Julia Holter: Magic music

By Kasper Mikael Jacek // Photo: press photo

‘Aviary’ is the title of Julia Holter’s latest release and is out on Domino Records. The idea of being inside a cage with a choir of birds – beautifully shrieking above your head, foreboding the modern day Apocalypse – comes to mind when listening to the cacophony of moods, references, voices and instruments that move through Julia Holter’s latest album. The music moves elegantly from claustrophobia to ecstasy within the same track. The Looking-Glass met up with Julia Holter at this year’s Roskilde Festival to talk about ‘magic music’, collecting stuff, the Middle Ages, Babel and polyphony in her latest album that features musicians such as Corey Fogel (percussion), Devin Hoff (bass), Dina Maccabee (violin, viola, vocals), Sarah Belle Reid (trumpet), Andrew Tholl (violin), and Tashi Wada (synth, bagpipes).


How would you describe your own music and musical aspirations?

“I feel like my musical aspirations change all of the time. But at the same time they show some consistencies. I realized recently that I want to make ‘magic music’. I want to make music that feels magical. Even for myself. I like to be surprised. Not in a provocative way. More in a sensual way. I’m always on a journey to surprise myself and be playful. It’s not that I have to play something that I never heard before. It’s more subtle than that. I’m very intuitive the way I write. And I sort of do what comes to me at first – and then develop it from there.”


Does this reflect in your latest record – ‘Aviary’?

“I think a lot! I really let myself embrace feeling free and stretching things out to the extent that I thought they need to be stretched out – formwise. Without worrying about tradition. In fact I think I don’t know enough about tradition, because I listen to so many different types of music that don’t have a sense of tradition or particular forms that thing should take. So I just make my own.”


One of your songs in your latest album is called “Colligere” which means to collect – I think of your albums as collages of moods sometimes. What was your idea, using a lot of different elements in your latest album?

“I came across the word ‘Colligere’ ten years ago, when I was reading about the idea of memory in certain Medieval cultures. It’s vague sounding, but it is this book by Mary Carruthers (The Book of Memory, ed.). She uses this word “Colligere” – collect, gather, essentially collage. She’s talking about this in relation to how memory works in composing. Not just composing in music, but also writing text. It felt inspiring, because it felt like how I write. I really like to collect lots of layers. I’m kinda messy. I think of it as an approach I have. Both to collect layers and also texts of others. I don’t like working with my own words.”


In an interview with Pitchfork you mention how you are interested in memory. Why are you interested in memory and how are you working with memory in this album?

“I’m still trying to understand. I was reading Master of the Eclipse book of short stories (Etel Adan, ed.) when I was making Aviary. I felt that it resonated with what I was talking about at the time. She talks about how memories stalk you – and I like that. As you grow older, I find that there is an interesting presence of past. Even just from past sensory things, not just actual describable experiences. Originally my interest in memory came from my interest in Medieval stuff. I think there is a lot of focus on memory in the past, in the Medieval period, because they relied a lot on memory, because you did not have a lot of written (text, ed).”


Do you find inspiration from Medieval music?

“Yeah! The whole first part of ‘Chaitius’ is inspired by 14th century polyphony. I have always been inspired by Machaut (Guillaume de Machaut, ed.), the most famous Medieval French composer … There is a thing in Medieval music called hocketing – but also in most other music, but especially Western French medieval music – which is different voices, basically interrupting each other. It is something that I wanted to do on my record.”


Did you use this effect to portray the idea of having memories that are both historical and personal – both good and bad?

“I have always loved hocketing as an effect. I really wanted to make something that felt medieval. I guess hocketing is characteristic of that. But I also think you can look at it abstractly. Hocketing are voices that interrupting each other, and then you start thinking about Babel and all these languages. In ‘Chaitius’ there are different languages – and I wanted there to be this thing that happened where there would be more than one language … It doesn’t necessarily sound like it means anything. It just sounds like sound. But they are words that mean something. I wanted that effect of babble. I think that, ultimately, this record is about listening to it and experiencing it. This is a look inside my brain, but it is not necessary for the record.”


Is it a personal record? Do you have references to your own memories?

“All of my records are personal. I do sometimes say that this record is more personal. But I’m not sure that is true … The thing that I realized with this record, that I didn’t realize in the past – but is true of all my records and all of my music – is that I think of them as both personal and political. I don’t think I accounted for that in the past. Everything is political. All music has a context and anyone that makes anything has a context and an environment, they lived in. Everyone puts themselves in the record so it personal, because it is based on experiences.”


I wrote in my notes that your music is like “a choir singing beautifully about the apocalypse.” Do you have religious motifs or themes in your music?

“I’m not religious. But I’m drawn to spiritual music. One of the things that really inspired me for Aviary was Alice Coltrane’s Universal Consciousness … And then the other thing – besides Medieval music – was Blade Runner’s score by Vangelis. If you mix those two things together that might explain what you are describing. But if you listen to my older stuff too, I think that’s a thing that I’m into … I like music that doesn’t have to explain itself, Music that doesn’t justify why it is a certain way, but creates an effect … The mystery needs to stay and maybe that is why I’m drawn to this feeling of the sublime or ecstasy. When I first heard Alice Coltrane ten years ago, Turiya Sings – and it was the most beautiful thing that I had ever heard. But I couldn’t explain it. I just like magic music – I like music that I can’t explain and I don’t understand, but inspires.”