A Californian Education: Julia Holter

Spectral songstress reflects on the beginnings of her creative wanderlust.
Julia Holter

In 2012, very few albums shone with the kaleidoscopic depth of Julia Holter’s ‘Ekstasis’. Re-issued last month by Domino, the Californian’s second album created deft textures and mood-shifts via spectral electronic ballads and fractured pop songs. It was the complex sound of an artist immersed in deep exploration and an album that sought inspiration from a myriad of sources.

When Clash caught up with Julia just before Christmas, she’s in a reflective mood. ‘Ekstasis’ was released in America last March only a few months after her debut album, ‘Tragedy’ - a concept record of sorts loosely based on Euripides’ 2,000 year-old play, ‘Hippolytus’ – and the success of both records enabled Holter to become a full-time musician. “It was very welcome,” Julia reveals about her new ‘career’. “I didn’t have to go to work anymore – and that’s a very good thing.”

“But there are things that are expected of you that I struggled with,” Holter continues, when asked about potential downsides to her new chosen path. “Initially, touring didn’t appeal to me - I didn’t like travelling very much - but, I don’t want to have another career so I have to find a way and last summer I did have a lot of fun playing shows.”

And Holter was in demand. Her two albums were swooned over by both critics and a rapidly-developing fanbase. Julia describes the relationship between ‘Tragedy’ and ‘Ekstasis’ as “like adopted sisters, as even though they were written at the same time, they are very different projects.” The comment is insightful; during our chat it becomes apparent that Julia is able – and requires - to have many projects on the go at any one time. “It’s not that I want them to be radically different,” she says, about her family of musical endeavours, “it’s just they tend to be that way. I definitely want each project to be a unique space.”

Holter’s work displays a wilful creativity and a desire to submerse herself in radical experimentation (a previous project adapted a cookbook to a John Cage score). “I think of myself as a composer,” she says, when we ask about how she views her art. “And I don’t mean that in a high-minded way – but I can imagine making a record that I’m not performing on.”

Raised in Los Angeles, Julia’s childhood was full of music (her father once performed guitar onstage with venerable folkie Pete Seeger). “Everything I’m going to list I hated, but now I love,” she says, when asked about the relatively mainstream artists she grew up listening to. “There was Steely Dan, The Travelling Wilburys, Bob Dylan and Billie Holliday. My favourite now is Bryan Ferry, but I hated Roxy Music as a kid.”

However, when she was 10 years-old, Holter watched a television special about The Beatles and was inspired to buy ‘The White Album’. “I had always thought of them as their early songs, like ‘Love Me Do’, but I didn’t realise they had all this other music. So, the weirder part of The Beatles was really interesting to me.” The Fab Four’s flawed masterpiece was quickly joined by TLC’s ‘CrazySexyCool’, as the young Julia began to explore her own tastes. And if those two albums may seem unlikely bedfellows, they are perhaps indicative a unique approach to music.

Holter began recording her own material in her mid-teens before attending the Walt Disney-created CalArts (California Institute of Arts) school. There, the young musician would retreat into her own private world as she developed and shaped her own projects. “Of all the schools in the world, they want you to make music,” Holter reveals about her time at college. “Very little was required of me and I could do what I wanted. I don’t mean that in a lazy-ass way. I was really reclusive and worked on my own individual projects, which was not what the normal thing to do. Usually you go to meet people and collaborate and try things out, but I wasn’t really in a state [of mind] where I wanted to do that. I had begun recording two years previously and was wrapped up in my own solo recordings. So, it was more of a way of focusing on what I wanted to do and taking the time to do it.”

Even if she had retracted into her own creative bubble, the time spent at CalArts allowed Holter to evolve a sonic palette that would include neo-classical instrumentation and experimental electronica. “There were things I enjoyed studying which were musicology and theory but then there were things that were problematic for me like composition,” she recalls of her musical education. “At Cal Arts, the students get the freedom to work on what they want and to me that is not a bad thing. With art, it is so hard to do something creatively if you are being told what to do – it would become too academic.”

On leaving college, Holter took a number of teaching roles and worked with children from some of Los Angeles most disadvantaged areas. “I was tutoring,” she tells us. “I really enjoyed it, even though it was pretty lowly position and I did it for three years. I met some amazing kids and got to work with them on music. It’s really good for me to work with young people as they have so many fresh ideas. I really do want to continue doing that stuff.”

However, Julia’s immediate future is more likely to be shaped by her own creations. We ask Julia about the potential for new material in 2013. “Well, I finished ‘Ekstasis’ a year-and-a-half ago, so I have been working on new songs since then,” she reveals. But, like a seasoned pro, she becomes suitably vague when we gently quiz her further. “It’s a lot of fun but I don’t really have anything public to say about it, apart from I’m really enjoying the music.”

Clash is nothing if not tenacious and we manage to winkle out two ‘facts’ about album number three. Firstly, it’s unlikely to be called ‘Gigi’ – even if her Wikipedia page says otherwise. “Everyone thinks that,” Julia giggles. “It came from one of my first ever interviews and I was asked about if I was working on a new album and I said ‘yes, and it will be called ‘Gigi’. I actually still don’t know what it is going to be called.” Secondly, the new Julia Holter record may well have a conceptual theme in keeping with ‘Tragedy’. “There is more of a story behind it,” she admits, before clamming up once more.

Similarly, Holter’s plans for this coming year are shrouded in ambiguity. “Until I finish the album it is hard to finalise anything,” Julia concedes when asked about 2013. “So, I have a very unhelpful answer. But, I am working on some collaborative projects in addition to recording my own album and touring with it. So, whether I am writing for an ensemble, or arranging music on my own, or collaborating with a friend or whether it be a performance with someone else, there are lots of different things going on in 2013.”

For Julia Holter, the possibilities remain endless.

Words by John Freeman

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