[Editor's note: Weekly scribe Jeff Weiss's column, “Bizarre Ride,” appears on West Coast Sound every Wednesday. His archives are available here.]
Echo Park isn't particularly ripe for transcendence. Subtract the recently reopened lake and the rolling acres of Elysian Park, and it's an asphalt jumble of bangs, beards and bars. You expect to find $5 coffees, $7 beers and $10 juices. You don't expect to find Julia Holter.
This is the incongruous address of the 28-year-old composer. Google her and you'll discover warranted raves from every publication that has ever attempted to define “avant garde” or “DIY.” Her music alchemizes baroque chamber pop and ethereal folk, found sounds, classical motifs and glam synths. It mines inspiration from ancient Greek tragedians, disorienting French New Wave experiments and Gigi, your grandmother's favorite coming-of-age musical set in Belle Epoque Paris.
“It's so embarrassing,” Holter says, mildly sighing, after I tell her that my grandma proselytizes Gigi like Jesus. Her eyes are sea gray and slightly distant. This is clearly not the first time she has heard this. “I don't want people to think that they have to be familiar with the references to fully appreciate the music. People have always borrowed stories and repurposed them into something completely different.”
Stripped of context, this month's Loud City Song isn't especially Gallic. The closest node of comparison is Joni Mitchell unspooled from time and marooned in a medieval forest. Yet the wellspring of inspiration for Holter's superb third album was Gigi, the 1958 Best Picture winner.
The Hancock Park-raised CalArts alumna honed in on one scene, in particular: where Gigi mesmerizes the indelibly chic crowd at Maxim's, a French bistro once frequented by Marcel Proust, Greta Garbo and Brigitte Bardot.
“I wrote a song about it, which led to bigger questions. Why I am doing this? Why does this register with me?” Holter speaks slowly and thoughtfully, as though recollecting a striking but faded dream. She takes a sip of green tea. A clip holds up her long, brown hair. Two tiny studs glint in her earlobes. She's barefoot.
“It's not like whenever I walk into a restaurant, everyone stops and gossips. It was interesting as a theatrical situation,” she adds.
This idea of intense scrutiny fascinated her. Since Echo Park lacks its own Maxim's (yet), Holter's lens is trained upon Hollywood, the media and the endless grist of celebrity babies and tabloid trysts.
“It's not that cities are actually getting louder. This isn't the industrial revolution,” Holter says. “But the media is louder. Commercial music, some of which I like, is louder.”
Her studio apartment is cramped and silent as a monk's cell. There's a clutter of cassette tapes, keyboards, a computer and books (Joan Didion, Wallace Stevens, Anne Carson). It's the antithesis of the Arcadian spaces her music summons. Even when she's writing about the deafening city, her voice seemingly hovers from some seraphic repose.
While many of her peers pick different decades to deconstruct and rebuild, Holter's music feels piped in from a pagan dimension. It's rooted and removed from the intensity of contemporary volume. Yet she never self-consciously plays into its affectations. There are no campy album covers of her as Orphic priestess, no mythopoeia about retreating to a log-cabin winter wonderland to paint her masterpiece.
We talk briefly about her life in Echo Park. Holter enjoys it here. It's quiet, and she feels invisible. Or, as she says on a song from her new album, “The city can't see my eyes under the brim.” L.A. offers the familiarity that belongs to a native and the isolation of being in a permanent bubble. Holter makes it work because she understands how and when to dim the noise.
Full disclosure: My sister works for Holter's PR company, though she was not involved with this story.