Here Today: You recently released your third album, ‘Loud City Song’. Where did this record begin?
Julia Holter: There was a song that I was going to put on ‘Ekstasis’ that didn’t really work, and I decided that it needed to have a whole new record behind it, and that was what ‘Loud City Song’ became. That song is now called “Maxim’s II” and I made this new record for it.
HT: So is “Maxim’s II” the centrepiece of the album?
JH: Not necessarily, but if people are looking for some sort of centrepiece conceptually, which I don’t think you have to, then I guess it could be, but I wanted to make a record that didn’t have to be about the concept, and could just be a record to listen to and experience, and make your own judgements about.
HT: Was it difficult to go from writing in your room by yourself to having an ensemble of musicians around you?
JH: No, it was really great. It was way better than doing it alone because I was able to get help doing the things that I don’t know how to do very well, like recording drums for instance. People who have years of experience doing that do it so well. It makes a huge different having players play the parts, instead of just me playing everything on keyboard.
HT: When I listened to the record I got a sense that it was about feelings of intimidation in the city. Was that intentional?
JH: Yes, it’s kind of like the individual feeling bombarded by society.
HT: Is the city an intimidating place to be then?
JH: For me it’s not, I love the city, but it was more abstract. The city was a way to physically place society.
HT: Like a metaphor?
JH: Yeah exactly. The record’s more a story than a political commentary. It’s sort of like a coming of age story. There are elements of contemporary celebrity culture, like on “Maxim’s II”. I think that’s a kind of a tangent, but I do think that’s a way to look at it. So it’s not specifically anything about society, it’s not like I made a record about the problems of society, it’s more just a coming of age story about an individual in society making different decisions, like running away from society or staying in it. You can interpret it any way you want. In Gigi’s case, she’s expected to become a courtesan by her family, and she doesn’t want to do that. It could be anything; in the record there are different hints about what it could be, like being chased by paparazzi, or you could be a celebrity that’s always being spied on.
HT: There are lots of different emotions, atmospheres and sounds on the record. Why did you choose to put them all on one album?
JH: I don’t think I thought much about it. I basically had a story, and I let myself go free with whatever music fit each song. I wasn’t thinking, “well this song is going to be jazzy, and this one will be a soaring, dream experience song.” I have an idea of what’s going on in the song, and the music emerges out of that. It was all in my demos. Everything you hear atmosphere-wise was present in my demos when I made them at home, in a much cruder form than they are now. So it just sort of comes out of you and you don’t have a way of explaining it. I get people asking me “why is it jazzy?” and I have no explanation. It was like that in the demos; it’s not as if I got jazz players and it suddenly became jazzy, it just was. It wasn’t a conscious decision or style.
HT: So the story is what really guides you when you’re writing the music?
JH: Yeah, a lot of times it is, whether it’s for the album, or even on ‘Ekstasis’, which doesn’t have a concept, it’s just a collection of different songs, united by certain general things, each song has something of a story or a situation between characters. I build off that and don’t think about the musical genres.
HT: Do you think you get a better song if it’s naturally crafted?
JH: I think it’s the only way I can write. I don’t think about, “is this the right way?” it’s just the only way for me. I mean, there are always exceptions. I can probably think of a some times when I listened to a piece of music and then wanted to work off some musical ideas. “Maxim’s I” for instance was more complicated. When I wrote it I already had “Maxim’s II” which was then just “Maxim’s”, and then one day I was playing the keyboard and I really liked some chords that I was playing. It just came to me that he lyrics for “Maxim’s” could work for those chords as well. So sometimes it does just start with the music and the music creates the story itself.
HT: And do you have a favourite song in particular from the album?
JH: I don’t have one favourite, it changes. Recently it’s been “Maxim’s I”. It’s a really tricky one, and it took a long time to make, to mix and produce because the interaction between the acoustic instruments and the electronic was really tricky to master. Not literally, but figuratively, to get them balanced.
HT: Do you always write your music in the same frame of mind?
JH: Generally I just have to be really clear headed. If I’m being very creative I like the mornings, but if I want to get some technical stuff done the nighttime is good because I get kind of obsessive. But I do write in front of the computer sometimes, and I get distracted. I shift back and forth and walk around outside. It’s not like I’m sitting there for hours and hours. But I can’t be drunk when I write, whereas I like having one drink when I perform.
HT: So I hear you used to do tutoring part time.
JH: Yeah, it was a job and I worked in High Schools. So many high school students today are so hip, they’re into all different types of music. It was very inspiring to work with some of them on music, recording etc.
HT: Did they ever ask you for advice?
JH: Yeah definitely. It takes a long time to get their trust, but when my music first started to get attention, it was really inspiring to them. They actually respected me more after that, which was funny. I think I was more of a mentor than a teacher. A tutor is always in that awkward, in-between place. College applications or life questions, homework, I helped them with that. Or even showing them cool music to listen to, and writing music.
HT: Did they ever inspire your writing?
JH: Well I didn’t write songs about them, but like everything in my life, it comes through somehow, indirectly. You have emotions and interactions in life, and that’s the only way you can be a writer. To draw on those experiences.
Loud City Song is out now on Domino Records. (Photos by Tom Spray)