We had the pleasure of meeting the lovely Julia Holter after her show in Ljubljana (?!) last week. What was supposed to be a short interview turned into a pretty interesting discussion, continued off the record. She talks playing live with the band, her last two records, ancient Greek drama and more. OMG!
NC: The songs sound a lot different live than on the record. How did you adapt them to the live setting?
JH: We listened to my songs, and then we just came up with some ideas for how to do them. All three of us had different ideas, we were trying different things… We still kind of like change things around sometimes. Tonight we played a song we never have played live before, ever, which was the last song we played, and it was totally sloppy and messy but super fun.
NC: You played one new song and it sounded like it was written with a band in mind, unlike most of your previous work…
JH: Yeah, definitely. The one that I said was a new song? That was written before I started working with these guys, but I definitely had in mind an ensemble of people.
NC: It’s interesting that some of the songs from the last two records also sort of sounded like that, for example “Goddess Eyes” and “Four Gardens”. Most other songs, while they also sounded great, felt like you can tell that they were adapted rather than written for a band. Was there any difference in the process?
JH: They sounded like they were more fitting with the band than the other ones? Oh, okay. Those ones, they’ve changed a lot more, yeah. I think that that’s cool, I like to change things a bit. I don’t change them intentionally, though, I mean I don’t change them, I would say I just work with the songs however they work with three of us. So however it makes sense to play the songs with three of us, it’s what happens. That’s kind of my philosophy about that.
NC: You used to play alone until recently? How is it playing with the band?
JH: It’s great, I love it. It’s way more fun. I mean, actually, I love playing solo too, it’s just different. It’s really like sweatty/funner, and I can actually like do a little dancing. Not really, but a little bit I guess. [Laughs.]
NC: You usually get characterised as a bedroom-pop composer, but I don’t really see you fitting in with most of the other stuff that’s considered bedroom-pop. While it is true in terms of recording, it also often supposes amateurishness or something…
JH: I guess that’s just one of those things with bedroom composers – that’s actually just true for a lot of people now. So, it’s true that I’m a bedroom-pop composer because I wrote it all in my bedroom. But I think that, especially now, most people are trying to avoid that in general because they know that there’s like this stigma of being a bedroom composer… Even though everyone is a bedroom composer. It’s a totally miserable cycle of pain. But it’s not like anyone’s denying that they’re doing something in the bedroom. [Laughs.]
NC: I mean, your records are far from being some first take demos and stuff a lot of “bedroom artists” put online and put out…
JH: I’ve been doing it for a long time and I guess that what I do is I put a lot of love and thought into what I’m doing… I think a lot about it and spend a lot of time with it and I’m really ambitious and I really want to do a good job. Like, I’m not doing it just kind of half-assedly. I really am taking it seriously and the reason it was recorded in my bedroom is the reason everyone records in their bedroom – it’s just easy… That’s how I feel about it.
NC: You wrote Tragedy and Ekstasis at the same time and it appears that you got a lot more attention with Ekstasis and songs like “In the Same Room” that are more accessible than most songs on Tragedy. Have you ever thought about how things would have worked out if you released Ekstasis first and then Tragedy?
JH: I don’t know. The only reason they were released in that order was because of labels and when they could do it. Leaving Records, who put out Tragedy, finished everything sooner because I actually finished Tragedy sooner. But it was really up in the air which would come first.
NC: In retrospect, do you think things would have been different?
JH: That’s interesting. I don’t know. It’s interesing to think about that. I guess I have never thought about it as much as I’m thinking about it right now and I’m having trouble…
NC: Surely I’m not the first to ask this question?
JH: People have asked me something like that, but I always just started talking about something else. Something I do a lot. The way that people perceive the music I write… I know that people have said that Ekstasis is more accessible and Tragedy is not as accessible. And some people much prefer Tragedy. Whatever, it’s like very different. They’re just really different, and I don’t think when I was making them I really knew what people would think of them. So I think that… I just don’t know! Okay, this is not a very good answer. [Laughs.]
NC: Like, do you feel pressure for your next release, you know, what if it turns out to be more experimental or something?
JH: No, I don’t at all. I don’t really think about songs I do in terms of pop versus experimental, because that would kind of kill me. I would just like die, I wouldn’t be able to make anything if I was told that it had to be really poppy, or if I was told that it had to be really experimental either. It kind of has to be an experiment out of the will to play. To me experiment is playing. Focus and playing. It’s like this weird combination of play and focus. So, experimentation is something that I do, but experimental music is not necessarily something I do. I don’t think about “Oh, is my record going to be pop or experimental?”
NC: That’s the way a lof of people see Tragedy versus Ekstasis.
JH: That’s true. I don’t think about it that way. I mean, I definitely had a sense that Tragedy might be a little less accessible, because of the form of it. But when I’m writing music I never think about whether it needs to be pop or whatever. I might think that it needs to be more upbeat and faster, but I don’t think “this needs to be more accessible to the masses” or something like that. Masses are discerning and have a sense of what they like and don’t like and they’ll figure it out. I’m not going to cater to what people think they want. I’m going to make something and if they like it, they will.
NC: Were you surprised by all the attention you got with Ekstasis?
JH: Maybe. I guess. I don’t know if I was surprised or just happy. Yeah, in the sense that I’ve been making music for a long time, I released some other records previously, but not many people heard them. I did spend much more time on both Tragedy and Ekstasis than on anything else I’ve done before, so it was really… I did feel like I kind of deserved it! [Laughs.] You know, it was like – I really want this work out. If people don’t like it – it’s fine. But I want at least people to see it’s something I’m proud of. So the fact that people liked it was great. A lot of people do the same thing, and they deserve it, and that doesn’t happen. So I think there’s also a certain amount of luck.
NC: Do you think certain circumstances had something to do with it?
JH: Yeah. I think that the climate definitely has something to do with it, sure.
NC: For example, last fall there was all this talk about women making experimental pop music with synthesizers, some of the mainstream indie media were sort of trying to make that a thing. Do you think it may have ultimately helped people like you get more attention than they would have gotten a year or two ago?
JH: Sure, yeah. There’s a lot of labeling that goes into the way people start to hear music and I think that that’s just inevitable, wheter or not I agree that I’m like this other artist or whatever. That’s just going to happen, but that’s also how people find out about stuff. And that’s good.
NC: You often get compared to Laurie Anderson and from what I’ve read, you only recently got into her?
JH: I think that’s just going to happen no matter what. Whenever I listen to something new for the first time, I’m going to be like “Oh, this reminds me of this”… That’s just what people do. I think it’s impossible to avoid. So I don’t ever mind when I’m compared to anyone, really, even if I don’t like their music because I just think that’s what people do. It’s not going to affect me. And Laurie Anderson, for example, is amazing. It’s not like I haven’t heard of her before and heard “O Superman” before, but I never spent a lot of time with her records. So I just recently did and I really loved it. I don’t think it’s directly an influence for me, but I think indirectly it sure could be because obviously she had a huge influence on generations of musicians so I think… Why not? Sure, why not.
NC: Back to Tragedy and Ekstasis, how come “Godess Eyes” is featured on both records?
JH: Oh, that’s really a boring answer. I know people are always wondering about that and I’ve actually made a statement about it on Twitter, so I don’t think a million people saw that. [Laughs.] I put “Godess Eyes” on my Myspace – that was a long time ago – and my friend put it on a mixtape she sent to Matt, who runs RVNG Intl., which put out Ekstasis eventually. He really liked it and wrote me asking if he could do a seven inch of “Godess Eyes”. I told him it was already on this thing called Tragedy that I’m working on, but I can work out a way to re-do the song and then include it on his record if it’s okay with Leaving Records. I basically started building this whole record based off of “Godess Eyes”. So because “Godess Eyes” was so central to Ekstasis, and Tragedy also, it’s like a pivot point for both of them, since I wrote them at the same time.
NC: A lot of the articles and interviews that I’ve read about you are like “Oh my god, she found inspiration in a Greek tragedy?!” It’s almost as if they are trying to present you as some outsider or geek… And when you think about it, a good deal of contemporary plays and movies are, directly or indirectly, based on plots from – ancient Greek dramas.
JH: Yeah, I agree. It’s dangerous to pose me as this great intellectual person, someone who knows a lot of Greek drama and antiquity and whatever. Maybe just a gesture of me using the Greek tragedy was… I think what happened is that – in the US, obviously people read Greek tragedies, but not really like… We don’t learn about philosphy in school that much, in Europe you do, we don’t learn about antiquity as much as you do in Europe maybe. It’s just a cultural difference. Like, I’ve read Medea in high school and then when I was in college something about tragedies came up but I was totally not interested, and then I graduated from college and I was suddenly really intrigued by them. The reason I used it is because it was like this template you can build off of, the same reason Shakespeare does it.
NC: Exactly, everyone is using it.
JH: Maybe it’s just something people are used to being done by, like, other kinds of people.
NC: Not young women?
JH: Yeah, actually, it’s kind of true. So maybe it was stupid of me to do it, I should have based it off of something more original, like a movie from 1992 or something.
NC: …Which is actually based on a plot taken from a Greek tragedy.
JH: Yeah! [Laughs.] I agree, I had the same point. Everytime people ask me, I’m like… I’m obsessed with adaptations sometimes. They’re so good, that’s just what people do. I don’t want to make up a plot everytime I write something. Like, my next thing may be based off of a story someone else wrote.
NC: It’s so common in pop culture, so I find it really funny reading the comments that are like “Wow, where did she get the idea?!”
JH: Totally! I totally agree, thank you for saying that!
And thank you for a nice interview. We later talked about how awesome the new Laurel Halo record is and a bunch of other stuff, until the whole crew had to get going to France for their day off. We told them the French Riviera was totally overrated.
Photos by Darja Šter.