One of the hardest things involved with writing about L.A.-based musician Julia Holter is trying to figure out exactly how to describe what she does. More often than not, Holter is described with terms like “avant-pop” and/or something involving the word “art,” which are hardly misnomers, but somehow fail to take into account the warmth and humanity of Holter’s wonderfully off-kilter songs. Packed with gauzy layers of sounds (both organic and synthetic) in which her voice vacillates between clear falsetto and plaintive whisper, her music is both intimate and sprawling, often moving in a million directions at once: jazzy, orchestral, and spilling over with ideas. Her last album, 2013’s Loud City Song, was a kind of song cycle inspired by the 1958 musical Gigi (as well as the 1944 French novella that inspired it), and the subject matter proved to be fertile ground for Holter’s densely layered and often very idiosyncratic pop songs. On her forthcoming album, Have You In My Wilderness, Holter abandons overarching concepts in favor of a record that is essentially a collection of ballads, albeit sometimes very sunny ones. The album’s first single, “Feel You,” with its adorably dog-filled video, is arguably the most overtly pop thing Holter has ever done, and while the rest of the record swims in somewhat heavier waters, it’s still a wonderfully airy affair in which Holter’s remarkable voice stands front and center.
STEREOGUM: The last time I interviewed you for Stereogum was back in 2013, just around the time Loud City Song was released. That album had this very loose conceptual framework involving Gigi. Did you have something similar — some guiding concept — that shaped this record?
HOLTER: It was weird because the process for recording it was exactly the same, but the process for conceiving of it — sort of poetically or whatever — was very different, because it was a bunch of different songs that aren’t really related. It’s more like Ekstasis than the last record. Most records are usually not united by one specific story, but that seems to be something that I like and that I find easy to do. For me it’s easier to come up with this single story that ties everything together, so it was harder to do this record: to do something where I have to make up stories for every song. In a way, I think I’m always kind of telling a story, so I have to come up with some kind of framework that makes sense for that. These songs were not hard to make initially, because the songs would just come out of me a certain way … but then I had to develop them, and that was really the hard part, because it’s hard to see something raw, in its raw form, and then try to develop it and build it up into something that still maintains the same raw energy. It took a really long time. We had to record many times. It was frustrating. The last one was so easy to make, in a way, and this record was this troubled child. It was so hard.
STEREOGUM: Was it just hard to get a handle on it?
HOLTER: I always thought I knew what I wanted to do with the songs, and yet I would always be like Why am I doing this to this song? I should just leave it as it was with piano and singing. Why does it need all these instruments? It sounds bad, or it sounds not as passionate. Stuff like that. Finally it worked out after a lot of recording and trial and error. And then I wrote some new songs. It was hard, but I’m really happy now. I’m glad it worked out, but it was … I mean, it didn’t take years, but it took a little while.
STEREOGUM: I always wonder if the experience of playing a ton of shows or playing those songs from the previous record a lot has an effect on the next thing that you make. If this record was, in some way, a reaction against the previous one…
HOLTER: I don’t think of it in that way, but it probably is in some way — like you want to try something new. I don’t think of my records as trajectories in one direction, like now I’m going in this direction. It’s like they are all just different projects and I don’t have a path that I’m heading toward. They probably are all reactions to each other, but I’m not aware of that. All I ever know is what I want to do next.
STEREOGUM: The production of this record is really beautiful. You mentioned it was kind of a problem to figure out, but I love the balance between your voice and the instruments. It feels like there’s a kind of clarity in this record in terms of the vocals that is really striking. Was that a conscious thing?
HOLTER: Yeah. I think it was definitely Cole M. Greif-Neill, the producer, who really pushed me to let the vocals be in the forefront. He pushed me to really bring out the vocals because I tend to not do that. I usually like to hide my vocals behind the music. I don’t like to hide them consciously, but I have a tendency to prefer the vocal at the same level as everything else and put lots of reverb on it. For whatever reason, I tend to want to do that, and he pushed me to really let it come out. He was right. I think it needs to be sonically direct with the vocal in the front.
STEREOGUM: Is it usually the text or the narratives of the songs that comes first and then the music is built around that?
HOLTER: No, actually it comes at the same time. That’s the confusing thing, but I guess I’d say, I have written things this way where I write text first, all first, but usually not. It is just about what’s going on in my mind. I don’t usually write like, I want to make a song that sounds like this song. It’s more like I want to make a song about this.
STEREOGUM: You were just in Europe doing press and you played a lot of shows over there last year. Do you find that audiences tend to “get” you in the UK in a way that maybe they don’t here in the States?
HOLTER: I don’t necessarily notice it in the people themselves, in the audiences. I guess what I notice is that it’s hard to play shows here. It’s hard for me to get shows in the US. It’s that simple. I don’t know what that means. I think it means there’s not as much support here for my music? [But] this is just a big country. It’s different than Europe in so many ways. It’s fine. I’m not really taking it personally. I live in the States. I’m staying here.
Julia Holter’s Have You in My Wilderness is out 9/25 on Domino.