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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