Julia Holter – I Stopped Worrying About How I Made My Music

Julia Holter‘s new album Tragedy is out now on Leaving Records. Ian Maleney spoke to her about recording, Los Angeles & classical Greek literature.

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Julia Holter‘s new album Tragedy is out now on Leaving Records. Ian Maleney spoke to her about recording, Los Angeles & classical Greek literature.

LA-native Julia Holter has just released her new album Tragedy on Leaving Records, co-owned by one Matthewdavid. Her first release for the label is a dark and strange journey through hopelessness, following the narrative of Euripides’ classic play, Hippolytus. Washes of synth tones, tautly-composed strings and harsh percussion fill the space around the whispered vocals to strangely beautiful (and often-terrifying) effect. The record is certainly one of the most idiosyncratic of the year, bringing Holter’s accomplished compositional talent and singular exploratory voice together in one expansive and coherent musical creation. As exciting as Tragedy is, with a back catalogue of sold-out tapes, live-recordings and standalone EPs, the new album is but the tip of the Holter iceberg.


First of all, Tragedy is the first time I personally have come across your work and I’m sure it’s the same for many others, especially in this part of the world. Can you fill us in a small bit about your musical past?

I studied classical piano as a kid until the end of college, but I really found my passion – and hopefully my greater skill – was in writing music. I started writing when I was about 16, mainly notated music for other people to play. I also enjoyed singing, but I didn’t really do it much, except in secret. And I didn’t really write songs much. I studied in a pretty traditional Composition program at the University of Michigan and then after I graduated I got an MFA in Composition, at which point I had already started to write songs and sing them. I think my early recordings (done in my later college years) were a really great way for me to explore aspects of my creativity that had been stifled in the confines of traditional composition study, and so from then on, I stopped worrying about how I made my music and just did whatever I wanted. So now my music is never made any one way—sometimes notated sometimes not, sometimes just a performance by me, sometimes a performance for anyone, whatever.

How did Tragedy get started as a project for you? Did it start with the play and grow from there or did the play become a central narrative as the music developed?
It started from sound imagery I think actually, but it happened at the same time I was reading Hippolytus, and the fit was perfect in my mind. I had an aural vision (I hope that can make sense to some people) of some kind of story that involved the very darkest boomiest low tones, soft voices of desperation, whispers, searing strings, tense silences, and warm but melancholy celebrations of surrender. Hahahahaha! Just a whole story but I thought Euripides was better at writing the plot…and I took to Hippolytus immediately because of how doomed everything is from the start. It’s heartbreaking—all the humans are puppets of jealous Aphrodite. So enticing to me to stretch a whole moment of hopelessness for 50 minutes.

What is your recording process like? You’ve talked a bit about changing from Audacity to Logic, did that (or any other equipment or technology) have an impact on the kind of music you were making?
I think there is not much of a difference between my works in Audacity and the ones in Logic, except that Logic made things easier, and so maybe the songs sound with slightly more quality, but that is not so interesting to me. My Tragedy was written half in Audacity, half in Logic I believe. It was at that transition as I actually finished Tragedy a year ago, and had been writing it for a year, starting in 2009.

I hope this is not digressing from the question too much, but the biggest switch in writing process for me so far in my still-young musical journey has been the discovery of recording. But I don’t think recording is necessarily my preferred medium to create, it’s just what I’ve taken to in recent years. If you really experience a piece, whether it’s a drawing or a sculpture or a song whatever, technology used isn’t so important. So like an essay I write may be a lot more like a song I write than that songs might be like another song of mine.

You’ve done several collaborations with some really interesting people, do you find that kind of work interesting or different to your work as a solo artist?
YES! I love collaborating and yes all of the people I work with are so interesting!! It is different because I have to let go of my crazy tendency to want to control every aspect of things. But that is so important. I am still learning. I don’t trust all that many people, but I trust certain people enormously. I have been lucky to work with so many really creative amazing people-from other singers to video artists to puppeteers to writers to dancers to composers, like whatever–and these people are what inspire me, even when it comes to my own individual work. Because you learn from them, and the process you use always depends on the person you’re working with. I hope I am not just stating the obvious, but so here’s an example: in Tragedy, I collaborated with Jesselisa Moretti, who did all the art for the release, as well as the video for “Try to Make Yourself a Work of Art”. Both of us are kind of hermits who just work on our shit all the time and don’t get out much (Jesse can correct me if I’m wrong!), but it means we put our all into it. And I would send her a song, and she would come up with some spectacular visual, and there was rarely much discussion about it. It was just so intuitive and unspoken, our exchanges from sound to visual, but it always seemed to work. I like collaborations that are effortless in their effort, if that makes any sense.

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