Julia Holter doesn’t make things easy, for the listener or the interviewer. On Loud City Song, her breakthrough third release, the 28-year-old singer and keyboardist spins a web of complex tunes linked by a covert creative agenda, then buries her poetic lyrics and evocative singing beneath a torrent of lush and often electronically modified instrumental textures. And in conversation she’s elusive, often breaking off mid-thought or refusing to follow the usual lines of examination.
But we’re not complaining. Rather than making Loud City Song hard to follow, Holter’s complexity is more an invitation to spend serious time with what is one of the most fascinating—and loveliest—releases of the year. And her discursive manner on the phone might just be the result of her restless mind, coupled with her lack of interest in orthodox modes of thought.
Consider, for example, her views on the question of whether she’s part of a new wave of conservatory-trained pop composers including New York City’s Nico Muhly and Gabriel Kahane.
“I don’t know,” she says, on the line from her home in Los Angeles. “I’m just kind of oblivious. And I don’t think of it like that, because it upsets me for some reason, on some fundamental level. Like, making distinctions between music. Of course, you have to make distinctions between music when you’re analyzing it as a musicologist or a journalist, but I find it crushing to make distinctions. I avoid it, kind of like you avoid things you don’t want to think about.
“I grew up listening to pop music, but then what I did was I went to school and studied classical music and wrote music in that style. So it really is not a lie when I say that what I’m doing comes out of that, and it’s not like I’m trying to fuse any two art forms.”
Holter does have a degree in composition from CalArts, and that’s evident in Loud City Song’s brass fanfares and lavish textures. But the record’s sonic polish also owes a lot to its yearlong gestation, which involved Holter making very detailed solo demos, re-creating them in the studio with live musicians, and then buffing the results with the assistance of coproducer Cole Marsden Greif-Neill. Its literary origins are similarly refined: just as Holter’s debut, Tragedy, was a loose retelling of the Greek drama Hippolytus, Loud City Song draws on the Alan Jay Lerner and Frederick Loewe musical Gigi and the Colette novel that inspired it.
Broadway mavens know that both book and musical detail a young courtesan’s road to adulthood in the hothouse atmosphere of fin-de-siècle Paris. It’s tempting, then, to see Holter’s use of the plot as a way to write about her own path to maturity without indulging in shameless journal-keeping.
“It’s definitely about individuals in a society who are trying to, like, figure out what they’re doing,” she says. “That’s something I think probably everyone can relate to, actually. I was drawing from some of the imagery of the musical, or the story, but also leaving it pretty open, in such a way that I think people can absorb it in their own way.
“It is about being in the city, and it’s pretty hard to figure out what is me and what isn’t, so it could be sort of autobiographical,” she adds. “Well, I wouldn’t say autobiographical, but I can’t write without having emotions. It’s not necessarily something I’ve experienced, but it could be, maybe. I don’t know; it’s very abstract.”
And so it is—the kind of abstract art that demands deep and pleasurable contemplation over time.