Beneath a massive amphitheatre in Berkeley, Julia Holter is sequestered in her dressing room. Shoeless, clad in glasses and great big headphones, she’s expertly settled on a chair with extra cushions. Waveforms cascade across her laptop screen. “I don’t write on the road,” she says. “Well, except for this thing I’m doing.”
Before long, the Greek Theater will approach capacity, but Holter’s room feels cloistered and remote. Her new album, Have You in My Wilderness, performs a similar feat. In her words, it’s “rich, warm, and golden.” Flush with emotional texture, string melodies emerge from choral backdrops and recede behind Holter’s inimitable phrasing. She says that 2013’s Loud City Song was supposed to be “theatrical and orchestral,” but theaters seem modest for Have You in My Wilderness. It’s for the roofless auditorium. And yet, Holter’s expansive, lush record also feels steeped in ruminative isolation. It shares visions honed alone at home, not reaching out to listeners so much as drawing them inside.
Holter, who’s 30 and studied composition at CalArts, released Tragedy in 2011, followed by Ekstasis the next year. Relative to her latest, the two rely on more explicitly synthesized sounds. Drum machines and electronic intrusions spackle thin layers of scree, though the songs excel on the essential levels of structure and arrangement. And between the two records, there are three versions of “Goddess Eyes,” which features a vocoder motif and Holter’s elliptical harmonies. Loud City Song, her critical flashpoint, took inspiration from the musical Gigi for two versions of “Maxims,” one an impressionistic levitation through a nightclub, the other frazzled and dizzied by the same scene.
That Holter’s compositions rewardingly withstand recasting—even immediately, a few tracks apart on one album—speaks mightily to their craft. Critics trot out “the test-of-time” to reinforce a pantheon erected by their predecessors, but a better indicator of longevity is the tradition of ballads: songs pliable and enigmatic enough that their origins and originality start to seem so beside the point that it’s a bit funny. Though Holter’s songs rise to the level of accommodating new iterations like that, their critical reception tends to center on the literature Holter imports to her songs, rather than their export. In other words, earlier records taught Holter about journalists and their angles, which bore on the presentation of Have You in My Wilderness.
“I think it has to do a lot of with who writes your first press release,” she says. “A lot of musicians borrow stories—all of the time—but it’s become a thing that I borrow things. It’s mystifying to me that there’s an almost pretentious portrayal of me as a literary person.” Lightly bemused, she adds, “Sometimes I say things and they come out wrong. I say I don’t like blah—that’s the headline.”
It’s mystifying to me that there’s an almost pretentious portrayal of me as a literary person
Holter is similarly puzzled by the enduring placement of her music in the context of her formal training at CalArts, where she studied composition. “Maybe the answer is that because I took piano lessons, my hands take certain formations, tend towards certain types of chord progressions that you’ll hear in classical music,” she supposes. “I just never really listen to classical music, even if I have a background studying it.” I note her laptop screen, which displays a video of an organist playing Bach. “Well I’m just using that for something,” she says, adding with a smile: “I just use classical music.
“I just don’t think it’s very interesting to say something is classical meets pop,” she continues. “That makes me want to turn it off.”
Though perhaps qualifiers like “literary” and “art” convey something commercially useful for blurb-speak, they unfairly downgrade literate, artful music without a highbrow promotional agenda. (There’s a reason punks with arts training used to hurl “art band” at perceived musical enemies.) The tags also threaten to undersell the immediacy of Holter’s music. There’s nothing aloof about her records—let alone programmatic, the way some descriptions seem to imply—and for Have You in My Wilderness Holter’s reading habits aren’t presented as points-of-entry.
Which isn’t to downplay her lyrics: scrawled longhand in a navigable notebook on her website, they invoke elemental imagery—oceans, islands, thickets of thousands of humans and the titular wilderness—to stand in for degrees of mental befuddlement and clarity. There’s poetic rationale undergirding some song structures, she notes. The rapturous, spiraling ascension appended to “Silhouette” reflects the narrator’s encroaching madness, for instance, but it’s devastating with or without narrative resolution.
And firstly, you’ll hear her phrasing, something that, when asked, moves Holter to dissociate her vocal impulses. “Often there’s just a moment where my voice decides what it’s going to do,” she says. Well, there’s “lucidity,” pivotal to the chorus of “Sea Calls Me Home”, where she relishes all four syllables. Then there’s “mythological,” from “Feel You”, which evokes a sly tap-dance on pyramid steps. Pop wisdom about palatable vocabulary unravels.
Better than any press release, the video to “Feel You” remains a vivid totem for Have You in My Wilderness. Directed by Jose Wolff, it depicts Holter and a small dog, named Francis. Together, they map the topography of hardwood floors, dirt, and cracks in the sidewalk. There’s a city called Los Angeles intimated just outside the frame, but the duo charts a world within it. An early version featured Holter alone, but it didn’t connect, she says. “So I thought we should shoot Francis, too. I love him so much and he’s so amazing and he’s so chronically sad, this super melancholic and beautiful creature. I feel this kinship with him.”