This article originally ran in The Herald Newspaper (Scotland) in November 2015.
We always speak after the leaves have fallen.
The first time was in 2012, while she was doing her thanksgiving shopping. As she traipsed LA’s supermarket aisles, Californian art-pop diviner Julia Holter ruminated on her second album, Ekstasis (whose avant-lullabies variously touched upon philosophy, classicism and French New Wave cinema) and its predecessor, Tragedy (a conceptual electronic suite that reanimated Euripides’ ancient Greek tragedy, Hippolytus). And all this amid chatter of topiary gardens, Decreation by Anne Carson (the poet tutored Holter at the University of Michigan), and that time she interpreted John Cage’s Circus On piece via the conduit of a 1920s cookbook.
The next time we spoke, in Autumn 2013, Holter was orbiting a foreign urban landscape (Copenhagen), recalling the inspiration behind her third album, Loud City Song – an impressionistic re-imagining of Gigi, the 1958 musical rom-com. Her chronicles of the record’s creation were as otherworldly as the album itself, from her supernatural experience on the video shoot for Horns Surrounding Me (which shared a locale with the Silencio scene from David Lynch’s Mulholland Drive) – “I almost fainted off the balcony”, she recalled – to the artwork’s dim-lit, urban ghost town.
And here we are, talking again as the year turns, against a backdrop of fog and frost and burnished leaves and nights drawn in, which feels a fitting place to be, in light of her exceptional new album. Have You In My Wilderness is a baroque pop masterpiece that variously invokes Scott Walker, Dusty Springfield, The Ronettes, and sometime collaborator Linda Perhacs, and exists in a realm beset (and comforted) by clouds and glowering heavens. “It’s impossible to see who I’m waiting for in my raincoat,” she sings on opening harpsichord serenade, Feel You. And then: “You know I love to run away from the sun.” The seasons follow suit.
While Tragedy and Loud City Song had over-arching narratives that largely drew from single existing works, Have You In My Wilderness bears more of a kinship to Ekstasis, in that it’s a collection of songs with varying self-contained stories, and scenes, and characters, therein. Did Holter always have designs on this album being less overtly conceptual? “Yeah, I wanted to make a record like this, that was just a bunch of songs – more like a normal record, I guess,” she quietly laughs. It is anything but that.
At the heart of the album is the swooning choral title track, which explores the wild, possessive throes of love. It was one of the earliest songs written for the record, and came to inform what followed. “Yeah, I wrote that song a long time ago – five years or so ago, maybe four – and the idea behind it felt like it sort of shaped the record,” Holter says. “It’s that idea of [writing] ballads or songs about love that are possessive, that idea of ownership – so Have You In My Wilderness is about this character who’s like, ‘I want to conquer you! I want to take you into my world!’. I mean, I know there are a lot of songs like that, but I wanted to make one also.”
There may be other songs like that, but few of them play out like Gregorian chamber-pop psalms that conjure Smokey Robinson and the Miracles – or, perhaps more likely, David Sylvian and Japan. (“Oh yea, I second that emotion”). Its notion of monomaniacal ardour resonates throughout the album’s fables and protagonists, from the skiffle-blues chanson of Everytime Boots (“Should I be a prouder conqueror?”) to Night Song’s sense of romantic entrapment (“I run from you / Then walk back to you”) and Silhouette’s apparent surrender – or at least, compromise – of self (“I cede all my light and play abandoned fool”).
Two songs preceded Have You In My Wilderness. Sublime pop madrigal Sea Calls Me Home (“Wear the fog, I’ll forget the rules I’ve known”), and swooning piano ballad Betsy on the Roof (“What of this cloud?”) – which Holter describes as being “more of a stream-of-consciousness thing” – both first featured on a live cassette in 2010. Have their album re-workings changed much in terms of style, or arrangement, or even meaning, in their new context? “The songs themselves didn’t change that much form-wise, and the lyrics are the same, so they’re actually quite similar,” she offers. “It’s really just that there’s a band playing, so the musical arrangement is different.
“Those older songs I wrote weren’t necessarily based on stories so much,” she continues. “But I wanted to put them on a record with a bunch of other ballad-type songs that were kind of in that world, [although] the more recent songs are more based on stories.”
And so, among other tales from the more recent offerings, we encounter a mythical Californian outlaw on percussive jazz mantra, Vasquez. “He was a 19th Century bandit – I don’t remember the full story, but [Tiburcio Vásquez] was a wanted man, the cops were after him, the law was after him, they were all chasing him,” she explains. (More obsessive human pursuit; more running.) He hid in rocks that now bear his name. “The rocks are in a state park now, that’s named after Vasquez the bandit,” she says. “That just seemed like an interesting story to play with.”
Lucette Stranded On The Island, meanwhile, is a clattering orchestral hymn inspired by Chance Acquaintances, a story by Parisian novelist Colette, who won the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1948. She also wrote the novella, Gigi, which in turn, of course, inspired Loud City Song. There are such echoes and cycles throughout Holter’s work – a warm and sprawling wilderness in itself.
Her new album is being called her most personal to date, but that’s a relative assertion. Granted, Holter’s vocals and lyrics are more upfront this time around – “I wanted people to be able to hear them, because sometimes people make assumptions about my music that are wrong,” she says – and this gives the impression of it being more direct. But that may well just be a trick of the light.
Holter’s picturesque song-craft and arrangements are meticulous, but her idiom remains abstract: concerned with fluid boundaries; with moons and tides and seas and shores; with experience lived through the seasons and elements. “The sun comes up / Slower than I remember,” she sings on Lucette… as autumn turns to winter. No matter. Her realm of half-remembered yarns and Californian fever dreams is a wonderful place to lose oneself, while the leaves are brown, and the sky is grey.
Julia Holter interview, The List, 2013
Julia Holter interview, The Herald, 2012
Julia Holter Tragedy album review, The List, 2012
Julia Holter Loud City Song album review, The List, 2013