A 2000-year old Greek play, Frank O’Hara’s “Having a Coke with You”, an essay on decreation, Alain Resnais’ “L’Année dernière à Marienbad”, a soliloquy penned by Virginia Wolf : These are elements that songwriter Julia Holter weaves into the tapestry of this year’s Ekstasis. It’s a lyrical bricolage of sorts, Holter plucking passages and lines from across millennia and placing them among her own, recontextualizing them for her own purposes, reanimating them. And you need to know none of this to enjoy her masterful second record.
There’s plenty to unpack in the heady lyric sheets of the CalArts Music program grad, but deconstructive exercises are nonrequired: Taken as a collection of baroque pop songs, Ekstasis is utterly bewitching. Its swirling atmosphere – dense but uncluttered – pulls you into its undertow. Instrumentation old (harpsichord, viola) and new (synths, drum machines) dance together, oblivious to its anachronisms. Then there’s Holter’s voice, ethereally floating throughout, multitracked repeatedly over itself. It all adds up to one of the best releases 2012 has to offer.
Ekstatsis and its sister record Tragedy – released in late 2011 – were recorded over three years at Holter’s Los Angeles home. Holter composed, produced, and engineered the albums herself, and save a few outsourced strings and woodwinds, they were performed entirely by her as well. While these songs may draw inspiration from other works, the end product is very much a singular vision. So when Holter tells us that she’s “always a bit overwhelmed,” it’s hard not to take it with a grain of salt: She doesn’t seem like the kind of person lacking for confidence or ill at ease with complete creative control.
Holter has spent the summer taking her music to a larger audience, first touring Europe, then returning to the States for a string of West Coast dates opening for Sigur Rós, another act that knows a thing or two about summoning ambience. Tonight at the Bowery Ballroom, Holter kicks off a headlining tour that will carry her through September. This jaunt takes Holter to DC’s Black Cat on Sunday, Baltimore’s Golden West Cafe on Monday, and Charlottesville’s Twisted Branch Tea Bazaar the following night. In anticipation, we checked in with Holter, who was kind enough to give us some insight on her creative process, the pitfalls of “accessibility,” and what lies ahead.
[Ed. Note: We’ve got tickets to Holter’s Sunday, September 2 show at Black Cat and we would love for you to have them. Giveaway details post interview…]
You’ve had an awfully big 12 months. Can you describe what kind of trip it’s been?
Well, up until I went on our tour to Europe in late May, everything was totally the same as it had been before more people had heard my music. I’ve been making music for years in relative obscurity, but even when people start to hear your music, things don’t change that fast for musicians these days, unless you’re looking at online things like Youtube views or reviews or Facebook fan numbers haha. But the tour was definitely a new thing for me. I quite liked it because I love performing. But I also really miss writing, and I have been writing as much as I can.
What has surprised you most over the last year?
In general, maybe the continuing popularity of reality TV. I never even liked the first “Real World” when I was 9. Once the music videos were over, I would switch to VH-1. Why is it so interesting to everyone?
Have you felt overwhelmed at times?
I am always a bit overwhelmed.
The songs that ended up Tragedy were recorded at the same time as those on Ekstasis. Why did you decide to release Tragedy – the more experimental and perhaps more “difficult” album – first?
Well, first of all I don’t make strategic plans based on what is more or less seemingly accessible, because that idea is a really difficult one. Second of all, it wasn’t really my choice when the records would be released. I mean I just wanted them out as soon as they could be, so this was when the two labels – Leaving Records and RVNG, respectively – could release the records, so that was that.
Ekstasis seemed to connect in a much more immediate way with critics and audiences. Is there any part of you that gets protective over Tragedy? Critics have described Ekstasis as more accessible – is that something that you hear?
I mean, I don’t know how many people heard Tragedy, so it’s hard for anyone to say how much people preferred Ekstasis. Honestly, accessibility is a really difficult thing to discuss with an artist, because I don’t think the appeal of a work of art has as much to do with it being predictable as we think. I think a lot of people might like things they haven’t heard before, a lot more than we think. But it has to be made available to them. That’s the problem. Think about the kind of music that is made most available to the people these days? Like the most popular stuff. I won’t name it but I mean the most most popular stuff, like the Bieber realm I guess. I mean, I don’t have a problem with Justin Bieber, but is that the music everyone is wanting? In a time where there are little to no record sales, we have to ask ourselves if it’s really that the people’s ears are demanding this stuff or is it just a horrible conspiracy throwing stuff at us. So who the hell even knows what is accessible anymore?
Recording alone seems like something that might be a bit of a double edged sword. On one hand, you have complete creative control. On the other, you have complete creative control – I can see the desire to keep tinkering, to keep adding layers or conversely editing them away, as potentially debilitating. How would you describe the experience of recording Tragedy and Ekstasis?
It was really hard and, yeah, a lot of wasted time with my critical inner dialogue, focusing in on something really small to perfect it. But, ultimately, I was so happy with it. and I can’t imagine that even when I work with others that I won’t be equally neurotic. It’ll just be more efficient a process.
The fact that you’re based in L.A. is something that’s often cited in reviews and profiles. Do you think there are any elements of your geographic location that seep into your music?
Nothing about the music itself, but the fact that I feel so good and free when making music I think has to do with LA. It’s such an open place. There is a lot space and I feel I have the space to do what I want.
Of all the instruments that weave in and out of your music, the vocoder is the one that first jumps out as an unusual, inspired choice. When did you first come across one?
Really? A lot of people use vocoders though! Haha. It never seemed unusual to me but …I dunno. I don’t use it much cause the one on the microKORG isn’t fantastic. I’ve never seen a real vocoder, but my roommate Geneva Jacuzzi had a microKORG and that’s the first microKORG I ever played with. And it comes with a vocoder. When I was playing with her in our friend Jason Grier’s band Super Creep, she would use it for the cover of the song “No GDM” by Gina X. Geneva also taught me how to use the microKORG. She gave me like a 2 hour “tutorial” one night. It was amazing. I am very thankful.
How do you think the manipulation of your vocals changes or adds to the character of your songs?
Well, I don’t think it matters whether it’s a vocoder or just the shape of your mouth that is altering your voice, but, yeah, in general, the voice is so important to me. There is something I don’t think about, I only feel out – the way that my mouth should move to properly “mold” the song. the form of the song is frequently coming from the voice. The voice leads it, at least in my songs I think a lot of times. And even if I’m not singing, the voice may be implied – not musically necessarily, but just an abstraction of the voice.
Earlier this year, you mentioned that you already begun thinking about a third album, tentatively calling it Gigi. As the year has progressed, have you thought about what you’d like to do with that album?
I’ve been writing. It won’t be called Gigi 😉
How did you end up Rvng Intl.?
Matt from RVNG was in touch with Ramona Gonzalez of Nite Jewel, and she sent him a mixtape with “Goddess Eyes” on it. He was into it so he got in touch with me to do something with that song, like a 7″, and at the time it was written for Tragedy, but I decided to build a whole other album aside from Tragedy with that song as a starting-point. So that is why “Goddess Eyes” is on both records. People always ask that.
What are you most looking forward to during the homestretch of 2012?
Writing and recording.
Want a chance to hear those swoon-worthy vocals yourself this Sunday? We’ve got tickets to Holter’s September 2nd show at Black Cat. To win, just tell us which poem you’d love to see worked into her next album.