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.
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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.