Interview by Nite Jewel
Images by Adarsha Benjamin
“I’ve always been an outsider in everything.
Actually, I think that’s what has made me the way I am—
—Julia Holterthat I never feel I’m part of anything.” — Julia Holter
A Los Angeles-based experimental musician and composer, Julia Holter is a graduate of both CalArts’ and University of Michigan’s music composition programs. Her debut album, Tragedy, was named by NPR one of the “Best Outer Sound Albums of 2011.” In 2012 she followed up with Ekstasis, then Loud City Song in 2013. Holter also contributes work to many compilation albums and is now releasing her latest, Have You in My Wilderness.
Ramona Gonzalez, known by the stage name Nite Jewel, is an LA-based singer-songwriter and multimedia artist. She gained a following after her song “Suburbia,” originally posted on MySpace, featured in the score of Noah Baumbach’s 2010 film Greenberg. Nite Jewel has released two albums: Good Evening (2009) and One Second of Love (2012).
Born in Buffalo, NY, Michael Pisaro is an experimental composer and guitarist, and member of the Wandelweiser Composers Ensemble. Formerly a professor of music composition and theory at Northwestern University, Pisaro is now a member of the composition faculty at CalArts.
Stage name of Ariel Marcus Rosenberg, Ariel Pink is an LA-based musician and producer known for his early foray into a DIY, lo-fi sound and close association with Animal Collective, whose record label put out his first albums. Beginning as a solo act in the late ’90s, Pink added a band in 2009 and performed under Ariel Pink’s Haunted Graffiti until his latest release, pom pom (2014).
Have You in My Wilderness is musician Julia Holter’s pronounced conversion from her academic roots to a more pop-accessible venture. Holter’s classical training began in the music rooms of University of Michigan, providing a base for her early albums with themes grounded in tradition. Tragedy and Ekstasis drew from Greek theater, while Loud City Song sprang from the 1958 musical Gigi. For a young artist who has seamlessly melded a classical understanding with avant-garde finesse, Have You in My Wilderness is a not-so-surprising accomplishment, one that leaves behind literary reference for a more personal narrative.
Having also studied experimental music under professor and guitarist Michael Pisaro at CalArts, Holter’s forms traverse from one end of the musical spectrum to another with grace. She has been featured in the work of fellow musician and friend Ariel Pink and formed Nite Jewelia, a collaboration with musician Nite Jewel. Holter sat down with Nite Jewel to discuss the background for Have You in My Wilderness and seeking a musical identity.
Nite Jewel: Many people think of you as an LA artist. How does being from both Wisconsin and LA define you?
Julia Holter: I was born in Milwaukee and lived there for six years. Mostly I’ve lived in LA, but I lived in Ann Arbor (Michigan) for four years during college. It’s hard to describe or generalize Midwestern-ness. There is a distinct work ethic in the Midwest… When I came back to LA for the summer, I would just be wearing sweatpants. Even though I never hang out with people who are overtly Hollywood glamourous, there’s a tendency to want to look a certain way in cities like New York or Los Angeles. I was never conscious of that because I always saw myself as my own person. My mom doesn’t wear makeup. I think that’s kind of a Midwestern thing.
NJ: You’re very hardworking. And it’s true, you’re not as attached to this concept of glamour as some of my friends from LA. It’s part of them in a way that it’s not a part of you—although it fascinates you.
You studied composition in Michigan and then in LA. How did studying in both places inform you as an artist?
JH: A typical music student at [University of] Michigan has a very professional and practical outlook. There was a clear path: get a PhD and become a professor. It was very academic. It wasn’t like CalArts with all these people playing different kinds of music, a lot of them with no clear path. It’s risky to go to school not knowing what you’re doing. In a place like CalArts, there’s a lot more risk-taking involved for this expensive, fancy art school situation. Whereas Michigan was much more like, “And then I’ll become a professor!”
“I’ve learned so much
from making really bad music.”
— Julia Holter
But I would say that [Michigan] had a lot of professors who were out to lunch. They thought they were superstars in their field and great orchestrators. They worked one-on-one with the students, so I would have private lessons with them, but you always felt like they were not tuned into what their students wanted to do. They’re just like, “Let’s listen to this Shostakovich symphony and talk about these themes. Isn’t that interesting?” The expectation was for you to be Shostakovich and write in this traditional concept of what is music and develop classical themes. It’s a very simplistic, narrow-minded way of looking at what art is. There’s not the soul you might expect.
NJ: CalArts was the opposite?
JH: It depends on the teacher. I had a teacher who was European and cool, but his opinion of what I was doing was similar—“Well, you should be doing this”—which is wrong to tell creative students. “You should be doing this”? It’s so weird.
NJ: A lot of your music has to do with risk-taking, as well as forms of tradition. Do you think about that paradoxical relationship? Are you more intentional, like, “This is a tragedy, and it’s going to sound like this”? Or are you just drawing from the influences you know?
JH: It depends on the record I guess. It comes more easily to do a [record like] Tragedy or Loud City Song when I have the idea of what it will be like. Tragedy came in the form of some visual art I was making that reflected what the music would be like. That’s why the most recent record was the hardest one—that and Ekstasis—because I didn’t picture what was going to happen. I felt like I was banging my head against the wall trying to figure out what I wanted.
NJ: Because it’s non-conceptual?
JH: Because even sonically I wasn’t sure what I wanted. We were taking these songs that were older, so what’s the point of changing them if they’re already so nice? It was so hard to decide which path to take. I was constantly re-doing it.
NJ: The process of you making that record kind of reminds me of how records are typically made. It even sounds a little more traditional; the forms followed more of a jazz structure. When I think of you making [earlier] records, I think of you as a music scholar. But with this record, it’s just not the case. Not to say which is better. I like Julia the scholar and I like Julia who’s making regular whatever.
JH: I don’t think of myself as scholarly at all. But I understand it’s not normal; Tragedy was an operatic idea, and I don’t really listen to opera. I was coming from a classical side of things even though I’ve never been at home in it. Actually, I think that’s what has made me the way I am—that I never feel I’m part of anything—which I don’t really like. I tried so hard in college to be a part of where I was, and I just wasn’t good at it.
NJ: If you have such a unique voice and try to do something generic, you’re going to fail.
JH: If you don’t know your voice yet, it’s confusing. I was trying so hard, and once this girl who played my music was like, “Are you on crack?”
NJ: What made her say that?
JH: Well the piece was really, really fucked. It was schizophrenic and hard for no reason, which is the worst kind of music. I’ve learned so much from making really bad music.
NJ: So you were making these complex structures in music, then went to [Michael] Pisaro [at CalArts] and played one note for three hours. What was the process emotionally for you in that transition?
JH: The first time I met Michael, while I was in college [at Michigan], I thought he was a snob and scary. He had just performed this hour-long piece where he would ascend by a fourth and play one note every few minutes. I had a migraine. It was so strange and I felt intimidated by the people there, but the music moved me.
[My friend] James invited me another time—within that week—to CalArts to play on harmonium. That was interesting because Michael had me and two other people going through the piece in his office. I was so scared to play his music because at Michigan it was a hierarchy. You didn’t have, “Hang out in my office and call me Michael.” And that’s how CalArts is. Everyone’s so casual and cool. I learned that this music is much more about focus and deep discussion, not virtuosity or talent. It can be conceptual and intellectual, but it’s not snobby or showy. To me that’s obviously not what art is about. It was welcoming, open-minded and interesting. A total breath of fresh air.
“It is actually very operatic—
creating a character and all of these voices
in a song—and I think it comes from
one person doing everything by themselves.”
— Julia Holter
NJ: What was your reaction to the music when you played it?
JH: It was fun. You’re allowed to drift in and out of consciousness and reflect on the music. It can be hard, but it’s more about choices you make in the moment. Unless you’re easily bored by something simple, it’s so interesting because these choices you make shift every little thing that’s going on in the room.
Stage name of Geneva Garvin, an LA-based musician and visual artist known for her bedroom synth-pop recordings, theatrical stage personas and video art. She performed with various bands including Bubonic Plague before releasing her first solo album, Lamaze, in 2010. Her latest art piece, Dark Ages, is an epic and ongoing video project.
NJ: When you were at Michigan, you worked at the radio station and played Ariel Pink’s music. The funny thing about Ariel’s music is it’s very complex, but the complexity in his music is really welcoming and inclusive. Then you lived with Ariel and Geneva [Jacuzzi] for awhile. What impact did living with them and seeing their process have on you?
JH: The minute I heard Ariel’s music, it resonated with me. I was homesick when I was in Michigan, and it reminded me of LA. I know the same thing happened with you, which is funny. That whole period started with me knowing Ariel’s music, then loving Geneva’s music and your music. I think of them as very similar with that multiple personality disorder of creating characters in every song. It is actually very operatic—creating a character and all of these voices in a song—and I think it comes from one person doing everything by themselves. It’s the way I’ve continued to write.
NJ: It’s true. A lot of the people who recorded in this way at the time made up characters. Someone like John Maus maybe had two maximum in his music, still those characters were very distinct when the different voices would come in. That was liberating, that it doesn’t just have to be one voice.
JH: You’re not taking on just one personality
NJ: I would say there are about four personalities on your new album.
JH: I think that’s the right number, but it’s hard to tell which songs are personalities and which are me. People always ask, “Why do you write songs that aren’t about your life? You never write songs about your life.” Obviously when I write things, even though I’m not saying it’s about me, or I call a character a different name, it reflects my emotions. I’m not only going to write about the boyfriend who I broke up with, like Taylor Swift. “This is about my boyfriend!” I don’t think listeners want that. People want to listen to something and apply it to their life.
NJ: It’s a good idea to make a fantasy that anybody could insert their image into. It’s inclusive.