The bewitching sonorities composer-singer Julia Holter creates on her new album Have You in My Wilderness (Domino) might be loosely bunched under the banner of pop ballads — albeit of a musically avantish stripe.
Lyrically, her follow-up to 2013’s critically huzza’d Loud City Song explores, like pop music often does, subjects like love and interpersonal relationships and all that sort of thing. But let’s use the term “pop” advisedly in reference to the wonderfully abstruse and not-so-simply beautiful ways Holter's new album approaches its themes. The casual listener would likely say Holter’s decidedly non-cold sound is “different,” and Holter would likely agree. But that difference, she says, cannot be allowed to reside for long in her head. If she got too self-conscious about her music, it might stray into a contrived artiness that would limit its popular appeal and, more importantly, tell a bit less about its creator.
“It’s easier if I don’t categorize it,” the affable Holter says at a bookstore/coffee shop in Echo Park. “One thing I have trouble with is defining it musically, and I tend to write my songs without exactly thinking what the genre is musically, and feel it more sort of poetically. Usually I’ll be more inspired by a story or something, more than a particular music, and so I’m fitting the music to that.”
The persuasive iridescence of the album’s songs come from an intriguingly simultaneous distance and snuggly closeness. These songs’ underlying themes of the give-and-take of power in our loves and friendships melt into the ears. “Feel You,” “Lucette Stranded on the Island” and the album’s most overtly experimental track, “Vasquez,” smudgingly delineate inner and outer worlds of dream and human observation, with a lushness that glows from discreet and off-kilter electronic washes and Holter’s sublimely unclichéd string settings, played by a group of L.A. sessioners.
Have You in My Wilderness was recorded the same way Holter’s previous albums were: She made a batch of demos at home and then took them to a studio to remake/remodel the tracks with her longtime producer, Cole Marsden Greif-Neill. The process, though familiar, was more difficult this time around.
“The songs were raw,” she says. “A few of them I’ve played for years as solo pieces for piano and singing, and I was in love with them that way, and it was so hard to take them out of that context and bring them into a more produced environment. So it took a lot of tries to get that same performance coming out in the new context.”
It’s not like Holter had to be talked into fleshing out the songs. When it came time to produce the record in the studio, she had what appears to be the sort of identity crisis that your more substantive artists really ought to have from time to time. In the end, she’s quite pleased it all came out sounding the way it did.
“Whereas the last record was very easy to make, this one was sort of a battle: What do I want? Why am I doing this? Eventually it worked out, and it was like, OK, that’s what I wanted. But it took so many tries.”
The struggle to achieve something rarefied on her fourth full-length has a little bit to do with Holter’s apparent need to go even beyond the gloriously inscrutable delights of her acclaimed albums Exstasis (2012) and Loud City Song. These works celebrated what you might call an inviting obliqueness or ambiguity, a truly valuable effect that allows the sonics and words to resonate — for her and the listener — in very personal ways long after the last notes trail away into the ether.
What you do is draw the bow and shoot the arrow, then draw a circle around the point at which it struck. Such a “What is it?” approach to songwriting and arranging is something the classically trained Holter has gleaned in part from artists such as British singer-composer Robert Wyatt.
“What I like about him,” she says, “is, it’s not definable music. It’s more about what’s coming through with the music, like the sentiment expressed, and then how the music works with that. You’re just doing what your imagination wants to do.”
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Like Wyatt’s, Holter’s harmonically and texturally dense music offers an unusual combination of modernity and sweetness that can also be emotionally direct –– though one might not be so sure how exactly to characterize the feelings inspired. Holter says the key to achieving such an unsuperficial, meaningful sound is to keep your head empty while generating it.
“I don’t think very much when I make a song,” she says with a laugh. “That’s always how I approach it. I just feel something.”