There's a line on Julia Holter's new album, Have You In My Wilderness, that goes all these perfumes in the parking lot (from lead single "Feel You"). It leaps out from the page, so to speak, partly because it appeals directly to the senses—jiggling a memory of the taste of alcohol-based scents mixed with gas fumes hitting the back of the throat—but also because it's a surprisingly contemporary evocation for an artist who has long dredged the distant past for literary artifacts to weave stories around. Later, there's a nod to a dynamic that anyone who's ever been in a relationship will recognize: I'll hand him his coat/ it's exactly where he left it long ago. Everyday intimacies like this trip off Holter's tongue throughout Wilderness, and are made to feel all the more apparent thanks to the record's widescreen sonic sensibilities. Gone are the swathes of veiled allusions and fogs-of-time atmospherics, blown out of frame by crystal-clear, confident vocals and rich instrumentation—she worked with producer Cole M. Greif-Neil to "develop" songs she'd already written on piano—that tends towards the baroque.
It's a wholly absorbing record, one that doesn't so much tell a single story as stitch together those tiny snatches of memory that make up our idea of another person: a patchwork sensual history that, as she explains below, doesn't always add up to the reality of the relationship. It's out today on Domino Records, but Holter is already knee-deep in another story—she's currently working on a score for a film based on a true story about an Italian-American boxer called Vinny Pazienza. "I’m not making music that sounds like my music," she explains over a Skype call from her home in Los Angeles. "I’m making music to fit this film. It’s primarily very blues-y piano with some string paths and that’s it." It's her first foray in the film world, but here's betting it's not the last for the consummate storyteller. Below, Holter digs into the making of Have You In My Wilderness and what shapes her singular songwriting style.
“It’s not a breakup record. I’ve had lots of breakups but this is about people in relationships.”—Julia Holter
Have You In My Wilderness is a lot less elusive than previous stuff you’ve put out. With Ekstasis, I always imagined you as a distant figure in a landscape with lots of things swirling around you, whereas on this record it sounds like you’re directly speaking to one person. Is it a breakup record?
JULIA HOLTER: It’s not a breakup record. I’ve had lots of breakups but this is about people in relationships. This is about relationships between people and stuff that happens between people in all different types of situations.
Who are you addressing on the album?
I wrote these songs over the course of a long time—I started them in 2010—so what I’m drawing on is my own experience with people, whether romantic relationships or not. Some of them aren’t about romance, they’re about people in the world, about power differences, stuff like that. This record isn’t about particular people; I don’t have in my mind particular people. “Have You in My Wilderness,” the title track, is about the idea of possessing a person, or saying “you’re mine, you’re in my world now.” I was drawn to that as an idea less from my own experience than from listening to music written by men, that was kind of male gaze-y. That’s really what’s coming across. Not so much in my life have I had this experience with people—maybe a little bit for sure, as a woman— but a lot of it is just with art, and music, the vision of a woman and [people] analyzing her like a statue or something. A lot of the time I was trying to be that person analyzing.
One of the reasons your work has always interested me is because you stretch and distort ideas about song structure. Were you ever thinking about the male gaze or patriarchy when you doing that, in terms of challenging established structures?
Actually no, not specifically with that. I have never actually felt like I’m challenging a structure to be honest, I feel more like I do what I want but not that that is in defiance necessarily. I basically just write stream of consciousness to a certain extent, I let the song kind of go where it wants to go. I don’t think that’s a new idea, at all, but I think that maybe I do it to an extreme. I guess when I was in school I did feel the oppressive force of the classical canon. I was in a classical conservatory-esque situation and this obsession with development in classical music is kind of frustrating because it's not interesting to me musically, thematically. Musical themes developing is a lot of what classical music is based on, and exposition and recapitulation—these kinds of things I find oppressive. I don’t automatically associate that with men but I can see how someone would take it there. I found it oppressive because I cannot think that way. Ever since I’ve gotten out of school I’ve felt free to do whatever I want, and that’s where my songs come in. But my music before that was also like this because I couldn’t help it—it seems to be just the way I write.
“That’s how most relationships are: in some way, there’s always some delusional perception of somebody and I think that’s interesting to me.”—Julia Holter
Because the stories you were pulling on for this record were more personal, did that in any way change your approach to lyric writing? Were you thinking about how direct you should be or how guarded you should be, or how poetic, because you were dealing with personal experiences more?
No, actually, I don’t really censor myself that much. I just let myself sing what I want to sing. I think that for the most part what goes on with my songs is I just blurt stuff out. I’m playing the piano and I just kind of blurt out these melodies that sometimes have words in them that make no sense—I think a lot of writers do this. Eventually it coalesces into something that makes sense, a coherent phrase in English or whatever. With “Betsy on the Roof” this is what happened. I was like [sings unintelligiable lyrics], and it turned into this thing that makes sense—sort of—or a poetic idea at least. That’s how I write: I don’t really sit down and write a song about my feelings in a very direct way. I would say it is a cathartic thing for me to write music, and if I’m upset about something I will, but it won’t be necessarily super clear. Sometimes I don’t even know what my emotions are and they come out as I’m writing and it won’t be necessarily be about what I’m experiencing, but what’s cathartic about it sometimes is that it isn’t. For me personally it doesn’t help to write about what’s going on, it’s much more helpful to...not escape, but let my subconscious lead the way into some world that I’m creating out of whatever state I’m in.
Do you ever then look back at something after a couple of weeks and say, "damn, that’s what I thought about that”?
I don’t know if it’s ever clear, like “Betsy on the Roof” is kind of unclear. I think with that one it’s about longing and desperation and that’s an emotion I really love so much. Searching and longing is the most exciting kind of emotion to express.
When did you first get enamored with storytelling?
I started writing songs maybe 10 years ago, and the songs I first started with, I had so much trouble writing words. I had written a little poetry—it was bad. I was writing music for other instruments, sometimes it was vocal music, but it was for other people to sing and using text that already existed, not my own writing. It was a struggle for me to write lyrics for a long time, so I would use these different processes to write lyrics, sometimes I would just use other lyrics, like Tragedy is other [people’s] lyrics—it’s not my own. Over time I started dreading writing my own lyrics less and I think in Ekstasis you hear a mixed bag. On this latest record, I really put a lot of time and thought into the lyrics. Over time I’ve become more interested in crafting the lyrics so that they become really something that I feel works and are not just what comes out initially, which can be a little bit too pretentious or something that’s not quite you because you haven’t thought through it—you just borrowed it, you know what I mean? On the last two records I really embraced storytelling in my own way and tried to make it work more than in the past.
My favorite lyric on this album is all these perfumes in the parking lot from "Feel You" because it’s the kind of thing that registers on one's internal monologue and it makes me think about how often memories are rooted in our senses rather than in a linear way in our minds.
I just think that’s how I write. I can’t do linear events—I actually cannot write that way. I think I’m better at an impressionistic kind of writing. If I think about a series of events too much, I get really stuck and I have trouble.
One of the questions that always gets asked of songwriters is how much of their writing is real and how much is fictionalized.
I mean, I think they’re all true in metaphorical ways. I’m a writer who takes on a different character with every song, and that’s what I find enjoyable. I’d say this is the case for a lot of writers, as much as I’m like this unusual person, but I started as a composer in school which means that you are a lot of times setting other people’s text [to music] and you’re writing for other people to play; you’re not the center of what you’re doing. Later I became a performer and I think that might have to do with it—I’m taking other characters on in a more operatic way rather than singing a heartfelt song about what’s going on in my life.
Your albums often have one hand touching the past—with your references to historical or literary events—and the other hand reaching to the future, in the way your songwriting challenges traditional structures. In your own life, are you more of a future-thinking person or do you inhabit the past more?
It seems like I find a lot of pleasure in looking at things that have been written in the past and how they apply to today. I think I’m pretty into memory as a way to distort the reality of the past, I think that I like that. I don’t know how to think about the future. I worry about the future a lot as a person—I kind of dread the future and I try to enjoy memories. It’s not nostalgia, it’s the awareness that memories are a distorted reality of the past—and I love that. I love fucking with my memory or the idea of there being this delusion of what was. And that’s always in my songs, for sure.
“I kind of dread the future and I try to enjoy memories. It’s not nostalgia, it’s the awareness that memories are a distorted reality of the past—and I love that.”—Julia Holter
What is at the heart of your dread about the future? Is it an environmental concern or is it more abstract?
Oh more abstract—it’s always something different everyday. It’s just the plight of the anxious person I would say.
How do you combat your anxiety?
Umm, I don’t. I just let it fester and let it make me kind of neurotic.
Like a normal human being. Does writing provides some relief?
Yeah, I love writing. I'm maybe the happiest I’ve been, I feel like I’m doing what I want to do. I’m not an unhappy person—I’m just an anxious person. It runs in the family. That’s ok for a writer, you know, keep yourself on your toes. Never really be too settled, no matter how happy you are.
There’s elements of baroque and also a touch of a Beach Boys feel in places on the album. Is this stuff you were listening to when you were recording?
I picked out this one song in particular for some reason: “Duchess” by Scott Walker. Somehow that song captures what I was trying to do on a larger level: this warm, golden group of love songs. That was what I had in mind, [but] in the end I don’t think it comes across. There’s really no happy love song, it’s all about distorted concepts of people or not fully knowing someone because you have this thing in your way that keeps you from getting to know them. But that’s how most relationships are: in some way, there’s always some delusional perception of somebody and I think that’s interesting to me.