Julia Holter

In Tune

Jan 08, 2016 Issue #55 - November/December 2015 - EL VY Photography by Koury Angelo Bookmark and Share


Julia Holter hasn't owned a piano in her adult life, something that might come as a surprise given how prominently the instrument is featured on her third full-length release, Have You in My Wilderness. That's all changing today, as the Los Angeles singer/songwriter has located a slightly decrepit one at the hardware store near her apartment, on sale for the princely sum of $160. "We'll play it a lot! We're musicians," she says to the store owner as she and a friend examine the instrument and its missing wheel. "I guess the guy was going to give it to his granddaughter," she says, slightly embarrassed. "But I'm excited to have it. It's cheap but exciting."

Though Holter has won much of her acclaim with her forward-thinking experimentation, the genesis of Have You in My Wilderness can be traced back to a trio of compositions that date to 2010, back when she was an unknown songwriter gigging around Los Angeles in preparation of releasing her first album. Those piano-based songs"Sea Calls Me Home," "Betsy on the Roof," and the title trackhave remained in Holter's live set over the years, but she rarely revisited such straightforward material on her albums. Still, the songs had a quality that kept her coming back to them.

"I just always was playing them live, and I liked how I'd get all emotional," she says, occasionally pausing to help move the piano. "I felt like there was something in them. I liked how they involve a lot of desperation. And 'Sea Calls Me Home' was a joyful song, and I don't have a lot of joyful songs, so they are nice to play. They're songs that I can play on the piano and sing, and not all of my songs work that way."

The ways these songs work is slightly different than those on Holter's previous albums. "Sea Calls Me Home" is, indeed, a joyful song, more reflective than ecstatic, with clear-eyed choruses soaring over glistening harmonies, marching drums, and a soulful sax solo. "Betsy on the Roof" is perhaps the album's most haunted ballad, built out of simple chord changes and a brokenhearted vocal that snakes around string crescendos and layers of echoing backing vocals. The title track has undergone the greatest reinvention from its solo piano roots, with layers of wispy strings and synth atmospherics floating around a barely-tethered vocal hook. But getting suitable recordings of those songs was difficult for the very reason she was drawn to revisiting them in the first place: the songs simply meant so much to her that she was never satisfied with them.

In fact, "hate" is the word Holter uses to describe the majority of her fledgling attempts to capture those songs, revealing that she attempted to record the tracks with producer Cole Grief-Neill over the course of a year and a half, with session after session failing to produce the right performance. She knew she wanted the production to be more straightforward, but she also wanted the vocal performances to be more raw, and the balance between the two proved elusive.

Luckily, the rest of the album came much easier, if only because she had no such expectations for it. Surrounding those original three songs are eight others that are more or less in the same vein, from the tumbling jazz-pop of "Silhouette" to the darkly creeping vignette of "Night Song" and the playfully bounding piano lines of "Everytime Boots." And where Holter's previous albums could be so compositionally adventurous as to feel a little emotionally distant, the confusion and longing expressed in these tracks makes the entire album resonate on a more personal frequency.

"The way I think about this record is that it's still storytelling," Holter explains. "It's not more personal exactly, but it's more intimate. I think of my last record as like you're on a stage singing to a bunch of people, and this record is more like you're in a room singing to one person. That's the comparison that I make. Is it more about me as a person? I don't know. It's more that the storytelling itself is being dealt with in a more intimate way, production-wise."

For the first time, Holter's vocals are high in the mix, allowing her pleasingly expressive performances to come through with more nuance and personality. The arrangements, too, while featuring as much detail as those on her previous albums, are more focused and direct, allowing melodies to evolve and repeat where they previously would have been buried in layers of sonic information. Though these songs won't be mistaken for Top 40 pop tracks any time soon, Holter has an undeniable ear for an ethereal hook. Now that she has a piano in her apartment, perhaps she's about to enter the pop balladeer phase of her songwriting career. But even as she adopts the conventional tools of the trade, she seems unlikely to use them in conventional ways.

"It's not in tune," she says of the piano. "But I don't care too much about that."

[Note: This article first appeared in Under the Radar's November/December Issue, which is still on newsstands. This is its debut online.]

www.juliashammasholter.com

 

 



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