All the Poets (Musicians on Writing): Julia Holter




YOU NEVER KNOW quite what you are going to get from Julia Holter. A CalArts-trained experimental composer who is also grounded in electronica, she typically makes original, emotionally complex, ethereal music with a wide range of textures. But she can also take a pop song like Burt Bacharach’s “Don’t Make Me Over” and turn it into something lovely and elusive.

Born in Milwaukee and raised in Los Angeles, Holter was educated at the University of Michigan’s conservatory before returning home for graduate school. Her latest album is Aviary. She performs at the Teragram Ballroom on August 1. Still groggy from an extensive tour of Europe that saw her performing everywhere from concert halls to churches to clubs, she spoke with me about her literary interests at a café in Echo Park.

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SCOTT TIMBERG: I’m going to ask the big picture question first: Does your reading shape the music that you write and perform? Does it have anything in common? There are serious readers who are also musicians, and they see them as being purely separate endeavors. What’s the situation for you?

JULIA HOLTER: I don’t know. What happens for me is that when I’m writing music, whatever I’m reading can get kind of stuck in the music, so it finds its way in there a lot of times. I don’t know what more to say beyond that. [Laughs.]

It sounds like you don’t always intend it to, but it sometimes sneaks in. You don’t start out saying: I’m going to write a record about this novelist that I like. But, sometimes, it shows up there.

Yeah, in some cases I do. I did a record, Tragedy, in 2011. I kind of had started writing the music for that already, but what I was writing somehow was resonating with what I was reading, so I decided to very loosely base the music on that. In some ways, that happened with my record Loud City Song, but in a much more abstract way, and maybe that was more about the movie version than the book version, but the book version was still in there.

Since you’re mentioning that, let’s start there. So at least some of that record was your first — I don’t know if Domino is exactly a major label, but it was the first big indie label release. That was, in some ways at least, inspired by Colette, by both her books and the movie based on her work, right? Give us a sense of how that fed into that record and the songs on it.

So, in that example, the thing that I was interested in … I watched the movie when I was a kid a lot because my grandma had the VHS. The movie is Gigi. And, for some reason, I thought to have that be kind of like a visual inspiration — the story worked somehow, and I was interested in this young girl, who is trying to deal with society’s expectation of her, and she’s trying to deal with her family’s expectation of her, and she’s being resistant to all of that in some ways. I guess that was interesting to me. And, also, the setting was interesting to me: the city and the gossip aspects of it. I don’t know, but I twisted that to be relevant with the city and society, with the internet, and with our ideas of things like fame. There are scenes from the movie, and also the book, where she is walking into the socialite bar that everyone goes to, and she’s being judged. So I was somehow loosely relating it, not to my life, which is not like that, but to, I don’t know, society and how we are now with worshipping celebrities. There were these different things that I was finding connections to, but I wasn’t trying to hammer people over the head with these ideas. I liked the character of this young, youthful girl and her perspective.

I think there is specifically a song on there, or two songs, actually, that are named after the bar that she goes into, right?

Maxim’s.

Right. But I think, as the title of the record suggests, that the noise of the city, in that case it’s Paris, but in the record, I think it’s Los Angeles … But the noise of the city is part of what you’re getting at, right? Was it that cities are noisy, crowded, alienating? What was it?

Yeah, it was everything. It’s not even specifically a theme in the story, but I interpreted it that way when she is going into the bar and everyone is whispering about her and singing. I interpreted that as the noise of the judgment, and the noise of society and the city.

So, let’s go back. Were you a serious reader as a kid, or as a teenager? 

I don’t know. I kind of don’t remember. I read, but I don’t know if I was a serious reader or not. I read a lot when I was younger, but then I got the internet when I was 10 or 11, and I don’t feel like I know if I read as much after that. [Laughs.]

That’s the way it always works, yeah. What about school — what did you study in college?

I studied music and composition — and English.

Did you have types of books that you responded to, histories of music, novels, poetry, or anything like that when you were an undergrad?

I really liked Virginia Woolf, and Frank O’Hara was helpful for me when I was struggling in music school and decided to get an English degree. I think it helped me because it was an escape from the seemingly regimented rules of music school. It was so much about being great and making a great piece; it’s very traditional, music school, in a way.

You’re talking about Michigan here, or CalArts?

Yeah, Michigan. And I think that words helped me a lot. [Laughs.] Because they somehow felt … I’m sure that someone doing creative writing, or something like that, would have felt the same way that I felt in some way — studying creative stuff in school is hard. So, yeah, I really liked people like Frank O’Hara; he was helpful for me.

What was it about O’Hara that spoke to you?

That’s also someone that I think got into Loud City Song a little bit. His observations of the city, and his colloquial approach to writing is really … it’s kind of melodic, or something. I don’t know if that’s a weird way to put it. It’s kind of intimate, and sensual, and it feels free, and it feels like he was just freely writing, or something.

Well, it’s super spontaneous. It makes sense that a musician would be inspired by O’Hara because he was so into jazz, you know? He wrote about Billie Holiday and people like that. And he certainly loved urban life, so having it be partly digested into that city album makes sense too.

Right, like Lunch Poems and Meditations in an Emergency. I wrote a string quartet named after that.

Oh, really?

I was in college … I don’t remember what it sounded like — it was horrible. But it was inspired by that. He was helping me.

I’m going to guess — tell me if this is right. I’ve studied music theory a bit, and know music theory is deeply structured, built on rules, abstract, and so on. But somebody like O’Hara has so much personality, so much life, and there’s so much idiosyncrasy to it. I can see how he would be like an escape route from an over-academic experience.

Yeah, totally. I think that’s true.

There’s so much freedom, and personality, and spontaneity to O’Hara.

And I think that I relate to that a lot; I think that is the way that my music is. And I guess Virginia Woolf has that impressionistic feel to her, in a way — the way she moves from character to character, in this very weird sense, feels freeing.

She’s often moving through their heads. It’s sort of stream-of-consciousness in some cases. But, also, there’s a lot of atmospheric stuff as well; she can be difficult. I found her daunting as an undergrad. It was really radical, beautifully written, but it can be tough sledding.

Yeah, I remember To the Lighthouse. And, in college, I also remember this writer, she’s super popular and well known now, named Anne Carson. She was teaching there.

Interesting. Yeah, she’s Canadian.

It’s interesting because I only read one of her books before I took her class — Autobiography of Red. But when I did take her class, I learned so much about art, and even music, and that was way more of interest to me at the time than a lot of the stuff that I was doing in music school, which I liked, but it was so specific, so based in classical music, 19th-century classical music.

You’re saying you learned this stuff in reading Anne Carson’s poems?

Actually, later I started reading her work. So, I had only read Autobiography of Red before I took her class, then I took her class, and she opened us up to all this stuff — I hadn’t really taken any art classes or any writing classes at that point. It was really mind-blowing for me to experience things like Tanizaki’s In Praise of Shadows, and — I’m trying to remember what else. This is not a writer, but this painter, she was just at LACMA. She makes these beautiful pastel paintings. I’m forgetting her name; oh, her name is Agnes Martin. 

Oh, yeah.

Anyway, Anne Carson.

It sounds like she opened you up to a lot of things.

So, she was writing, at the time, or maybe she had just finished, something called Decreation, which I got really into, and that also inspired a lot of my record Ekstasis.

Did she talk about Sappho at all?

Yeah, the class was about attention, and she was talking a lot about Simone Weil. And, yeah, that’s how I started reading Decreation, which was inspiring for me, for sure. I wrote an essay in her class about Simone Weil, and she was, like, I don’t understand this. [Laughs.] Yeah, I got, like, a B minus. I wasn’t a star student, but I learned so much from her. She’s an important writer for me, ultimately, as she is for a lot of people.

Yeah, how lucky to have a class with somebody like that. I’ve only read some of her work — there is a lot of stuff of hers that I haven’t read. But she is somebody who is super fascinating, and I’m not surprised that she took you down into all of these different directions. She translated a Euripides play, I think. I think it was Bakkhai.

Oh, okay, I haven’t read that one.

Yeah, it’s a great one; it’s about the cult of Dionysus.

I didn’t know when I did Tragedy, which is based on Euripides’s Hippolytus  I didn’t realize that she had done a translation of that, too. And, so, I want to incorporate that, somehow, into live shows because her translation is amazing. It really introduced me to so many interesting aspects of that play — it’s crazy.

Huh. And the class you took with Anne Carson was called “Attention”?

Yeah, it was about attention.

Interesting. So, it wasn’t just about a period of literature; it was visual art; it was Greek tragedy; it was Japanese novels?

She actually didn’t talk about Greek tragedy at that time.

But it was eclectic?

She talked about Simone Weil.

Right.

She was involved in this triumvirate of three mystics that she talks about in Decreation. The other one is Sappho, and then Marguerite Porete, I think, is last one’s name — she’s some mystic from the Middle Ages.

She gave you a lot of directions to pursue. 

Yeah, totally.

It sounds like you studied as much literature there as you did music.

More music, actually. I might have related more to studying literature, but I studied music. [Laughs.]

Did reading these people, or studying with Anne Carson, lock you in to literature at all? Did it turn you on to pursuing your own reading of literary figures and history?

I think what happened is, like what I said, I was really insecure and dealing with a lot of stuff in music school, and I felt really passionate about writing music, but I didn’t know how to manifest it. I didn’t like anything that I made, and I was very self-critical. I didn’t have a lot of support — not that the teachers were bad, but there wasn’t really a connection. So, I think writing … I wrote a little bit, which was terrible. [Laughs.]

You wrote the usual bad undergraduate poetry? [Laughs.]

Yeah, and I found that to be a nice kind of escape. I think that I remember the first time that I remember reading John Ashbery in a class too, and that blew my mind.

Do you remember what you read?

It was “Syringa.”

Huh. 

I forget what book collection it’s in. I don’t know how to describe it. I feel like I never fully know how to describe what he does, but it’s amazing.

Especially Ashbery, yeah. But if you were an O’Hara fan, Ashbery would be a natural next step. A lot of indie rock people are into that kind of stuff. You know, Stephen Malkmus from Pavement is a huge Ashbery fan. 

That’s cool. Yeah, my friend, Mark So, he’s a local composer, and he’s done a whole book of pieces based on Ashbery.

Ashbery is not one of my very favorite poets, but, I can see for a musician, or a filmmaker or something, there’s something very suggestive about his work; it’s like a melody that never resolves, right?

Yeah, totally. 

So, for a musician, you might pick up a phrase and say, “Wow, I don’t know what the fuck that means, but it’s so evocative — I want to do something with it.” So, Ashbery is almost like the beginning of something in the mind.

Right.

Yeah, I guess I was in college when I started reading him. He’s a different kind of writer than someone like Anne Carson. I’m going to make a guess. I know, sort of, the end of the story, or, you know, you’re in the middle of your story as a musician, right? But, just knowing how many different types of genres are coming together in your work, I am going to guess — tell me if I’m wrong — that you had a lot of interests, and a lot of styles of music that you liked, and part of being an undergraduate, and maybe a graduate student, was about finding a way to fit those together, and how you fit within these traditions. Is that fair to say?

Yeah, I don’t know if I ever figured out where I fit.

[Laughs.] Who does? That’s why you have a career as a musician, right?

Yeah. I like a lot of music. And maybe that’s also why sometimes I have trouble explaining it. I sometimes think about making music more as if I’m a writer for some reason. I don’t know why. Because it’s not true. It doesn’t have to do with me thinking my songs are poems; it has more to do with the identity of a writer without genre, really. I don’t think genres are placed on writers as much. But maybe that’s because I’m not in the writing world, so I don’t know if that’s true. I feel a little more like I am in the background making things, and it’s all about the work; it’s not about me as an image of me, but, me as in: I am making things and those are the images. I’m not, like, a pop star manifesting an image.

Right, and that seems to you the way that writers often work?

A little bit, yeah. I think that’s why I relate to that more. I think composers are more like that too, but I don’t know.

Right. Well, so, when you were, say, 17, what was on the heavy rotation on, I was going to say turntable, but you were probably playing CDs … What was the heavy rotation in the form that you were consuming when you were, say, 17 years old?

I was listening to, like … I had gotten pretty deeply into Joni Mitchell when I was in high school (with the help of my mom). She also introduced me, I think, to Frank O’Hara. I need to credit my parents because they both read a lot. They are historians and have a library full of books that they are currently organizing. That’s obviously a huge influence for me. Anyway, yeah, I was listening to Joni Mitchell, and I had had introductions to like … I was listening to so many different things. Like you said, I didn’t have a lot of things that I was specifically into. When I was younger, I was really into, like, Radiohead, and really into Fiona Apple, and really into Tori Amos.

Sensitive stuff.

Yeah, and also very well loved by a lot of people.

Right, those are, like, indie heroes. 

Yeah, I didn’t know a lot about underground stuff. But, when I got older, I mean, a friend introduced me to Miles Davis in high school … His record, Live-Evil, became very influential for me. At the time, I was trying to listen to a lot of avant-garde classical music.

As a teenager?

Well, at the time, I started going to college in Michigan. That’s why that is a weird timeframe for me. I was applying to school as a composer, so I was trying to get into … I was starting to listen to new stuff, so I was listening to, like, Ligeti. My friend and I started going to, at the time it wasn’t the Disney Concert Hall but … The L.A. Philharmonic — they had $10 student rush tickets, and we started going to see things, and we saw, like, something by Lutosławski.

Yeah, Lutosławski’s great.

Yeah, and, at the time, I was going into Amoeba, going into the classical section and finding whatever $2 used classical CDs they had, and stuff like that — anything that was crazy. I just wanted to hear really crazy stuff that would blow my mind and make me think, “Oh, what is this?”

How much classical music was around the house?

My parents took me to the Philharmonic, but we didn’t play it around the house. I played classical piano since I was a kid, but —

It was possible to be a reasonably informed adult and not know more than a dozen or so composers. For a long time it was hard to see anyone else, or anything post-Mahler, performed. I was in my late 20s before I started to wake up to what was on the edge of the genre.

It must have bit you pretty early, though, if you wanted went to school to study classical music at age 17.

I think I just wanted to make crazy music. And I think I still do. I didn’t think of myself as a songwriter at all — I didn’t predict what happened at all. I didn’t think I was a singer, at all.

I assumed you were a vocal student; you do a lot with your voice.

I took vocal lessons about a year ago, for a month or two. It was weird. It was cool … I didn’t sing until I started recording. I sang secretly at home.

It sounds like you had a bunch of different influences, and the main thing they had in common was they were in some ways extreme, like the electric Miles or Radiohead or Ligeti … They don’t have anything in common but they’re emotionally on the frontier. So maybe they’re building blocks for something. It would take a while to reconcile all of that if those are your compass points — there’s no clear path from that …

And if you’re in school and there’s an unspoken aesthetic that’s prescribed to some extent, that’s sort of noncommittal tonally. They wanted it to sound in this kind of way …

Was there a composer or era or style that was considered the guiding style there?

They were interested in the masters of orchestration. All of this stuff I say respectfully — it didn’t resonate with me personally but I learned from it. Shostakovich, Beethoven, symphonic structure … And John Adams and Ligeti were what I was trying to do, also maybe Schnittke. That was an aesthetic people were aspiring to. It wasn’t that I didn’t like the music, but it’s hard for me to work in a prescribed style.

So post-college you’re going to CalArts, a very serious school for visual art known also for an experimental music program and people like Morton Subotnick. But there’s also a writing program there — did you get into reading seriously around then?

Anne Carson kind of sent me on a nice path. But that’s a period I think I’m still in. How do I sum it up? I think I got interested in mystic and medieval stuff around then.

For medieval, we mean composers? Dante?

One of the things I never would have learned about, except for one teacher at Michigan, was John Cage. John Cage is obviously much talked about now. But something about the emphasis Michael Pisaro put on Cage as a starting point for a kind of experimental music was inspiring because of the way text is dealt with. And I became interested in was the intersection of text and music.

You get philosophy too with Cage — a whole school of thought. It’s not quite religion, but there’s a whole worldview behind Cage, it’s not just a bunch of records. Did you read his book Silence?

Yeah — and all that stuff, lectures. And just the way the scores worked, the way language was dealt with. I did a performance of a piece of his … these poems that are based on chance. He puts together a way to make the poem, but it’s a transcription of the audio of a book. That inspired me; I use that all the time. I guess for me it was important as a musician; the poetic sensibility of someone like John Cage was inspiring to me and still is.

In the last decade, have there been novels, poems, or histories that have excited you or fed into your work?

A lot of the Anne Carson stuff still resonates for me. I’ve made music for her Sappho translations; I have a song called “I Would Rather See” on Aviary that’s a setting, but it’s complicated.

Another thing I’ve been reading consistently for the last 10 years — I’m not sure I’ve ever finished it — it called The Book of Memory by Mary Carruthers. It’s kind of an academic book; I got into medieval stuff for some reason.

I’m always uncomfortable talking about it because I don’t know if I fully understand it, but I find it inspiring to think about medieval ideas of memory. I think it ties into my interest in how the brain composes and how it relates to words on the page. In medieval times, memory was used so much because most people didn’t write. The art of memory was very sophisticated, and how memory functioned in composition of music …

So what grabbed you about the Middle Ages? That seems so distant from living in Los Angeles in the 21st century.

It’s not anything related to literature or anything. But when I first started listening to classical music, I was always more drawn to medieval music. Western medieval music wasn’t even directly related to classical music; it’s so different. I just related to the non-goal-oriented nature of it; classical music is so hierarchical harmonically.

So medieval music is less oriented to moving to the dominant, all of that?

The way harmonies are organized in classical music, especially by the time temperament came in … all that stuff is great, but I related more to modal music.

So you mean things like Gregorian chant and so on?

I found I related to that and when I went to the art museum, what would resonate me would be, specifically, 11th- and 12th- and 13th-century medieval monk art, transcriptions —

Illuminated manuscripts?

All that.

Have you read that William Manchester book, A World Lit Only by Fire? It’s about the daily life in the Middle Ages. It’s been a while, but I remember that as really interesting.

And the Getty has done illuminated manuscripts from time to time.

Yes, always — they have an ongoing thing.

There’s a book I referenced in one of my songs, Barbara Tuchman’s A Distant Mirror.

Yes — a total classic I’ve not read.

It’s a long book; I’m a slow reader so it took me like a year and a half to finish it. But she’s really great.

Definitely. Why don’t we close out with something you’ve read in the last year or so that made a big impact on you.

Someone I quoted in my latest record, in the liner notes, is Etel Adnan, a contemporary painter in the Bay Area but also a writer. I was introduced to her by Dicky Bahto, who does a lot of my album art. She has a book called Sitt Marie Rose, which is set during the Lebanese Civil War. The work I quote is called Master of the Eclipse, a collection of short stories. I just was very moved by it when I was working on Aviary. I was feeling pretty overwhelmed at the time, when I picked it up. And it was asking this question Hölderlin asked — “What are poets for in these destitute times?” There’s some relation to Heidegger too, but I don’t know anything about that.

The short stories in there are incredible and relate to that question … She had some specific context for her stories. “I found myself in an aviary of shrieking birds” was the quote, and it’s from the title story. It’s about an Iraqi poet and her relation to a friend of hers sort of destroyed by the war. That didn’t relate to my life in any way. But I thought the overall vibe of the collection felt really relevant, especially for artists: What are we doing, what is the purpose? I don’t know that there’s an answer. But it’s such a relevant thing for people all around world, in the Middle East and beyond. And empathy, and being a creative person in the middle of it all.

I don’t know that there’s an answer. But I liked her exploration of that.

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Scott Timberg is the editor of The Misread City: New Literary Los Angeles and author of Culture Crash: The Killing of the Creative Class.

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Featured image: “Julia Holter mit Begleitband auf dem Haldern Pop Festival 2013” by Rainer Knäpper is licensed under Free Art License (http://artlibre.org/licence/lal/en/), https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Julia_Holter.jpg


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