that one moment of creativity. You have to work on it and build it and develop it. But all the songs came really naturally for me. It’s really nice to have a story to work off of already. It’s hard to do everything! It adds so much more dimension to something, and it makes it easier for you to do your job in a way.
I honestly think that’s how art is made. Folk music is all borrowed, people borrowing what other people have already performed over hundreds of years. Or Shakespeare, or like you said, in composition. I even moved away from only making songs off of poems that already existed. A lot of people are now doing that, even in school, but still it was kind of unusual to make your own text. That was weird.
Do I find it frustrating? I think that people outside of the academic world ask, “Why are so you so obsessed with the past?” Questions like that I don’t understand. I don’t think I’m obsessed with the past. I think that everyone reflects on things in order to write. I find that a little frustrating, but I also think it’s just interesting. I can always tell people, “Well, you know I’m not really obsessed with the past.” I think you have to draw upon other things to build something. It doesn’t all come from my experience with my boyfriend, you know?
I know that you’ve said a lot of the stuff on this record was, thematically, about the celebrity culture of the moment. Is that sort of an unusual method to comment on it? Does it create a disconnect for people?
All of the stuff about celebrity culture is sort of a tangent I go on in interviews. Interviewers always want you to explain everything you’re doing, and I understand that. It’s natural. That’s what they’re supposed to do. So I can tell everyone what’s going on in my mind. “Horns Surrounding Me” was kind of like, you see this person being chased by paparazzi. That’s what’s in mind. But if you listen to it, it could be a person being chased by a crazy ex-lover, or a person being chased by a dog. You can make it what you want, but that’s what it is for me.
It shouldn’t be, maybe, but’s it’s kind of odd for me to hear you talk about Taylor Swift or pop radio.
Because the work is channeling another time, or seems outside of its time, or something?
Yeah. What’s your favorite pop song on the radio now? Just to establish you as a contemporary lady...
I don’t necessarily listen to new music on the radio easily. I couldn’t say what is new right now. The radio I listen to is oldies, 90s R&B. Those kind of stations will also play Rihanna, but I don’t know what is brand new. I’ve been waking up every morning with Rihanna in my head.
I listen to what a lot of people listen to. A lot of older people. People who aren’t teenagers. I’m not listening to dub-step.
Follow Jeff Klingman on Twitter @jeff_klingman.