Q&A: Julia Holter On Her New Album, Being Inspired By Gigi, And Going On Tour With A Giant Keyboard
Next month Julia Holter will release Loud City Song, her third proper release and her first bonafide “studio” album. Anyone wondering (or worrying) that the studio polish might take away any of the mysterious beauty — and the occasional flashes of abject weirdness — that make Holter’s work so amazing need not worry. The nine tracks on Loud City Song form a loose narrative that, according to Holter, is inspired by her home city of Los Angeles and Colette’s 1944 novella Gigi (which, in 1958, was turned into a very famous MGM movie musical of the same name). In anyone else’s hands these might seem like curious inspirations, but in Holter’s musical universe — a classically inflected world populated by strings, horns, and Holter’s own fantastically nebulous voice — it all makes a crazy kind of sense.
STEREOGUM: Do you enjoy doing interviews?
JULIA HOLTER: It’s not really weird for me; I just kind of treat it like a conversation, whether that’s good or bad.
STEREOGUM: Yeah, that’s the way it should be.
HOLTER: I don’t actually mind doing it. I like talking about my music. It’s hard where I’m at like a million and I get kind of, have trouble speaking at the end of it, so like, I try to pace myself.
STEREOGUM: When I first got the new record I didn’t have the press materials with it, so I kind of got to listen to it without any context…
HOLTER: Yeah, that’s a little annoying to me, I’ve told them not to do that. It’s important for this record that you have all the materials. I think it’s hard to just listen to it right away. Well, I don’t know what it’s like for other people, but I think it should be…I think it should stand on its own sonically but I think it’s important for you to be able to see the context and the background, it gives you a sense of the whole.
STEREOGUM: It was interesting; I had sort of formed my own idea of what this record was all about before I looked at any of the press materials, which added this whole other layer to the experience—in ways that would have never occurred to me.
HOLTER: Yeah? Maybe that is good, actually.
STEREOGUM: Sometimes when I get the press materials I try not to look at them too much until I listen to the record and get a feel for it before I have a context given to me. I don’t know, in this case they nicely informed each other. I felt like I was having these vague feelings about what I thought it was about, kind of, and then when I read the thing I was like, “Oh this is really interesting” because it sort of informs what I was feeling but in a way I never would’ve thought. Particularly, thinking about Gigi, which I hadn’t read….
HOLTER: Yeah, nobody knows about it. Just grandmas.
STEREOGUM: Ha! Well, that’s totally my style. I’m into grandma things.
HOLTER: [Laughs] That’s awesome.
STEREOGUM: I read it in college—along with some of Colette’s other work—but I hadn’t thought about it in a really long time.
HOLTER: That’s cool that you read it, a lot of people haven’t.
STEREOGUM: Did that guiding idea–the concept of the record as related to that book and to Los Angeles–did that sort of reveal itself pretty early in the process?
HOLTER: Yeah. The way this happened is that I was working on Ekstasis, my last record, and I was working on this one song for it that….well, I wanted to write a song about this scene from the musical Gigi and I finished it was like, “This is really different from Ekstasis and it doesn’t really fit.” It sounded weird and it needed its own context, so I decided that it would be the basis for my new record. It’s not a musical remake or something, but it is just sort of thematically inspired by Gigi. And then I thought about why do I want to use this material? What is interesting to me about it? How can I apply it my contemporary world?
STEREOGUM: And what was it that was interesting to you about it?
HOLTER: Well I think what was interesting to me about that scene in the musical is just the way that everyone is chanting and how creepy it is…and cool and weird, especially for a mainstream Hollywood musical. There was something kind of creepy about that scene that I wanted to bring out…and the way everything suddenly is quiet, and then it gets loud again–it had these different elements I wanted to bring out and it had an interesting dynamic between people. Also, I was excited to write about society, societal dynamics, as opposed to like, being so much in my head as I had been on previous records. This probably doesn’t make as much sense if you haven’t watched Gigi lately.
STEREOGUM: Was there something specifically about that character of Gigi that felt relatable to you?
HOLTER: I think it’s just a character that you could use easily because it’s a character that doesn’t wanna conform. She just wants to do her own thing…its really just easily usable material. You know, I used a Greek tragedy for inspiration for one of my previous records, and like that, Gigi is just good material to make something new out of. It’s also a coming of age story in some ways. There are a lot of clichéd things about it, but it’s really usable too and you can do whatever you want with it.
STEREOGUM: There are a lot of really smart and very interesting feminist readings of Gigi, particularly the original book. It’s about a woman who’s being groomed to become a courtesan—trained, in a way–by man, and even though she is resistant to it at first she eventually sort of succumbs to him…and then falls in love with him.
HOLTER: I’ve read other things by Colette and they’re really cool cause they’re all from women’s perspectives, and they’re women that are….well, usually they’re not married. The other ones are often about women who are mistresses and often they’re older–middle aged–and they have young men who are their lovers and stuff like that. It’s interesting because they’re all usually single, and in a way they’re very independent.
STEREOGUM: A lot of what the record seems occupied with talking about is Los Angeles. You grew up in Los Angeles. Is this something you’ve been compelled to write about a lot?
HOLTER: Not necessarily. You know, I don’t ever like to see paparazzi much but I have seen them, and I guess anyone who’s seen them knows how scary they are. It’s almost like they have guns and they’re running after you to shoot you. That’s definitely compelling to me because it’s scary…and it’s interesting that there’s actually that much demand for photographs of celebrities. My own experience was, I guess it’s sort of that beyond that, what I’m talking about with LA is just simply that I was singing about any city, and the only city I know very well is LA. There isn’t a lot of distinct imagery that’s specific to Los Angeles, but it is more, in my mind I guess I’m singing about the idea of a city…but I’m imagining LA just cause that’s what I know. I can’t pretend I’m singing about Paris.
STEREOGUM: As someone who visits LA a few times a year, I always find it to be both weirdly beautiful but also incredibly isolating. I always imagine what it would be like if I lived there.
HOLTER: I love that about it. It’s very spaced out and, I mean it’s very big and you have a lot of room to do stuff. It’s easy to be a hermit there if you want to.
STEREOGUM: I know that this was your first record that was really recorded in a fancy studio setting. Aside from that, do you find that your way of working has changed much over the course of making three albums?
HOLTER: No, not really. I mean, it changes according to the project but it wasn’t ever developed in a particular way that’s very linear. The only thing that’s developed in a linear way is the quality of the recordings as time has gone on. I kind of see every project as very different–this record is very different because it was recorded really well. I had the best of both worlds with this record because I was able to write it in my room, the way I always used to–I wrote it like over the course of like two years or something. And then I recorded a bunch of demos, a demo of every song. And that was really fun because it was the same activity as before where I’d record at home but I didn’t have the pressure of making it sound good while I was recording it, so I could just try things out freely and not worry about my performance at the same time that I was producing it. I didn’t have to multitask. I could focus on, “What do I want to hear?” Like, try different things but not have to worry about making it perfect. So I really felt really free when I was writing and I didn’t worry too much about, “Is this all gonna work together?” I kind of was like, “These songs are all so different, I don’t know if they all work together, but I think they do,” and I was trusting myself. So I really let myself go and didn’t question anything. They were all written in very different ways. Songs like “City Appearing” and “World”….those were basically just poems that I wrote.
STEREOGUM: Those are both such beautiful songs.
HOLTER: Thanks! And then I just put music to it. “City Appearing”…for instance that song is like a pop song, like it’s really short and simple in a way, and it just came out, I just sang these words and played. After I finished it I gave it to my friend Cole and asked him if he wanted to work on it with me as a producer. He liked the demos and eventually we recorded in a studio for around six days or so. I arranged all the music for the other players but we also let them improvise a little based on a few instructions. I recorded some stuff on my own at my own house and a few vocals were done at Cole’s house with a nice microphone. In the end, it wasn’t so different from my previous recording experiences I just had more support and a few more people were involved.
STEREOGUM: Did the songs change a lot from the demo versions to the final recordings?
HOLTER: Not really. They just got much richer, because I had someone like Cole who’s so great with sound and really knows how to produce an album. But they were very much their own – they were worlds I had been very specific about, so each song had this particular character.
STEREOGUM: Did he mix the record too?
STEREOGUM: Is this the first time you had really worked closely with an outside person in that capacity?
HOLTER: Yeah, Cole mixed Ekstasis as well, but that was very different because I had done all that stuff myself for like four years, and it was actually really hard to work with him on that because it was like taking apart all of my things I had already mixed and giving it to someone else. At first it sounded horrible to me. It was like taking badly recorded things and and pulling them out of their context, which makes them sound even worse. It took a lot of work for him to make it sound right. Whereas with this, it was really much easier actually because I trusted everyone involved. It was really great to work with people who know what they’re doing. I never felt like, “Oh God, there’s too many people,” because having written all the tracks myself and recorded my own demos, I was ready to work with people.
STEREOGUM: How will it be touring and playing these songs?
HOLTER: Well, last year we toured and we were cello and drums and me on keyboards singing. Now we have a violist and saxophonist and it sounds really awesome, really fun.
STEREOGUM: Will you be touring throughout the rest of the year?
HOLTER: Kind of, yeah. Pretty much. There are a couple short breaks but I’m touring pretty much until winter.
STEREOGUM: Do you like touring?
HOLTER: Initially, no. I really like being home. I like being comfortable and I’m not a very dramatic person…I like just simple life, routine, and getting back home and taking a walk and writing and being in my own space. That’s really great. I like travelling but I think it’s easy for me to say I don’t really like travelling right now because I get to do it. Whereas like, I remember when I was working for a while in LA and wasn’t touring and I knew people that were, I was jealous of them. So I think it’s easy for me to be like, “Oh, I hate travelling!” but I know it’s actually kind of a luxury. I’ll get into it. But right now, I’m just like, “Oh God,” you know, I’d rather be in LA, you know just working on stuff and walking in the park, doing boring stuff.
STEREOGUM: It’s the process of the travelling that is so tedious. It’s fine once you get there.
HOLTER: Exactly. It really is hard, and it sort of just like…I don’t know, I have this huge keyboard and I’m nervous about getting on the train tomorrow. I have this huge keyboard and this huge suitcase and I get hurt all the time trying to lug it around. Last night the cab driver picked it up and knocked me in the hip, and I was like “Whoa!”… stuff like that happens every day on tour, it’s really unhealthy.
STEREOGUM: It’s hard to be healthy in general on tour.
HOLTER: Oh yeah, that’s a big problem I have. It’s funny because I’m touring with a bunch of dorks, like, I’m a dork too, but like you know like, they’re just like really dedicated musicians and very serious so we’re all very serious about our health, you know? So it’s not like…we’re not gonna be eating like McDonald’s so we’re probably just gonna drink green juices all day or something. We’ll get a juicer on the road.
STEREOGUM: The traveling part of it aside, do you enjoy the performative aspect of playing your music live? Do you like singing in front of people?
HOLTER: Yeah, I really do actually.
STEREOGUM: Did you always?
HOLTER: Well, you know, I started as a composer, so I didn’t perform until like seven years ago, which, it seems like that was a long time ago, but I’ve actually been writing music for like 12 years. When I first started, I didn’t see myself as a very good performer…I’ve been playing piano since I was 8, but I spent all those years of hating performing because it was classical music and I didn’t like performing other people’s music. So performing my own music and performing my friends’ music–which I do a lot too–is really fun and I love it.
STEREOGUM: When you were a kid is this what you imagined you would do?
HOLTER: No, I didn’t think about performing until I was like twenty or twenty-one and I moved back to LA. I realized I just couldn’t pursue the path I had been on. I thought I was gonna get a doctorate in composition or be a composer and be at a University for the rest of my life, mostly because my parents are academics and that was the logical thing to do. I knew I didn’t wanna go into business or something but I just didn’t see the option to be, like, a rock star (laughs) or a musician that makes money by performing popular music. That didn’t seem at all feasible because I’m such an introverted person… but that’s actually the thing. You realize a lot of performers are that way.
STEREOGUM: Yeah, very much so.
HOLTER: And you don’t necessarily know. Like, I always thought my friends were much more outgoing than I was. Then the first performance I did for people was basically in front of my university with some players I’d worked with making Indian music. Anyway, it was really cool because I was nervous, but like, not really. Whereas in piano recitals my whole life I could barely play. I’ve talked to other musicians that have said this. In those scenarios it’s just so scary because you’re not doing what comes from your heart, you’re doing what someone else is telling you to do. It’s different when you’re doing something that comes from your heart and you feel like, “Oh, whatever, it’s me, I just do this.”
STEREOGUM: Could you imagine yourself making some totally different kind of music? Like, writing an opera or doing more classical-types of pieces?
HOLTER: I guess I just don’t think of it as ‘types’ of music, so in a way the best answer is yes, because every project is different. The way that I approach my work is not that I have a project, it’s that I make projects. Like, I still see myself almost as this composer behind the scenes and sometimes, like for now I’m kind of showing up in music videos and performing, but that might not always happen. I might do a project where someone else is performing or I might not always sing. All of my projects – I actually do have different projects that a lot of people don’t know about. Like, my first records most people don’t even know about because they were just CDRs of field recordings. So I’ve already done a lot of different things. Yes, the answer is yes.
STEREOGUM: Are you surprised by people’s reactions to your music? Or do you pay attention to that kind of stuff?
HOLTER: Yeah, I have in the past, although I think I shouldn’t. I don’t think it’s good to read reviews. But it’s been really nice to see that people enjoy it for the most part. A lot of people do, not everybody does, and that’s fine. I think in the end don’t think it’ll be good for me to read reviews because they won’t always be favorable…and then you start to think about it too much. So, in the end I wasn’t surprised that that many people heard my music because I’d been making music for a long time. I was actually really ambitious too, so I don’t know if I was so surprised. I felt like I was ready, you know? Like, I’d been working for a while on this stuff, so it’s good that someone is listening.
Julia Holter’s Loud City Song will be released on 8/20 by Domino.