Julia Holter Finds Herself in Songs of Monks and Birds
“Can I feel you, are you mythological?” asks Julia Holter in the first song from her last album of new material, 2015’s Have You in My Wilderness. The question seems like it should be divided with an “or”: Are you close to me, or far away, unreal, unattainable? For the Los Angeles singer, keyboardist, and composer, however, the line doesn’t illustrate a strict dichotomy. A pure connection with another person can elevate them to larger-than-life status in one’s mind. Certainly, art often does the same thing when attempting to crystallize the experience of a relationship. The line also gets at a fundamental premise of Holter’s work—the idea that a “myth,” or some other pre-existing text, can come to bear on the present in a meaningful way, imbuing the moment with fresh significance.
Throughout Julia Holter’s discography, allusions to centuries-old musical traditions, literature, and mysticism give rise to moments of palpable warmth and emotional authenticity. Her fifth and newest album Aviary, an ambitious 90-minute epic, is no exception—in fact, its rich intertexuality surpasses anything she has previously attempted. In one track “Voce Simul,” which pairs medieval-chant-like vocal melodies with undulating synthesizers and jazzy horn ambience, her narrator states in a moment of self-awareness: “I always find myself dead, from a fourteenth century / How did I forget I’m part of the dust?”
Here and elsewhere on Aviary, Holter draws heavy stylistic inspiration from early-music sources. As on another of the most adventurous pop-experimental albums of 2018—Oneohtrix Point Never’s Age Of—she uses ancient formal models help evoke the chaos of the present day. “I was feeling a lot of the noise of the world,” she tells me, describing Aviary’s beginnings in the wake of the 2016 presidential election.
Holter and I speak over the phone both from her house in Echo Park while she “figures out her morning caffeine situation” and, later, while she drives around her near-lifelong hometown after dropping a bandmate off at the airport. She insists she didn’t intend for Aviary to be a grand epic; it just kind of turned out that way. The inspiration emerged from her ongoing interest in particular books (medieval historical theory, Nepalese Buddhist texts, works by Sappho, Saint Augustine, and Lebanese-American poet Etel Adnan) and scores (13th-century French motet collections, Vangelis’s Blade Runner soundtrack). The Latin title of one song, “Colligere”—a collage of plainchant-reminiscent melodies for voice and string-orchestra—translates as “collecting or gathering.” According to Holter, the gathering of disparate sources like these was central to her process when choosing musical points of reference for the compositions that make up Aviary.
Each of the album’s lengthy songs is like an exotic bird flying into view, showcasing its distinct and magnificent plumage. The term “aviary,” by Holter’s account, refers to the music’s internal conversations, which roughly evoke birdsong. Many songs on Aviary use hocketing, a technique based on musical voices interrupting one another, which derives from 13th and 14th-century vocal polyphony. When used with singers, hocketing can drastically fragment language, reducing words to their component phonemes. For Holter, the resultant “chatter” mirrors the “internal and external babble” of daily life, as she wrote in a statement about the album.
To a casual observer, implementing antediluvian techniques like these in 2018 might seem like a dry and fussy exercise. But for Holter, they are just a starting point, creating the conditions for a more visceral, open-ended type of composition. She hesitates to say Aviary is “more personal” than her previous work, but describes the process as “intense.” Describing opener “Turn the Light On,” Aviary’s chaotic, spiritual-jazz-inflected Big Bang, Holter recalled: “I was like, I just need to be in this synth sound. It just had this hope. I think that if I feel that way it’s possible that one other person out there might feel that way about that sound too.”
Across Aviary, meditative, home-recorded improvisations by Holter blossom into moments of postmodern symphonic wonder. A cast of talented orchestral musicians realized these sections in the studio, many of them longtime Holter collaborators. Together, they developed the most expansive and adventurous arrangements of her career, sometimes working from strict scores of Holter’s but more often from freely developing themes that arose from recordings she made on her laptop. These patient compositions create the sense of an endless horizon—of a gentle, murmuring tumult that could spiral out forever. When I interview Holter, she’s on the other side of a round of rehearsals with her touring band for the album, the biggest ensemble she’s led to date, featuring trumpet, bagpipe, viola, violin, electronics, bass, and drums.
Rarely making concessions to traditional song form, Aviary throws into the relief the tension between Holter’s background in the avant-garde music world and the indie-pop sphere she’s infiltrated since her 2011 breakthrough Tragedy, a concept album based on a play by Euripides. In a way, Aviary recalls the process behind Tragedy and 2012’s Ekstasis, whose songs usually grew out of undirected laptop-recorded demos. Though the instrumentation is much more elaborate now, Holter’s more instinctive, sonically daring new music represents a return to a sort of comfort zone. For her, Have You in My Wilderness, which operated in the classic singer-songwriter tradition and garnered comparisons to Joni Mitchell and Judee Sill, was a deliberate gesture toward a “pretty specific” sensibility. By contrast, she says, Aviary represents “letting myself be me.”
The better part of a decade into her career, Holter is the subject of popular acclaim that few artists with her avant-garde bonafides enjoy. Yet one also gets the sense that if some jagged sliver of inspiration led her to music that was too strange to play at major rock venues, or to release via a preeminent indie label (Domino Records), it wouldn’t bother or suprise her very much.
“I don’t feel super-normal at a festival where there are all these bands, but honestly no one feels that normal,” she explains. “Everyone feels like a little bit of an outsider. I’m so lucky I can still do this. I don’t know how much longer I can but I hope I can.”
You’ve said in the past that some of your albums materialize song-by-song, and others come from an attempt to realize overarching concept. Which was Aviary?
I started with nothing. I did not know what I was trying to do, at all. I was feeling overwhelmed. I was on tour, and I had been on tour a lot, and there was the presidential election. I was in a place of confusion. My starting place with this record then became a sonic one. I didn’t really know what to do conceptually. In the past—on Tragedy, I was like ‘Oh I’ll set this to music—this play” [Euripides’ Hippolytus]. On [2013’s] Loud City Song, I was inspired by this movie that I grew up watching [the 1958 film of the musical Gigi]. Aviary was much more like “I’m just gonna improvise and follow the sound.” The sound came first, especially the use of language. The meaning emerges out of the sound—kind of mystical like that. I had imagery that I was interested in working with, both medieval and futuristic. It was a time-warp kind of idea.
Was there a specific contemporary political event that you remember directly inspiring something on the album?
I was imagining the end of the world basically. Not the end of the world but like—right now there’s a lot of wind outside, actually. I’m looking out the window. I was imagining extreme winds and a hurricane, and everyone just being like “I dont know, I’m just gonna go on with my life, I can’t handle what this means.” In “Words I Heard,” the first line [“Frequent missile talk / Slurping on the words I heard from the wretched zone”] is this bit of exasperation after looking at the news and it being about North Korea, and the whole comparison of who has the biggest bomb. In L.A., sometimes you hear military planes overhead and get scared.
How did you go about integrating actual medieval musical techniques into your improvisatory process?
I’ve had this long-standing interest in the Middle Ages. Not Renaissance Faire-y stuff. That’s a different time-period, but whatever, people lump them together. It’s not like I want to dress up like I’m in the Middle Ages. When people think of the Middle Ages, they think of cheesy stuff. For me, I’m interested in the scribes and monks, and the way monks would make art. Monks were involved in the music, too, and the way things were integrated in this very interesting way.
I was gathering stuff. Like with “Chaitius,” the third track on the record, I was really trying to make medieval polyphony, or textures. I was inspired, specifically, by this one gothic voices collection called The Marriage of Heaven and Hell. On there, you have the troubadour song that “Chaitius” uses the text from. I also was listening to the Blade Runner soundtrack by Vangelis. I love the noir-ness, and the more romantic aspects of it. Also, all of the questions, too: What does it mean to be human? It’s so much about empathy, and it seems very relevant. Those two really informed the sound to the record.
Can you talk about the concept of “Aviary” and how it applies here? I thought of Olivier Messiaen and his collections of bird song.
In “Chaitus,” I imagined sonically that there would be these voices flying around like winged creatures or birds or angels. It’s sort of a textual, musical thing more than anything: having voices kind of running into each other, in this early-music, medieval, polyphonic way. These were, like, the birds in one’s mind—thoughts flying around your head. I was feeling a lot of the noise of the world, and at the same time, the presence of my memories sharing space with my thoughts. Maybe it’s an age thing—you start to notice this as you grow older or something—but there’s so much of the past in the present of your life. To me, the birds are symbols of memory.
There were things I was reading that also helped me. There’s a line from this Etel Adnan book I was reading: “I found myself in an aviary full of shrieking birds.” The book starts off with this question: What are poets for in these destitute times? I really related to that, because I’m trying to figure that out, like a lot of us are. What are we doing, why are we doing this? That encouraged me to keep reading. I already had all this bird imagery in the songs. But I started thinking about beautiful and terrible thoughts and memories coexisting. Bird sounds are beautiful, but they’re also shrieking and harsh, you know?
There’s also The Book of Memory I’ve been reading for a long time, by Mary Carruthers. I haven’t read it from start to finish, but I’ve had it for a long time. It just connects a lot of things in medieval thought that I seem interested in for some reason. She mentioned a bit in that book how bird cages are seen as symbols for a storehouse for memory.
Aviary feels quite different from anything else you’ve put out on record, partially because of the length, the extended song forms, and the stylistic scope. Were you at all nervous submitting the album to your label, or thinking about what people’s perception of it might be?
I don’t think too much about what people want. I think listeners these days are really sophisticated. They listen to so many different things. I’m just gonna do what works for me, and when I say that I don’t feel like it’s selfish. I think that that’s what I want artists I listen to to do—-to lead me through whatever their vision is.
At the same time, this record is very much about thinking about empathy, but on a more conceptual level. A lot of it is about the experience of trying to be a person, and defining what that is. Am I a social person? Am I an empathic person? That stuff seems to all be questioned in the politics of today. I’m a human trying to understand humanity in a time where our climate is changing. It’s a very scary and weird time.
There are parallels with the medieval stuff I was reading. I was reading this book A Distant Mirror, which is about the 14th century. It felt like the end of the world then, with the bubonic plague killing off everyone in France and England. What always excites me in writing music is connecting all these things. Collecting texts from different times—that type of translation of voices. For me that’s what art is: It’s a translation of voices from different times. It’s a kind of recycling.
When you move from project to project, do you ever feel fatigued of what you were doing beforehand, or make a concerted effort to move away from it?
I would say I put it more positively. I don’t think of it as fatigue. For me, it’s the joy of doing something different. My last studio record felt like doing songs that were more in a tradition than what I usually do. And that was really fun. Going from Wilderness to this record doesn’t represent an explicit trajectory to me; it’s just a different project.
There were elements [of working on Aviary] that reminded me of Ekstasis. On the last record it was a lot more studio recording. This one, I did a lot of recording myself. There was also the collecting of texts and stuff, and the totally free nature of it. It feels like playfulness. I wanted to get back to working in that way, which I think is kind of a way that I work naturally.