Julia Holter: Ekstasis and Influence

Though Los Angeles-based wunderkind Julia Holter is classically trained, she has a sound that seems at times to spring forth, fully formed, from nothing. Her lauded debut album Tragedy, released last year, was inspired by the narrative arch and growth story of Greek mythology, and her new release Ekstasis builds on its intuitive nature with the sort of expertly orchestrated ambient-pop heralded by Holter and peers such as Nite Jewel and Ariel Pink. Holter’s vocals are celestial, elevated atop poppy harpsichord-like keyboards and an impressive list of traditional and nontraditional instruments. After two full-length releases within one year, we interrupted Holter in New York on the heels of her sophomore effort.

AMANDA DUBERMAN: What are you in New York for?

JULIA HOLTER: I’m playing a show for Le Poisson Rouge.

DUBERMAN: The received narrative about your music is that it has a very homegrown, organic quality about it—you do all your own recording in your home—but it’s not accidental. You’ve invested a lot of time and commitment in music. 

HOLTER: I started playing piano when I was eight, and I went on to study piano in school, so I have a background in classical piano and studied composition in school. Writing music came later. So I have a background in that as well as orchestration. It’s been a long time since I’ve done much orchestrating. What I do now is record, primarily. I do think that my background in studying music comes through, because I put a lot of time into the writing, which I wouldn’t have been able to do if I hadn’t had this background, but there was this real struggle that I went through. I take music very seriously, but it’s important to me that my music is, I don’t know if intuitive is the word, but there’s a really important element of something kind of mysterious. It’s not academic or esoteric. 

DUBERMAN:  In terms of production and mixing, are you entirely self-taught?

HOLTER: Yeah, production and mixing I did all by myself, and that is entirely self-taught. 

DUBERMAN: How does the ability to do everything from home affect your process and the nature of your songwriting? 

HOLTER: I really enjoyed that, and I thought I could go further than I could if I had to work with people, back then. But now really I want to work with people. I think there’s a limit to just working by yourself. 

DUBERMAN: The literary influences on your last record Tragedy are pretty transparent, but they’re a little more opaque on this one. What should listeners listen for on Ekstasis? How do you balance the literary allusions or even quotes with original lyrics? Does the literature inspire the sounds, or does the lyrical choice come later?

HOLTER: I don’t really choose them for the listener to have to know about. I kind of do it just to be inspired or just to make stuff, because I can’t really come up with a song idea on my own. [laughs] I do have these things, but I try not to call them references. I do reference them in the actual record, I put them in the note and give them credit, but I think you can listen to it without knowing anything about the Anne Carson essay or whatever. I try not to emphasize that, too, but that’s how the songs come about. These things that I’ve read about, it’s the process of making something and working with something else, that exchange, you know. 

DUBERMAN: You based your last record on a play by Euripides, which lent it kind of a narrative, cinematic effect. After that experience, how did you try to achieve continuity on this record? What is the connective tissue of Ekstasis?

HOLTER: I don’t know. I think I kind of just trusted that it worked. I didn’t worry about that. It’s not like Tragedy, there’s not a story that’s really molding everything together. It’s completely just a bunch of different songs, recorded at very different times, actually. “In the Same Room” I recorded about three years ago. One of them I recorded a year ago. They are actually really disparate in time, but they share something in common with the idea of ekstasis: moving beyond oneself, trying to build these songs. I think I just trusted it and didn’t think too much of it, honestly. 

DUBERMAN: How do you translate that vision into live shows? 

HOLTER: I don’t have any visuals unless someone brings visuals. I have a cellist and a percussionist, now, that I’m working with, and that’s been really fun, kind of rearranging your songs for a living setting with new instruments. It’s been really fun doing that. 

DUBERMAN: You have a song on the last record called “Goddess Eyes”, and on this record “Goddess Eyes II.” That’s sort of an obvious place of continuity between this album and the last. Where else do you establish continuity, and how do you also establish departure and growth?

HOLTER: I was writing them at the same time, so that’s kind of a hard question. I wrote them both over the course of three years. I released Tragedy first. It’s weird, but true. [laughs]

DUBERMAN: What do you think of the LA music scene right now? What was it like coming up in that? 

HOLTER: I think what’s interesting in LA is that there’s a lot of variety, because LA is very spread out. I think there is a lot I don’t know about, to be completely honest. It’s a very mysterious town. You don’t know what people are doing, because it’s so spread out and huge. Everyone is in a different place and a different neighborhood. There’s no particular scene that I’m really involved with; I’m kind of involved in a bunch of different communities of music making. I really love working with Ramona from Nite Jewel. We’ve kind of grown up together. There’s also a scene of composers that are some of my close friends, and people that I know that make music at a place called The Wolf, this gallery in downtown LA. They put together a lot of instrumental, experimental music there and interesting stuff, stuff that wouldn’t be shown anywhere else.