Exploring Julia Holter’s ‘Wilderness’

Julia Holter - Credit Juri Hiensch

Julia Holter readily admits she isn’t a huge fan of touring. Perhaps she’s only saying that because the L.A. singer/songwriter is currently enjoying the waning days of a 6-week break between extensive runs. Or maybe it’s the fact that she hasn’t yet figured out how to get any work done on the road. Either way, it isn’t going to matter for a while.

The 31-year-old released her fourth full-length, Have You In My Wilderness, in September. She spent October opening dates for New Mexico indie-poppers Beirut, and the rest of last year zigzagging the globe from Germany to China and Korea to Australia.

Holter is kicking off her first full-fledged U.S. run for Wilderness this week with a 6-date West Coast tour starting in San Diego. Then it’s off to Europe for a few more shows, and back once again for some East Coast and Midwest dates, as well as a few in Canada.

Although it won’t be until mid-March before the classically trained multi-instrumentalist will be back in her own ZIP code for more than a few days, she does recognize the upside that comes with performing every night.

“Things surprisingly change,” Holter tells CityBeat from her Los Angeles home. “Songs from the albums end up sounding a lot different when they’re played live. And that’s always something that I’ve been comfortable with. We have different instrumentation when we play and there aren’t a million layers of vocals and keyboards. You do something different with what you have and I like that.”

Born from a trio of songs that once exclusively lived in her live set – “Sea Calls Me Home,” “Betsy on the Roof,” and the album’s title track – Have You In My Wilderness sets itself part as Holter’s only record that doesn’t construct an overarching theme from literary sources.

Her 2011 debut, Tragedy, was inspired by the ancient Greek play Hippolytus, and 2012’s follow-up, Ekstasis, leans on references from Virginia Woolf, Frank O’Hara, and Canadian poet Anne Carson. It was Colette’s Gigi that helped to color Loud City Song in 2013.

Breaking from that tradition, Holter has described Wilderness simply as a “collection of ballads.” And while producer Cole Marsden Greif-Neill made sure the singer’s voice was far more prominent in the mix this time around, the new album still rests comfortably where pop and experimental music intersect.

Does that mean Holter is done with literary references or operating under a thematic umbrella? Not necessarily.

“I like to work with overall stories,” she says. “There’s something very exciting to me about having recurring characters, even if it’s an abstraction of that character that’s not always fitting. I’m sure I’ll do something like that again. But we’ll just have to wait and see.”

Even if she does return to an academic text or outside source for inspiration in the future, the singer is skeptical of anyone with the idea that her music is any more fraught with ideas than other things out there.

“I don’t think my music is high-concept at all,” says Holter. “And I don’t think I’m pushing the boundaries in terms of conceptual music. Some people might say it, but that just has to be semantics or something. There’s far more conceptual music that exists these days. And I’m not really strategizing my music in any way.”

She’s also not about to switch things up by incorporating direct life experiences into the narratives of her songs. First and foremost, Holter sees herself as a storyteller.

“Nobody really wants to know about my weird relationships,” she says. “I mean, don’t people want to listen to a song and apply it to their own lives anyway? Then it has a universal quality and is much more engaging than a song that’s about this very specific, weird person’s life. Nobody needs to know that. It’s kind of boring.”

Fans would likely enjoy debating that, but it doesn’t really matter. Even if Holter fancied the idea of completely re-designing her creative approach, she doesn’t have the time.

In addition to her current tour schedule, Holter was just tapped to compose the musical score for “Bleed For This,” an upcoming Ben Younger directed/Martin Scorsese produced boxing film. She also recently joined her father – historian, author, CEO of Downtown L.A. Motor group, and folk singer Darryl Holter – on his 2015 release, “Radio Songs: Woody Guthrie in Los Angeles 1937-1939.”

Performing alongside Ani DiFranco and Sara Watkins as the album’s guest performers, it was a surprising first for the father/daughter duo.

“It wasn’t exactly a familiar experience,” says the younger Holter. “I’ve definitely listened to him play for years. But that’s very different than playing with one another. And it was the first time that we worked on something like that together. It was fun and very moving.”

She’s excited to repeat the process again on his next album, but has plenty of her own work to do in the interim.

After the breakneck pace of four albums in five years, as well as her first foray into the world of film scoring, Holter is content with just concentrating on her upcoming tour dates before making a commitment on the next creative project.

“I’m actually trying to figure that out,” she says. “But there’s not a clear process for it. For now, I’m just trying to make sense of the ideas I already have.”

Originally published in San Diego CityBeat

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