Words by:

What is a love song? It’s a label we tend only to slap on the schlocky and overtly cloying.

It is outpourings, long walks after teary phone calls. It is a first dance. A karaoke performance.

Only it isn’t. If a love song is a song about love, then it is a song about countless experiences, infinite moments and every possible imaginable feeling. If a love song were about love then it would have to incorporate the rhythms and movements of people all day, everywhere. Confused, complicated, opaque and unknowable. A love song should, in all truth, be impossible to sing.

Perhaps Julia Holter’s most immediate and simple, yet somehow far-reaching and unclear record, Have You In My Wilderness is an album presenting something closer to this weird concept. The album moves through heartbreak and attraction, connect and disconnect; yet in such a way that refuses to settle for direct response. There is hurt and joy, but not as we’d easily recognise. Each track offers, in a number of shapes, another kind of love song.

“I’d call them love songs,” she concedes. “Which is confusing to me because they’re not all about love, even if they are about love and emotions. I suppose I’d call them ballads.” Over the phone, and graciously entertaining questions despite an overwhelming tour-induced tiredness, the LA-based artist and Cal Arts electronic music alumni is attempting to best describe exactly what it is her songs are about, and largely concluding that she doesn’t want you to know.

“Take an example like Sting’s Every Step You Take. People always think it’s a love song because of how it sounds, but they don’t realise it’s about a stalker. I think that’s so cool — it’s what is so fun about music,” she enthuses.

While The Police’s 1983 paean to possession might seem like a strange name-check, the comparison holds up. She’s not deliberately dodging meaning, yet with Have You In My Wilderness, Holter is more than prepared to pervert logical conclusions. “Things that seem so obvious just aren’t. Things that are scary can feel good, things can be contradictory and complex.”

There is a notable change on this album, which is Holter’s fourth, that contributes to the decidedly more obscure, but
in turn personal tone. Retracing her previous records, each has a grounding in established narrative, finding inspiration in the work of other storytellers. 2011’s Tragedy employed the classical dramas of Euripides’ Ancient Greek tragedy Hippolytus, 2012’s Ekstasis was based in part on the writing of Virginia Woolf, and most recently Loud City Song, released in 2013, turned to Collette’s 1944 novella Gigi.

From a string of lauded records that found modern confrontation in the literary past, this album has forced Holter to discover more immediate stories of her own. Yet it would be a mistake to consider the guiding hand of established literature completely absent on Have You In My Wilderness. Her utilisation of Euripides on Tragedy makes for an illustrative example of how the craft of story-telling still exists vividly on her fourth record. Greek tragedies, as smothered by academic analysis as they might now be, are essentially lurid evocations of morality. Simple tensions and human experiences, blown up and played out across bizarre and garish scenes. While her palette is far subtler than the often monstrous events of ancient Greek playwrights, the method Holter pursues remains similar on each album — creating episodes and scenes that exercise human experiences via wild narrative. Expressions of life in theatre.

Allowing the stories to present themselves massively benefits the ultimate tableau. Have You In My Wilderness is more like a songbook, a collection of shorts, an approach Holter has wanted to pursue for a while, describing the album as a record she has “known I wanted to make for a long time.” The resultant success, as with so many paperback parallels, is how the disparate stories pull together.

Take, as a demonstration of this, waiting. Not quite love, more like the silences in between, longing or holding on for something to happen or someone to arrive. It is something that, inconspicuously at first, presents itself on a number of occasions on the album. The “standing watch for hours” on Night Song, the mentioned character Lucette “marooned” on an island, or the opening track Feel You and the realisation that “it’s impossible to see who I’m waiting for in my raincoat.” Each passing image, in isolation, is simply a component in the course of the particular ballad, yet by the record’s end they have all conspired to achieve an aching whole. Holter might not want excessive analysis of her lyrical content, and it doesn’t require it, the power here is in the sensory play. The small stories that build to the last.

The question then is whether, without the functional structure of a finite source, this album has become Holter’s most personal, or in some ways true album to date. “It depends what ‘true’ means. I guess for me there is a cathartic aspect to making songs that I don’t necessarily talk about very often. What I put to the page is never really explicitly personal, I just don’t work that way.” Such is her enveloping use of stories, even a record that has drawn on spontaneous ideas and immediate experiences in her life is still expressed on terms both abstract and colourful. “Even if I’m going through something, it doesn’t help me to write about it directly. It’s not a journal, if it was a journal then I could write about it directly, but it helps me to dig into something deeper, beyond what I’m aware of, and let things come out.

“The most important thing for me was to make sure I loved the lyrics,” Holter continues. “For me they feel very honest. When people ask if I edited them a lot to make them less personal, or did I change them to make them more arty, or less cliché, I don’t know. It’s possible but I don’t remember that experience. I try to make the most intuitive music that I can.”

This intuition, and vulnerability, also feels closer thanks to the production. Previously most recognisable drenched in reverb, Holter’s vocal performance parts through the instrumentation with clarity and pronounced precision. “That was the producer, Cole Greif-Neill,” she explains. “He really pushed me to let the voice come out in this way I usually don’t want to. I normally want it to blend into everything. It was a good choice, because I think on this album it’s important that people hear the lyrics. It should feel intimate.”

Which really, as a parting thought, is an appropriate note to accompany Have You In My Wilderness. Ballads, or love songs, stories, or spontaneous recollections; every track is a close, sensory encounter. Perhaps not one that will always be immediately understood, but an encounter all the same. Collected thoughts, moments and episodes that reflect the complication, mystery and mythology of a real love. Or, to put it better, in the words of the album’s fifth track Sea Calls Me Home: “I hear small words from the shore, no recognised pattern.”

Have You In My Wilderness is released 25 September via Domino