It’s easy to get lost in Julia Holter’s music. Her songs roll over the listener like banks of fog, blotting out everything else in the world but the sound of her voice and her instruments (which can just as easily fall on the side of harmony as they do cacophony).
Whereas so often, music feels like it’s pushing you forward — to the next chorus, the next song, the next album— Holter’s music feels like an invitation to slow down and stay awhile. Even her most “pop” songs (like 2015's Have You in My Wilderness highlight "Sea Calls Me Home") feel like spaces to luxuriate in. When something sounds this good, why bother seeing what’s next on your playlist?
That feeling of timelessness is one of the things that fascinates Holter about medieval music.
“When you listen to it, it feels suspended in time,” Holter says over the phone. “As opposed to the more Western classical approach of there being a goal, building all this tension to reach that goal — the harmonic sensibility is really hierarchical.”
Medieval art and music by composers like Guillaume de Machaut long have been a source of inspiration and fascination for the singer. You can see those influences at work on her latest album, 2018’s dense and gorgeous Aviary. While also inspired by the work of contemporary Lebanese poet Etel Adnan (including the haunting line “I found myself in an aviary full of shrieking birds”), Aviary was influenced by Mary Carruthers' The Book of Memory.
Along with scholars like Francis Yates, Carruthers’ work examines how people trained their memories in the medieval era, an age when literacy wasn’t widespread — how people back then would create elaborate “memory palaces” in their minds to keep track of all the information in their heads, like aviaries to keep all those shrieking birds in one place.
The songs on Aviary feel like memory palaces: towering compositions, wallpapered with intense feelings, full of little wings and secret rooms to get lost in. Holter also uses some medieval techniques in her songs, like on Aviary cut “Chaitius,” which uses hocketing (a technique where two or more singers share a single melody by alternating their voices).
“I wanted to have these different voices interrupting each other,” Holter says. It’s an effect that works marvelously: “Chaitius” feels like you’re listening to someone whose mind is racing so furiously they can’t finish a single thought.
Another reason why the baroque pop composer is drawn to medieval art is its lack of self-consciousness.
“I’m interested in the way monks were the artists in early medieval stuff, “Holter says. “The sort of almost amateurish way that figures were drawn and how the focus wasn’t on the realistic portrayal of figures but on color and textures and layers. There’s something about that awkwardness that I’m drawn to … There’s not a need to explain why the figures look the way they do. It’s just for God.”
Holter herself is anything but an amateur. The L.A.-based, Milwaukee-born musician graduated from the CalArts composition program. She played in cult psych-folk artist Linda Perhacs’ band and has worked with artists like Jean-Michel Jarre, Laurel Halo, and Michael Pisaro. Her music and lyrics draw on a vast web of influences: Sappho, Euripides, Christopher Isherwood, Last Year at Marienbad, Scott Walker, Gigi, Barbara Lewis, Colette, etc. She even wrote a new score for Carl Dreyer’s The Passion of Joan of Arc, one of the greatest silent films ever made.
Holter is a deeply well-read songwriter, and it comes through in her writing, but it’s in the raw sound she sculpts where she really gets her message across. Weaving together violins, violas, bagpipes, keyboards, synths, bass, percussion, and multiple voices, Holter creates music that finds common ground between Grouper and Kate Bush: still, ambient pools of sound that can erupt into ripples and tidal waves of orchestral chaos.
“For me, the sound is the most important thing,” Holter says. “You don’t have to know anything about what I was thinking when I wrote it or the references in it — that’s not super-important to me. The reason I make those references known is that I want people to have the option of knowing … I’ve always made my lyrics as available as possible so people can read them if they want to, because when I sing, I don’t emphasize them. I don’t enunciate words – I let them function as part of the music.”
Even with a lyric sheet in front of you, Holter’s music can retain an air of mystery. It’s another thing she’s drawn from the world of sacred medieval music.
“What’s interesting about spiritual music is that it doesn’t need to explain itself because it’s for this higher purpose,” Holter says. “If you think about the restraints of writing music in the academic world or writing music in the commercial pop world, there are goals there that are tangible. Like, if you’re in an academic atmosphere, you have to explain why you make choices a lot. You just have to explain yourself all the time. And with pop, sometimes you have to explain the context of your songs. 'Oh, this song is about how this person broke up with me.’ Neither of those things is necessarily bad. It’s just that with spiritual music, it bypasses the need to explain itself.”
In an age when people are quick to use any opportunity to control a narrative, issue a clarification, or push their brand, it’s refreshing to hear an artist like Holter praising the virtues of figuring shit out for yourself. In that sense, if the monks whose work she admires created them just for God, perhaps her records are for you.
“There’s mystery that’s allowed for,” Holter says. “It’s really important that people are able to just have their own experience with whatever I make.”
Julia Holter. 7 p.m. Monday, July 29, at the Musical Instrument Museum, 4725 East Mayo Boulevard; mim.org. Tickets are $35.50 to $40.50 via the MIM box office.
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