We spoke to Julia Holter, whose “Ekstasis” is one of the best albums released so far in 2012, to learn more about her creative process.
Released only months apart, “Tragedy” and “Ekstasis” are part of the same creative impulse. That's why it's easier to talk about both of them - or at least keep them both in mind when focusing on either - as listening to one will always be influenced by the memory of the other. Although “Ekstasis” is more oriented towards pop and “Tragedy” is more experimental, we can find more experimental elements on the former, and more pop on the latter than it may seem at first. It's as if one is the other's reverse side, which is one of the reasons they're two of the most interesting, solid and attractive releases in recent times. Furthermore, they suggest that the ruined state of California is one very interesting pool of creativity, particularly if we consider Julia Holter's sound has a lot in common with that of Ariel Pink and John Maus. Something to keep in mind: the three of them attended the California Institute of the Arts
"I hope I never control my music, but I do form it"
In spite of them being complementary records, according to Holter the main difference between them is “that ‘Ekstasis’ is a collection of songs whereas ‘Tragedy’ is almost like one track in my mind - a continuous project. I wrote them at the same time, I think I used a not-as-good program called Audacity to start ‘Tragedy’, but most of the songs were eventually carried over to Logic”. The easily recognisable pop structures of “Ekstasis” are possibly the reason for its rapid assimilation by a wider audience, though part of the charm of her two records seems to be the variable tension between controlling and loosening the hold Holter has on her own music. It’s through these variations that the most interesting moments on both albums are born, though she has a different idea: “I hope I never control my music, but I do form it. I interpret ‘unleashing power’ to mean like letting out energy –an exothermic process– that's what it all should be, no matter whether or not it's a fully-composed piece or an improvisation. I would hope that even if it was planned out there would be an ‘exothermic’ process, where there is just this thing that it takes no extra energy to release, it bursts out you know. There are plenty of moments that aren't this way –that's part of forming it I think– but my main point is just that I don't make a huge distinction between my ‘freer’ stuff and my shorter songs”.
Maybe because she doesn't make that distinction, the most valuable thing on this record is how Julia Holter constantly plays with the classic structure of a pop song. She makes it unpredictable, as if a pop song in her hands becomes something elastic - where a melody can be interrupted by some improvised escapes, which sometimes makes it hard to determine how much is composed, and how much is improvised. It actually seems like Holter manages pop and experimentation with the same ease, without borders between the two, combining elements in her compositions fluidly. Experimentation, to her, is “the essence, totally vital”. She denies that when she starts writing a song, she does it with the idea of coming up with something more or less similar to a pop song. “I don’t think about it that way or I would probably stop making music, I can't make harsh decisions about my song-writing or I would stop. Definitely defining things that way is what can kill it for me”. Regarding the writing process, she says that “it always depends; recently I notice I've been playing at the piano – writing harmonies spontaneously there combining them with sung melodies”.
So far this year, many of the best albums released are by women. Holter claims she's not consciously projecting her gender in her music and that she's not entirely sure whether possible connections between her sound and that of other contemporary female artists exist. “I suppose in a way. Women obviously share ‘certain’ things in common, but it's hard for me to say that because I have a uterus and so does a friend of mine that we both like to sing soft ethereal vocal melodies. I mean it's not a linked gene, at least not as far as I know. In any case, I’m into these questions - if only because it means there are a lot of women doing music right now. My reason for caring so much about that just kind of goes along with the Virginia Woolf idea that it's important for women writers' voices to be heard just as much as men’s, because they share a different perspective than men do and a new perspective is a contribution to the world. Or that is how I interpret the things she writes about in ‘A Room Of One's Own’. It seems really obvious and yeah, it's fundamental, but actually really profound I think”.
Other aspects that are frequently mentioned in regards to her music are the academic context and the influence of California. Regarding the former, Holter admits she felt frustrated working in that context: “I used to, but I'm not in it anymore”. Her frustration is understandable, given the freedom with which her work transcends the boundaries between pop, experimental and academic music. Even so, when asked in what way her academic experience influences the music she's making today, she says: “I don’t know, I guess I am very intent on there always being a form to a song. That's a really subjective decision to make, but I notice I will only work very hard on something if I have a sense it's going somewhere.” She's not sure exactly how California has influenced her music, but “it definitely has. The geography of LA itself is really crazy - there are mountains, beach, desert, city, etc. so it's inspiring and never boring”. Due to the presence of Eastern influences on her sound, one could determine a spiritual element to her music, too. Holter, however, responds to that suggestion with a short “not sure”, keeping us in the dark - which may be for the better, so it won't go all new age, like other musicians sometimes do, with a spiritual monologue between candour and pastiche.
It’s also worth mentioning the way in which she combines traditional instruments with digital production techniques. “I think of all tools used to make music as technology so it is a very large part. But if you mean only electronic equipment, yes I use a computer to record and I use an electronic keyboard to perform. So I use a lot of technology, but maybe not in the same way some people use samplers and stuff (though again, to me, technology is technology. a grand piano is technology)”. Even so, when hearing both “Tragedy” and “Ekstasis”, it seems obvious she spent a lot of time editing, producing and mixing the records. Holter confirms it took her “forever”, though “hopefully in the future I will work more with others to make it less of a long process.”
Maybe because of the technological limitations, or because Julia Holter was in charge of the whole recording and production process - or even because of her links with people like Ariel Pink, John Maus, and Nite Jewel – arguably a large part of her audience is especially attracted by the lo-fi aspects of her music. “I think maybe they are attracted to the intimacy of those recordings, but I also think it has to do with the music we make itself, not just the recording process. All of us are interested in the melodies and chords we want to hear and remain fiercely true to that, that's all I can say about that.” Nevertheless, when asked if she uses the sonic characteristics of lo-fi as part of her sound, she answers with a categorical “no”, and, just like many of her peers, she explains that if her music isn't produced professionally, it's not because she doesn't want it to be: “I would like my next recordings to be aided by an engineer or someone who can help me with things I can't do on my own. In a lot of ways, for me, what's important isn't in itself the hi-fi-ness of it but just the fact that there will be a bit more teamwork involved, so I won't be doing everything.”
Besides her two albums, the third element that helps us understand Julia Holter's musical personality is her audacious mixtape for online magazine Fact - basically made with field recordings - on which the Californian goes deeper than ever into the experimental side of her music: “I wanted to make a mix of what I hear every day, because I love the sounds I hear every day. I don't know a lot about the best up and coming or underground music so I thought sounds I hear every day would be better than making a mix of new music for people to hear.” Naturally, what interests her most about field recordings is “that you don't have control over what is happening until you press stop,” which reinforces the free aspect of her music.
Bearing in mind the weight of experimentation and improvisation in her recordings, without losing sight of pop, her music is often tagged as arty. “I don't think about it too much, I think it's best to let people label me if they will (because I think everyone categorizes unfamiliar things in their heads at first) and not to think about it.” In fact, the biggest triumph of her music lies in the flexibility with which she moves between different ways of composing and making music, without it ever sounding forced; crystallised in “Ekstasis”, one of the clearest contenders for Record of the Year.