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“I Don’t Have to Have a Message”: Julia Holter Speaks for Herself

Success is difficult to measure in indie music in 2018. But by any metric, Holter is one of the most acclaimed and exciting composers of her generation. How she got here wasn’t promised. But on her new album, she’s soaring.

Julia Holter Luis Mazón

Julia Holter would like to go somewhere more quiet.

It is a bright Thursday afternoon in October, and I have met the 33-year-old musician at Stories bookstore and café in the Echo Park neighborhood of Los Angeles, not far from where she lives. It’s crowded. Caffeinated, hyper-productive people are chirping to one another and asking Is this seat taken? and palming the walls in search of unused electrical outlets and—no, this won’t do at all. Holter puts her mirrored sunglasses back on and suggests, Why don’t we go to the park? Where there is fresh air and privacy and—how appropriate—birds.

Holter’s new album is called Aviary; it’s her fifth, in eight years. Its title and overall ambiance was inspired by a relatively straightforward line from a short story by the Lebanese American writer Etel Adnan: “I found myself in an aviary full of shrieking birds.” Adnan’s story (from her 2009 collection Master of the Eclipse) is about an Iraqi poet trying to piece her life back together after the war, but the line also felt, to Holter, a lot like being alive in America in 2018. “Everyone’s going crazy,” she says with a sigh. “Everyone’s overwhelmed. … Discourse these days—the internet, communication, it’s like eee! eee! eee!

Eventually, we find a place that’s a little less eee! eee! eee!, a shady table by Echo Park Lake. Holter takes off a blank baseball cap and shakes out her long hair—brown with distinguished, Sontagian streaks of grey that frame her face. She wears a lavender tank top beneath a long-sleeved denim shirt, a sartorial choice that mimics her sound. “One thing I love to do is add tons of layers, so many layers of sounds,” she says, “just to see what happens. I’m very trial and error. Collecting stuff. I’m kind of a messy person—I’m very messy, actually. My office looks crazy when I’m working, but that’s just how I create.”

Success is difficult to measure in the indie-slash-avant-garde world Holter inhabits, but her previous album, 2015’s Have You in My Wilderness, was probably her most successful, or at least the best reviewed of her career: Among many other accolades, it was chosen as the best album of the year by the U.K. magazines Mojo and Uncut; it was voted 13th in the Best Albums list of the Pitchfork Readers’ Poll, finishing just behind Drake and Björk, respectively. Holter was pleasantly perplexed by the attention. “It’s always totally shocking to me that people are even listening to my stuff,” she tells me. “It’s so weird.”

But Wilderness and its singles found her working within familiar forms—“verse-chorus-verse, traditional songwriter style”—that gave listeners an easy entry point to Holter’s world, a place where synthesizers mix with harpsichords, melodies splinter off into unexpected tangents, and references to medieval music and old troubadour ballads mingle with nods to, say, Blade Runner and the 1958 Vincente Minnelli musical Gigi. You walk away from her music feeling like you’ve been given a syllabus to a lively college course you’re auditing just for fun.

So what did Julia Holter decide to do after the most warmly received album of her career? The exact opposite thing, in every possible way. “On this record I’m really digging into my subconscious,” she says of Aviary. “Have You in My Wilderness was for me a specific project where I was trying to work in a certain tradition. So on this record I was like, I just want to do all the things I like to do again.” Those things include playing around with collaged text (the lyrics on Aviary’s “I Would Rather See” come from selected fragments of Anne Carson’s translation of a Sappho poem), meditating deeply on ancient concepts and words (“Colligere” comes from a medieval term for “collecting and gathering” which, Holter says, “is also the way I write”), and letting herself go as long as she feels necessary. Clocking in at an epic 90 minutes, Aviary is just about double the length of every album she’s made before.

“People keep saying it’s not easy. And I get it, it’s long,” she laughs. “But for me it’s very playful. I just wanted to make a playful, cathartic record. This is my version of that.”

Though we’re now far from the madding crowd, nature provides its own distractions. “Oh my god, that dog’s so cute!” Holter says, interrupting herself as a wooly black poodle mix struts by. “He looks just like my dog when I was a kid.”

Holter was born in Milwaukee, but she moved to Los Angeles at a young age and, save for an undergraduate stint at the University of Michigan music conservatory, has lived here ever since. Her parents are both historians who encouraged her early interest in piano; when, at age 10, she wanted to write her first composition—“this really stupid, janky melody”—her mom took her seriously enough to buy her some manuscript paper. Still, during the first 10 years of her musical life, the lines between pop music and capital-M Music seemed starkly drawn. “I never sang at all; I was pretty shy,” she says. “I hated performing in recitals. That’s all I thought performing was: recitals.”

But, she goes on: “What’s funny is that parallel to that, but seemingly unrelated in my mind at the time, I would buy songbooks and play all the songs that Billie Holiday sang—and Fiona Apple songbooks, and Tori Amos and Radiohead,” she says. “I would play all of Fiona Apple’s songs and sing, only to myself for a long time. And Joni Mitchell, I got very deep into her in my later teen years. But it all seemed very different. Like, I was going to write music for other people to play. I was never going to perform it myself. But then I’m secretly singing.”

Album cover of Julia Holter’s ‘Aviary’

Midway through her time at Michigan, Holter started experimenting with recording her own music. She liked this better than, say, the oboe-and-cello score she would arrange to be played by her classmates. This felt more her. “When I started recording, it opened everything up because I could work with my voice, which I realized I’d always wanted to do but I didn’t ever take seriously,” she says. “So I was able to sing and play with all these sounds, and it was just really liberating. I was so excited. I got really into it. And felt really confident in this way I just never felt before.”

Some of the more traditional-minded teachers at the conservatory, though, thought Holter’s approach was a little too modern. “One teacher, when I told him I was recording, was like, ‘You can’t do that. That’s not real composition,’” she recalls. “He wanted me to keep working on my shitty-ass chamber piece I was writing. It was so bad. It was a really convoluted piece of shit. But he was like, ‘You have to finish that! You can’t record! Recording’s not real composition.’”

Holter eventually found a middle ground between Fiona Apple and the chamber piece, earning an MFA from CalArts around the same time she finished up her first proper album, Tragedy—a hazy, atmospheric, cinematic record that sounds a bit like Laurie Anderson if she been raised on Pro Tools. Even today, Holter seems astonished that she found some like-minded weirdos who not only got it but put it out. The local L.A. label Leaving Records released Tragedy in August 2011. She still remembers the moment when the label’s co-founder Matthew McQueen sent her a test pressing of the vinyl: “I was in my car alone, and I just sobbed like a baby.”

As women make slow and steady progress in other professions, a question that many in the music world still ask is “Why are there so few female composers?” Last year, an NPR article by the celebrated symphony and opera composer Mohammed Fairouz pointed out that, during a recent season, “only 1.8 percent of music programmed by major U.S. orchestras was written by women.” The world of classical music and composition is steeped in tradition and history—most of which happened to omit the viewpoints of anyone but white men. Holter says she experienced sexism at her conservatory and that it perhaps subconsciously pushed her toward a more pop-adjacent career. But the inequity was so normalized that it barely registered to her at the time. “Music school is this little bubble and it was mostly guys, and it didn’t occur to me as weird,” she says. “But things did happen and I’d realize, ‘Oh, I was treated differently.’ I didn’t think about it at the time. I was naive. Even if things happened, I’d pretend like they didn’t.”

But Holter, like so many others, has spent the past year or so reflecting on the past and the dust newly illuminated through the light of the #MeToo movement. “There are just too many stories of women being treated like shit,” she says. “Especially by sound people, sound engineers. Anywhere it’s not common to have women doing something.” She pauses, choosing her words carefully. “I’m more aware of the fact that most women I know have had to deal with inappropriate behavior from men. And the only way to change that is to discuss it with men and women. It’s not just men; it’s a whole system that is telling people this is OK. The more it’s discussed, the better.”

Of course, this is easier said than done, especially when you’re, as Holter describes herself, “an insular person.” “It’s hard!” she says, throwing up her hands. “I don’t want to talk about these things either. I never wanted to talk about being a woman composer. But I realize it’s good to talk about it.”

In the past, she has bristled at the (usually gendered) assumption that her songs are about her. “Every time I do an interview, people ask me what it has to do with my personal life,” she said in the Guardian in 2016. “I think it’s really weird; I don’t understand why it matters. … They think I’m directly trying to avoid singing about my life, which is totally wrong. A lot of the music I make is based on emotions I’ve felt, but I’m not writing about literally what’s happening to me.”

And so it was striking when Holter made a rare public statement about her personal life last October, after her ex-boyfriend Matt Mondanile of the indie bands Real Estate and Ducktails had been accused by several women of sexual misconduct. In a note on Facebook, Holter wrote that, in their relationship, Mondanile had been “emotionally abusive” and that she “had to have a lawyer intervene and was afraid for [her] life.” “When you’re in it, you question your own reality and you wonder if you are making things up or are you making a big deal out of nothing,” she wrote. “It helps when others come forward to validate the fact that you weren’t wrong. Thank you to the women who have spoken out, and if there are others out there who find it too hard, that is understandable, and just know that you aren’t alone.”

When I bring it up, Holter would rather not elaborate, but she also makes it clear she does not regret the note and would take none of it back. As difficult as it was for her to offer even a glimpse of her private life, it felt like something she had to do. And now she’d like to move on with her own life. “I spent a lot of time thinking about it, and I said what I said,” she says, suddenly much less verbose than she’s been our whole conversation.

“It’s still there,” she adds with a shrug. “People can read it.”

Holter very rarely thinks of lyrics before music, but some time in 2017 a particular phrase kept popping into her head: Every day is an emergency. “That’s how I was feeling,” she says, “So I set music to that idea, basically.” That song is probably the most explicitly birdlike on Aviary—sometimes even in the Hitchcockian sense. “Ultimately, what this record feels like to me are birds as memories, or birds as thoughts,” she says. “Birds can be beautiful, but birds can also make these terrible, shrieking sounds. Just like you can have beautiful memories and terrible memories, beautiful thoughts and terrible thoughts in the mind.” As if on cue, three pigeons flutter behind us with the spoils they’ve picked from a nearby garbage can. “That one’s got something serious,” Holter notes about one bird that’s scored a comically large french fry.

Like all of Holter’s work, Aviary emerged from a peculiar kind of mood board: She sees it inspired by both “medieval music and Vangelis’s score from Blade Runner.” She laughs at the absurdity of this, but she’s not kidding: “It has all these great questions about morality and also empathy, in the film and also the Philip K. Dick story,” she says. “And I was interested in the noir aspects. I’d never thought about noir and what it is as a genre, but I started to understand, ‘Oh, maybe my record is noir, kind of?’ I was reading about noir the other day—there’s a protagonist in a world that’s sort of morally corrupt and they’re trying to figure it out and they themselves get caught up in the corruption. I was like, yeah! I feel totally like that.”

But on the flipside of that darkness, there’s the opener “Turn the Light On”—one of the album’s most striking moments. It’s a rumbling, cathartic explosion of drums, fluttering strings, and the blissful shout of Holter’s voice, louder and more muscular than she’s ever sung on one of her records before. (And, like the gorgeous incantations “I Shall Love” parts 1 and 2, it’s one of the places I hear what Holter professes to be one of her record’s sonic inspirations, Alice Coltrane’s ecstatic 1971 album Universal Consciousness.) “We did it all live in the studio, just all at once,” she says of “Turn the Light On.” “It was very intense and probably bad for my voice.” Even so, it’s a mark of how far she’s come since her early, uncertain days. A far cry from that girl in her bedroom, too shy to sing for anyone but herself, here she sounds like she can barely hold back her joyful roar.

Between this album and the last, Holter made another unexpected move: She scored Ben Younger’s Miles Teller–starring boxing flick Bleed for This. When I observe that this probably wasn’t the type of movie most people would have anticipated her working on for her first original score, she lights up: “Right! That was the most fun part about it to me.”

Holter hopes to do more score work; she’s currently writing the music for a forthcoming TV show. She finds this kind of writing to be a calming counterbalance to her day job, during which she’s making all of the creative decisions. “It’s really nice for me to take the back seat and just be a part of someone else’s project,” she says. “Just follow them, do whatever they want—no ego, I don’t care. They want me to change everything, that’s fine, as long as I have time. The work is more like underscoring certain moments, kind of invisible but there to bring out certain emotions.”

Ultimately, that’s what music is to her—an emotional transmission, a pure state of being, a potential vehicle for empathy so that disparate people can occasionally feel similar things in an increasingly fragmented world. “I think communication is very hard,” she says, after becoming momentarily tongue-tied and cutting herself off mid-train of thought. “I’ve been thinking about that a lot recently: I love playing with the musicians I play with, but I hate communicating to them. It freaks me out. Communication is hard; interviews are hard; it’s hard to be articulate sometimes. And what’s nice about music for me is that it’s not about communication. It’s not about language. Even when there’s words—the words are just music.” In a world increasingly impatient for the message, the meaning, the point, Holter sees music as a radically patient space in which one can still just be.

“I don’t have to have a message; there’s no agenda,” she says, out there in the park, away from it all, green stretching as far as the eye can see. “It’s just music. It’s an experience.”

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