Experiments in Pop: An Interview With Julia Holter 

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Photos by Devon Banks

This is Julia Holter’s moment. The latest star to emerge from L.A.’s thriving experimental pop scene, following friends like Nite Jewel and Ariel Pink, she's in New York to celebrate the release of her second full-length record, Ekstasis, out this week on Brooklyn label RVNG Intl. It’s been crowned Pitchfork’s Best New Music in advance, and she debuts its songs with a live band at Le Poisson Rouge in Manhattan tonight. It's likely to be packed.

Ekstasis, which she wrote, performed, and recorded herself, suggests Holter’s preoccupations are a bit loftier than those of her pals. (Her first record, Tragedy, was an extended meditation on the ancient Greek tragedy Hippolytus, for starters.) But her music is growing warmer by the minute. We talked to the classically trained musician turned bedroom recorder at Brooklyn’s Issue Project Room over the weekend--an oddly fitting experimental chamber piece practicing in the background--to talk about the limits of DIY recording, the themes and images saturating her work, how she’ll manage to perform her increasingly elaborate music, and the indefinable moment where something turns into pop.

The L: Can you describe your home-recording set-up?

Julia Holter: It’s funny, no one’s asked me that. I have one of those, God what is it called, an M-Audio Fast Track Pro-Interface? I had a version of Logic someone gave me. I didn’t ever use MIDI really. I have an interface that goes into the computer, and then I just record into it with a keyboard. For drums in my later songs, I used the computer keyboard to type in drum sounds. I have a microKorg that I play for synth sounds and then I have a Casio that I’ve had since I was 15. It’s really funny.

Does it have breaking glass noises?

Yeah! It has all these different noises. I actually really like the drum sounds on it. It has this fake reverb effect that’s so cheesy. It’s huge. Most people would have sold it off or gotten rid of it. I ignored it for a long time, and came back to it because the drum sounds were so cool. I didn’t have to buy a drum machine. When I record, I don’t use programmed beats. You can probably kind of tell.

How many instruments can you play?

I just play keyboards; harmonium and the keyboard instruments. I don’t play cello.

But you do play cello on the record, right?

I play it for recordings. I don’t really know how to play it, but I can drone on it, play some basic figures. That’s why it’s sometimes out of tune, because it’s me playing. I actually liked how it sounded, the stuff I used at least. And the harmonium has a nice reedy sound to it. It kind of balances the electronic.

Do you find yourself bumping up against the limits of your own set-up and recording knowledge?

Oh yeah, all the time. My friend Cole M.G.N. mixed Ekstasis, but with Tragedy I mixed it all myself. On the last song, “Finale,” I had all four parts of my voice. I had bass, shifting it down so it sounds like a man, I sang over it as a soloist voice, and then in addition to that my friends did some singing. It was so hard to mix that song. I tend to have so many tracks. Too many, like 150 tracks! The vinyl version sounds spread out and nice, but I have problems with the digital version to this day.

For a new song like “Marienbad” that is so heavily layered, how many vocal tracks did you use?

I don’t know. Probably 30? (laughs) It’s bad. It’s not good, or a professional way to do it. You should only have like 5.

If you are layering it to that extent, how morphed is the final product from where you started the song?

I wanted it to be like a wild jungle. No, wait, that’s not true.

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It’s not supposed to be a wild jungle?

The original idea for that song was a wild garden, with all these dramatic flowers. I would just evoke these flowers on synthesizers. All I could think of was colors, like they would be bold and crazy. Then, for some reason, I totally switched to this other idea: topiary gardens. Someone said, “You know what’s a great film evoking the idea of topiary gardens? Last Year at Marienbad.” I watched it, and it totally changed the vibe. The film is really austere but beautiful, the way it flows and the timelessness of it. But it’s full of messy organ music. Which is very different than what I came up with.

Something like “In the Same Room” seems much more pop and upfront than your previous work. Is that something that you consciously wanted, or something that just developed naturally?

With “In the Same Room” I think I was listening to a lot of like Monteverdi or something? I just wanted to make really pretty harmonies.

Prettiness was your main goal?

No, but it’s nice because the theme of the song is so austere. There are two people in a room, and one person remembers, but the other person doesn’t. “We’ve been in this room together, don’t you remember you were here?” “I don’t remember but I really want to.” It’s a very common theme.

That certainly also applies to Last Year at Marienbad.

It does. I’m so into that. I was trying to make an attractive harmony, but it would be much less interesting if the theme was also like, “We’re so happy today, because we’re so in love!” The juxtapostion of the sweetness with the, uh, bittersweetness? Or something?

Yeah, or something, I don’t know what it is.

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Do you usually start with a vocal part?

Sometimes I start with like an idea that I sing. For instance, in “Goddess Eyes,” there’s a repeating phrase: “I can see you but my eyes are not allowed to cry.” That’s from a Euripides play. I really like that theme, and also the phrase itself. And so I just repeated it.

When you are taking something from a text, whether it’s Euripides, or on the new record there’s some Virginia Woolf and some Frank O’Hara. Is that you recording a piece of music and then looking for something to fit it?

In those cases it was. With Tragedy, I was really inspired by the actual text to turn it into something. The new record is more of just a collection of songs that I’ve written, whereas Tragedy is on one theme, with different parts that are all working together. I mean, Ekstasis does have an overall feel, but there’s not some story behind them.

Listening to both, Ekstasis seemed a bit fuller? There aren’t as many open, ambient passages.

I think of the Ekstasis songs as contained, they have an opportunity to grow within themselves much more. In Tragedy they are a little more dependent on one another.

Thinking about the mix you made with field recordings for FACT magazine, and the bit of found sound worked into the Ekstasis songs…I think I heard some street noise or something?

Yeah, probably. Not much, a moment of chit-chat.

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But finding bits of sound to bring in to the work, like you’d find bits of pre-existing text to incorporate, do you see both techniques as part of the same thing?

Yes, I do. I think of it as collaboration with this other thing, whether it’s a text or a recording. It helps me form the piece itself, in my head at least, before I’m really going to go about it. A piece of text can be a seed that grows into something. Like with “Goddess Eyes” where you build a song out of one idea and it grows into something that way. It helps with the form of it, the same way a recording will help form something.

For instance, I had a CD-R release on Engraved Glass about a year and a half ago. I had a recording of me in Paris. I just recorded myself at the bar. I recorded for about 20 minutes, and I liked that. I worked to insert things into it, like birds going through the bar, and water flowing. Then I sang inside the bar. Though I didn’t, really.

So you’re editing an experience you had?

Exactly. I’m really into that. Creating experiences that weren’t there. I think that sometimes field recordings can act as a setting for things that didn’t happen. And that’s a way of forming it.

Performing live, you’ve played mainly solo to this point? Mostly. I’ve never played with the two guys I’m going to play with [at Le Poisson Rouge]. So it’s our first show ever. For Ekstasis, I had to have players, I think. I could have just tried to do it in a totally different way from the record, which is what I’ve always done.

If you had your dream set up on stage, in terms of instruments, and people, what would that look like?

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The one thing I really want right now is a vocalist to do harmonies with me. I’ve sung pop background vocals with Nite Jewel and I’ve done weird, microtonal stuff. I used to be in an Early Music ensemble. Not doing it virtuosically, but with a lot of love! I love that stuff.

Live looping has become a lot more prominent recently, do you do that at all?

I’ve been looping for years, with vocals. I just hate looping now. I do have a loop pedal that, when I need to loop just a certain sound. I don’t like to use prerecorded tracks. It’s not like I’m against it, but I just feel more comfortable recording live. Sometimes the loops are interesting, but sometimes they are really boring too. It’s so hit and miss. If you do heavy looping with vocals, the feedback possibilities just stress me out. I love the idea of just having interesting, maybe even awkward or surprising, things happen on stage between people, musicians. Having awkward technical issues is awful.

Your music is primarily being described as a cross-pollination between pop elements and avant-garde/experimental elements. Is that how you think about it?

No.

Maybe it’s just the biographical note that you did have formal study in music, but it’s definitely become a thread in how people talk about your work. Do you find that unfair or inaccurate?

No, I think it’s fine to interpret it that way. I just don’t ever think of myself as “going on a mission” to do anything in either realm of pop music or experimental music. Trying to bridge the gap. That’s just so oppressive, that idea to me. But I understand people need to put things in categories. I’m always changing what I’m doing. Basically I just love certain things, and it’s just hard for me to pinpoint when that becomes pop music. I love pop music.

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