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Julia Holter has never been afraid to take risks. Throughout her career, the inscrutable singer-songwriter has displayed a knack for confounding expectations. Her latest album, Have You in My Wilderness, marks another shift in Holter’s work, and once again it is one that fans and critics would not have anticipated. This time, the avant-garde songstress has made a straightforward pop album. As is usual with the artist, appearances can be deceiving.
The album begins with a flourish of harpsichord and an angelic voice singing wordlessly. A combination of synthesised and live strings join in, closely followed by a wash of ambient voices. Soon the rhythm section starts to percolate gently underneath and the result is a lush, dreamy melange. Holter’s lightly tripping vocals bring to mind early Joni Mitchell and her wry lyrics only add to that impression.
My first thought was
There are so many days of rain in Mexico City – a good reason to go
You know I love to run away from sun
Holter has flirted with chamber pop before but here she embraces it wholeheartedly. “Feel You” is a surprisingly conventional song with an unexpected lightness of tone, coming as it does from someone previously known for her sombre soundscapes and literary heaviness. Track two, “Silhouette”, is even more ebullient. That is, until its closing line:
I cede all my light and play abandoned fool
The music suddenly stops being playful and takes on a neurotic tone as voices start to clamour in the background. The song is now the soundtrack to an obsessive-compulsive interior monologue, and we start to discern Holter’s true intent on Have You in My Wilderness: these songs are a series of musical portraits of characters in unusual circumstances, some of them desperate. For example, the narrator of “Silhouette” was long ago jilted by her lover but she is still convinced he will return because he neglected to take his coat. When I spoke to Holter recently, she explained simply, “Yeah, there’s a lot of delusional stuff on the record.”
The third song, “How Long?”, is an imaginary conversation between the singer and a well-known literary character, Sally Bowles, the protagonist of Christopher Isherwood’s story collection Goodbye to Berlin. The influence of Kurt Weill and Weimar Republic kabarett is pronounced, and she throws in a passable imitation of Nico for good measure. Her earnest Teutonic delivery may be stylised and mannered, but this is the Julia Holter that many of her fans would most easily recognise: pensive, almost cinematic, with literary overtones. “Sally” is quoted in the song:
She said, “All the people run from the horizon”
This is, I believe, a reference to the horizons of temporality and consciousness spoken about by Heidegger in Sein und Zeit. It is non-being, or death, that lies beyond the horizon. Eric Gerlach explains Heidegger’s concept this way: “One cannot run from the horizon, as it always remains with us.” This isn’t exactly standard-issue pop material.
Holter is a child of academia. Born in 1984, she is the daughter of two history professors and they encouraged her to learn classical piano from an early age, though her own listening preference tended towards pop at the time. After attending Alexander Hamilton High School Academy of Music and Performing Arts in Los Angeles’ affluent Cheviot Hills neighbourhood, Holter enrolled at the University of Michigan with the intention of becoming an academic herself.
The next four years were spent studying classical composition but the conservative mindset of UOM’s music faculty was a complete mismatch with Holter’s own tastes. Her professors were still trying to fight a rearguard action against the influence of celebrated modernists such as John Cage and Steve Reich. Holter quickly realised that artistic growth would only be possible outside the narrow confines of the university’s curriculum. She completed her degree but now had no desire to follow her parents into academic life. Instead, she wove academia into her work.
Track four, “Lucette Stranded on the Island”, is based on a minor character from a novella by Colette, Chance Acquaintances. Lucette meets a tragic end after being robbed of her jewellery and left for dead on an island by a murderous conman who wooed her. The woman’s story fascinated Holter: “I was interested in a delirious mind waking up from [being] unconscious and trying to piece together a violent incident.” The disoriented Lucette sees visions of her far-off home and fancies she hears conversations in the chattering of the hovering seagulls. Holter’s unearthly vocals at the song’s finale make Lucette’s derangement palpable as her voice swoops and dips like the wheeling birds. This is not the first time Colette’s writing has been Holter’s muse: her entire Loud City Song album (released in 2013) was based upon Colette’s novel Gigi, and the 1950s musical film that was based upon it.
Despite the difficulties Holter experienced at Michigan, there had been one life-changing event in her final year at the university and it became pivotal for her evolution as an artist. In 2005 her class was taken on a month-long trip to India to study Hindustani ragas, an experience that awakened in Holter a hitherto-unsuspected love of singing. Performing their ragas at a concert on their return, Holter was just as shocked to discover she also enjoyed performing in front of people and was not troubled in the least by nervousness, which was a revelation to the shy, young musician.
Newly invigorated, she moved back home and took a year off to teach herself recording and to learn to write songs. The recordings she made gained her entry to yet another music school, this time at CalArts, a private liberal arts college on the northern edge of Los Angeles.
Over the next three years, Holter wrote and recorded the bulk of what became her first two albums, Tragedy (2011) and Ekstasis (2012), as well as many of the songs destined for Loud City Song. It was a time of rapid growth for the singer and at CalArts she was free to follow her avant-garde musical instincts wherever they led. Where the University of Michigan had been restrictive and depressing, CalArts was liberating and nurturing. The music she created there has been the wellspring of her career thus far and has garnered her admirers around the world. Just last week no less a personage than Jean-Michel Jarre told FACT magazine that collaborating with Holter on his upcoming Electronica 2 album (due out next year) had been an inspiration: “I like Julia Holter also – she’s probably the muse of this album, she has that kind of freshness. Laurie Anderson on this side, Julia Holter on the other side.”
One of the more colourful characters to appear on Have You in My Wilderness is Tiburcio Vásquez, a Mexican bandit active in California in the 1800s, who was hanged at the age of 39. He left a string of brokenhearted female lovers in his wake, many of them already married. Clocking in at 6'40", “Vasquez” is one of the album’s more experimental tracks. It’s made up from a kaleidoscopic array of instrumental shards, some natural, others electronically manipulated and twisted beyond recognition, weaving in and out of the mix over a free jazz groove. Holter intones the bandit’s disconnected memories, dropping hints of LA landmarks into the narrative. “Vasquez” is the haunted reminiscences of a vanished legend.
Holter has always eschewed the idea of writing specifically about her own life and she prefers to express her feelings through the stories of others. A common theme in her interviews is that she create her songs intuitively and prefers it when they retain some element of mystery. As she told FACT last month, “If you do something intuitively, your subconscious is coming through, you’re not hiding things. But it’s not clear what everything’s about… it’s also just not the kind of writer
I am. I’m kind of impressionistic.”
Holter’s lyrics are often abstracted and it’s almost impossible to tease out the backstories of the characters who populate her songs. Her stream of consciousness resembles snatches of overheard conversation or automatic writing. Like brass rubbings, they are the charcoal impressions of a more solid reality that can only be inferred by its shadowy outline.
VISUAL ART Tarnanthi: Festival of Contemporary Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Art
Art Gallery of South Australia, Adelaide, October 8-18
MULTIMEDIA Burnie Shines
Various venues, Burnie, until October 31
SPOKEN WORD The Moth - Sydney Story Slam
Oxford Arts Factory, Darlinghurst, October 7
Hayes Theatre Co, Sydney, October 8-November 1
Theatre Royal, Hobart, October 9-10
VISUAL ART Robert MacPherson: Swags and Swamp Rats
Queensland Gallery of Art, Brisbane, until October 5
This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on October 3, 2015 as "Chamber of scholars".
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