Published Aug 26, 2013No stranger to conceptual art, Julia Holter is bright and eccentric and strangely, irrepressibly divine. After debuting in 2011 with Tragedy, based on Euripides' BC play Hippolytus, the classically-trained L.A. artist delivered second record Ekstasis to acclaim that way outstripped its immediate accessibility. While Holter is wary of overstating Gigi's influence on her third (and finest) album, Loud City Song, the film's central themes of romance and fame feel pertinent: sometime between its 1900 setting and the present day, love and celebrity jointly displaced religion as the opiate of the people, and it's in this modern world that Loud City Song wanders, passing Linda Perhacs and Broadcast before spilling into your ear canal like aural ambrosia.
In person, unlike her inspired stage persona, Holter is completely grounded and unpretentious — consciously so. During the interview she's hurried, careless almost, slightly bored by the questions. This is understandable: Toronto is approaching a week's heat alert, and Holter's relentless press scheduling hardly complements an afternoon so oppressive and muggy that, earlier on, a legitimately heat-stroked blogger was incapacitated and forced to cancel. With sweaty palms, we picked Holter's brains for thoughts on Gigi's allure, society's cannibalism of its idols, and what her City Song represents.
You're still L.A.-based — is your music warmly received over there?
No, nobody knows who I am in L.A., really. I'm more interested in other places, actually.
Would you like to leave?
No, I love L.A. It's a very mysterious city; you don't always know exactly what's going on. And that's what I like about it.
Are you still part of a community that involves Ariel Pink and Nite Jewel?
Well, it's kind of an extended version of that. A long time ago there was a community of people. It's still there, but I haven't seen Ariel in two years or something. But I see Ramona [Gonzalez, alias Nite Jewel] all the time, and Cole [Ramona's husband] produced the record. But they're always on tour, and I'm not around much anymore. Community now is my family, four or five really good friends, and an extended family of people I've worked with for years. So there are communities, but they're all globs, they're always changing. It's also to do with my social tendencies, which are not to be part of a group. I have lots of close friends from different groups. I don't fit into a group very well, socially. And that might be reflected in my music.
What attracted you to Gigi?
I just grew up with it. Usually, the things I use, it just occurs to me to make something out of them. It's not like I go to the library to figure out what to base my record on. I grew up watching that musical, and what happened is, I guess I'd watched it again, maybe. And there's this scene where she walks into this bar and everyone gets up and stares at her, and they start chanting. It's so interesting and weird. It was easy material to work with: you've got the story of a young person trying to do their own thing, but society's pushing them back. It's such a classic situation; you can build a lot from that.
In the music there's a tranquility, but it's disrupted. It sort of reflects the environment where most people will experience the album: on headphones, on the subway, etc.
The main thing, I guess, is the loudness. Which I'm interested in: the loudness. It's like, "How do I connect the things in this story to today?" I don't have to, but the only reason this interests me is I'm living now, and I still relate to the sentiments expressed. So one thing I reflected on was public interest in one individual, and celebrity interest. For instance, "Horns Surrounding Me" is about someone being chased by paparazzi. And today, we still have celebrity worship, but it's very extreme. Because we have the internet with us everywhere, cell phones, and it's very loud. And that's the idea there, the constant loudness of the media. And it was always present, in all societies, I think. There's some element of worship; in our case, it's celebrity worship. But it's more strange when we have constant access to the media. So that loudness, like in "Horns Surrounding Me" and "Maxim II," you're supposed to feel bombarded.
You've talked about working as a tutor, and that some of your students were involved in gangs. Day to day, how was that?
Well, the school I worked in was just a normal school. The students came from all different places, and there was one program where students, for one reason or another, had left normal school and were doing continuation school. So it could mean they had families, or were on probation or something. It was interesting, but you have only a fleeting moment. I really only skimmed the surface.
Did it leave an impression?
Yeah, but I think I could've gone deeper. The people who really get the most are the teachers, and I was never a teacher; I was just a tutor. Or in that case I was a visiting artist. But at the norma-... nor-...
Right, that's where I worked with those kids for two years. The school had a music studio, so I would work with them on writing and recording, very informally.
What did they come up with?
All different stuff. Kids today are all over the place, stylistically. They listen to Nirvana and they listen to Katy Perry, all at once. Skrillex, the xx, Madonna and the Beatles. Like, everything. It was very interesting, because they wouldn't necessarily have a style or a genre.
I hear an escapist, scatty-sounding quality in Loud City Song. It's multi-textured, multi-everything — the dynamic range, the variety of instruments. Is there a link between having a day job that requires focus and composure, and making wilder music?
I never thought about it. Actually, a lot of my personal life feels very separate from my music.
I spoke to a band earlier who said their emotional experiences were the totality of their art, You're not the same, I guess.
I think what I do is what most people do. Which is — from the tradition of folk music to high art to Shakespeare — you find things so beautiful that you want to make something with them. You borrow some things, and that's what's compelling. What's compelling to me isn't that I broke up with my boyfriend.
For instance, what interests me about paparazzi is the crazy dynamic. This is what "Horns Surrounding Me" is. When I've seen it happen, it's crazy. It's like they're attacking someone. They chase people. And when you're around when it's happening, you feel like you're being chased. I was in a light-bulb store once, and this blonde woman — I don't know who she was — was being followed. And it was so crazy! It's so militant and scary. Things like that, which happen suddenly, might inspire some poetic thing inside me. I'll see it in my mind. I have these instant visions, and I follow them. For me, the poetic decisions tend to be calculated, and the musical decisions inspired by the poetic decisions are free. And I have to be in a happy place. When I'm depressed is when I'm not interested in writing anything. Whereas some people, I think, are spurred to creativity through their personal experiences, and through depression. And for me it's a very low place, and it's not fruitful. For me, what's interesting is sentiments expressed in different time periods or different places, and connecting them.
Despite that your concepts stem from an impulse, is it fair to say your music is more conceptual than the average?
People play it up with me that it's really high concept, but that's how people make art. They don't make it out of nothing. It's not like, 'Oh I made this beautiful thing and it's all about my life.' You always borrow from other sources. I mean, of course you have people who say it's all about their personal life, but I mean... maybe? Maybe it's true that people do that, but there will always be elements that borrow from other sources. So I try not to emphasize the high-conceptness. Especially as I come from a background where I went to school but I'm not a very academic person.
You were classically trained, right?
Yeah. I started piano at 8. I wasn't great but I loved it. I did it till I was at college. I studied composition in schools after that, and music theory. And when you study at school, it's traditionally a conservatory atmosphere, so it's very classical-based. And I was kind of an oddball, so I wasn't really immersed in classical music. I listened to pop music like most people do. But I started listening to classical music at 15. That's when I started writing.
What kind of music did you write?
Well, because I was trying to appeal to that world, I was writing in the style of contemporary classical. Somewhat atonal, experimenting with complicated harmonic structure, not a lot of repetition. There's a will to be complicated, even though we're past the years of modernist music. That world is still very hierarchy-based, interested in virtuosity and complicatedness and impressing people and winning awards. I find it to be... not the place for me [laughs]. I struggled through it for a while. I started by focusing on people like [György] Ligeti [composer of "Lux Aeterna," prominently featured in 2001: A Space Odyssey], and John Adams. John Cage was the composer that really compelled me and brought me out of that world, and into the more experimental music world, which is what I did when I was at CalArts [aka California Institute of Arts, founded by Walt Disney]. It's the Cage approach: an interest in focus, but not virtuosity.
A similar thing happened in the postpunk era: bands with little technical skill absorbing art concepts without being virtuosic. Part of those bands' motivation was snapping people out of mental routines; by rejecting convention, you could maybe make people question other things, too. Does that ring true for you and your peers?
The people I work with are very non-confrontational. There's no message, really. It's more experiential. No one advertises themselves. There's no big movement behind it, like, 'Listen to this! This is gonna change your thoughts!' I think I approach my music the same way; I'm not gonna present a clear message. What I'm not saying with this record is, 'Society's fucked up! I hate the media and it's all bad and we're doomed.' My record is more an experience through a story. Although my friends as people can be very confrontational and political, their way of making art doesn't carry a message.
Approaching your music, there's maybe a temptation in certain people to think, "This is super weird and unconventional, she's such a wacky genius with all those cellos and spoken interludes and saxophones." You know: "She writes about plays from 2000 years ago!" But isn't that kind of curiosity and openness actually symptomatic of a healthy mind?
I mean, I don't think I'm crazy! [Laughs] I'm a little neurotic, but I'm definitely... if you're asking if I'm crazy or not.
Not really — but it's good to know.
My interest in atmospheric sounds that seem crazy and random is a conscious interest in the environment. I learned at composition school to think everything through. But now I'm doing what I want and I feel very free, whereas I used to overthink everything. So now I'm at this great place where I have an overall vision, but I also give myself freedom. And somehow, on Loud City Song, it all ties together. You have to let the magic happen. There has to be this mystery and magic, and your imagination just creates. And you kind of see how, sometimes, rational things come out of this magic. It's kind of blending the mind with the mystery and trying to create something.