From Euripides to Los Angeles: With Loud City Song, Julia Holter drops the fantasy for cacophonous social rumination and an immersion in the city
With the albums Tragedy and Ekstasis, the LA-based songwriter Julia Holter has cemented her position as one of the most distinctive voices in contemporary avant-pop. Her work draws variously on mythological Greek verse, surrealist cinema and gloaming fantasy, and these influences are channelled through tropes of folk, dream pop and classical music, culminating in a sound palette that’s satisfyingly confounding and quietly visionary.
Holter’s new record, Loud City Song, dispenses with the solo bedroom recording of those albums, embracing analogue textures, lush orchestration and a more concertedly human feel that transcends the dense chimerical fug of her earlier work. Though Ekstasis hinted at further forays into more conventional pop songwriting, this record is a challenging, elegant collection, one supposedly influenced by Holter’s home city, modern American poetry and French courtesans. We spoke to her about nascent forays into composition, musical inspiration and the themes of Loud City Song.
What’s your musical background?
I started playing piano when I was eight and I was doing classical stuff for a long time. I went to a high school that had a really good music programme, so I took music theory and it kind of broke me into writing. I studied Music Composition [at college], and I started recording when I was around 20 or 21. I actually grew up listening to pop music, and I would play Joni Mitchell on piano and sing and stuff in secret, but I was writing music in a classical tradition in school. Throughout college I was in a kind of conservatory atmosphere, so I started trying different things. For a long time after that I just recorded, but then at some point I started thinking about instruments and working with people again. So now I’ve finally started working with other musicians. It kind of started
last year; Ekstasis was finished and I needed to go on tour and to have other people with me. So we arranged the songs on Ekstasis and Tragedy to be okayed by three of us, and that was the beginning of working with people again. There’s something to doing a record by yourself, but it’s hard because it’s also nice to have another perspective.
Can you tell us about the themes behind Loud City Song?
The theme is really about searching for truth and love in a society that’s superficial and loud in a way which you’re not comfortable with. It all comes from the song Maxim’s, which is the first song that I wrote for the record. I thought about how cool it would be to have a song inspired by the scene in Gigi the musical where she walks into the bar and everyone’s staring at her and gossiping, thinking about the voyeurism of the people there. The whole dynamic seemed really interesting to me. Like a departure, an interesting change. I feel like usually I’m introspective, but exploring the tension of the social context seemed more exciting. But then I realised the song made no sense on Ekstasis because it was too particular; I really needed to have a whole record exploring these ideas. I thought, ‘Why do I want to use this scene from this film? What do I have to say about it? Is it just about this scene from Gigi? Why am I recreating this in a song?’ So then, I thought, “what are my feelings on this quality of society, being voyeuristic and staring at celebrities and reality TV?” It’s these similar parallels that the album is exploring.
It’s been said that Loud City Song references LA, Joni Mitchell and Frank O’Hara as particular influences. Are there more?
Not really, it was all really loose. The reason Frank O’Hara is cited is because he writes a lot about cities. I’ve read his poetry for a long time, and I love the way he experiences the city, and how he intermingles it with his own assumptions and his own romantic experiences. For example, he’ll be talking to a lover, and he’ll be speaking out to them, but he’ll be describing the city. The way he connects the city with intimacy, between him and another person, it’s really fucking beautiful. That was really inspiring to me for this record.
With Joni Mitchell, it’s kind of the things you hear in albums like The Hissing of Summer Lawn or Court and Spark, where she’s also experiencing the city and social stuff like peoples’ parties [on the latter]. That one is a little looser, but there are songs like In the Green Wild which was inspired musically a lot by her song The Jungle Line, though just for production reasons rather than the meaning of the song. It’s very primal.
Do you feel working with Cole Greif-Neill [Loud City Song’s producer and former member of Ariel Pink’s Haunted Graffiti] brought something new to your work?
Sure, totally. Like, when I try to EQ my voice, and you can hear it more in the past records, I bring out the highs, and it’s particular but I love it; that kind of screeching quality. But Cole, because he’s an expert in these things, he’ll do it really delicately and pull out certain frequencies. He’ll do what I wanted to do, but in a much more nuanced way. He did so much. I had a folder full of field recordings, so he’d grab a city recording that I’d made and insert it into a song when I wasn’t there.
All of your work has a really strong classic aesthetic quality: whereas Tragedy had a narrative trajectory and characters, a lot of the songs on Ekstasis convey a strong sense of both the unknown and unknowing, evocative but also perplexing and surreal. And the songs on Loud City Song have a kind of sepia ballroom, cinematic quality to them …
Usually my influence comes from a dynamic between things. I see all art as a process of translation: you grab certain things and you make your own thing out of it. There are limits to perception, obviously, and frequently I’m not trying to reference something, it’s just there. So for example, in a Frank O’Hara poem, he’ll always be talking about some work of art, and you don’t have to know what that is. He’ll just throw words and names out there, and I don’t think those are references, just proper nouns. You don’t have to know what it is. It’s like with me, you don’t have to know about Gigi to listen to this record. You don’t have to know about Hippolytus to listen to Tragedy. If what I’ve made requires an understanding of those pieces of art, then I’ve probably failed. But I do think it’s important to read the lyrics. That’s complicated because with Tragedy, a lot of the lyrics are from the play, but I have them in the liner notes. It’s so fun pulling text and playing with it. But with this record, I wrote it all myself so it took way longer, and every song is different.
Well right now I’m working on a piece, and I’m not sure how much to say about it as I’m just starting it and there’s a lot of other stuff happening right now, so I’m having trouble just being able to write, but it’s actually for a performance, not a recording. But it could be, thinking about it. Usually these things come to me in an instant, like Tragedy. That I would do this record, and it would be based on this story that I just read that I really liked. With this record, it was just like, “Oh I’m going to make a record spawning off of Maxim’s”. I don’t really see everything as a progression. I don’t really have a ‘way that I am now’.
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Loud City Song is released on August 19th via Domino
Words: Tom Howells