Julia Holter on making art in a chaotic world

Ahead of her appearance at Edinburgh's Summerhall this month, we speak to Julia Holter about her latest album Aviary and why she finds explaining the message of her music so difficult

Feature by Tony Inglis | 04 Dec 2018
  • Julia Holter

Everyday is an emergency.

This deceptively simple, prescient and encapsulating phrase is the title of a track on Julia Holter’s recently released fifth album, Aviary. It starts in a gust of noise – all whistles, chirping, hooting and what seems to be a blackly comic use of kazoos. Over its nearly eight minutes, it melts into something more melancholic and haunting as Holter chants, in her stream of consciousness way, about 'clanging' and 'burning', 'terror' and lizard faces. Perhaps most terrifying is that it alludes to how even the mundanity of daily life has become a panic.

When Holter picks up the phone at her Los Angeles home in early October, the moment seems a world away from the horror this centrepiece evokes. But while in Glasgow we deal with the confusion over a looming Brexit and weirdly frequent building fires, the US has endured the separation of migrant children from their families; proposed government policies like defining transgender people out of existence; and multiple environmental disasters. Not long after our conversation, a number of public liberal figures, from Barack Obama to Robert De Niro, will receive pipe bombs in the mail. A few days later, a man will walk into a Pittsburgh synagogue and murder eleven people in a premeditated act of terror. Literally, every day is an emergency.

Holter is reticent about explaining too much of her thinking behind the cacophonous, chaotic sounds of her new album. However, she is willing to admit that seemingly constant turmoil, socially and politically, gave her pause, and a way to focus her artistic energies. "When I started writing this record, I really didn’t know what to do," she explains. "I was so confused, and I didn’t know what to do conceptually, so I figured I just had to follow the sound."

Confused creatively, or just generally? She emits an audible sigh. "Confused in all ways. It was really just a crazy time, and everything…" she pauses. "Obviously, the political situation affects you…" There’s another lengthy pause, out of frustration at being unable to find the right words – for which Holter is apologetic – and partly from moving suddenly from making things to talking about what she makes, which she admits she finds difficult.

Eventually she elaborates. "I don’t think the problem started with the election of our president, but I think that it was a very emotional thing for people to experience and it was hard to think about what I – what anyone – was going to do. It was hard to think about making art. It felt really weird and inappropriate. Which ultimately isn’t true, but it felt that way I guess. Maybe it was true for a while. I don’t think that feeling has gone away."

Holter’s frame of mind before starting to bring the record to life is understandable. However, when Donald Trump was elected president, and society seemed to take a turn for the worse, more than one person (perhaps apocryphally) stated that at least all this upheaval would give rise to great art as a reaction. Whether this is a true analysis, only time will tell. Whether it’s a constructive analysis, while communities are split apart and hate crimes skyrocket, is obvious. However, from the song titles to the lyrics to the general sense of unease, Aviary does seem to be a reaction to the mounting sense of dread we see on the news or, for certain people, experience personally every day.

"There’s a really depressive, anxiety-ridden atmosphere these days," Holter explains. "In general I mean, I’m not talking about myself specifically. But I think these questions are hard to tackle and not really worth talking about. So, I was like 'let me just play sounds, let’s just explore sound'. A lot of this record in a way is just about exploring the sound of things, exploring the sound of words, meaning all coming second."

Aviary, like all of Holter’s music, defies straightforward description, but it is perhaps best framed in the context of her previous work. After three albums of conceptual imagination, 2015’s Have You in My Wilderness showed she could write something that approaches a more traditional, pop-leaning song with, of course, her inimitable voice and deep, abundant knowledge of music, literature, film and history. Aviary, at least initially, seems to catapult to the other end of the spectrum.

Opening track Turn the Light On erupts in a burst of sounds, and you're thrown headfirst into the cavernous world of the album. It mimics the unpredictability of life. It can be at times loud and scary, but can just as easily be playful (Chaitius), filled with beauty (I Shall Love 2) and even triumphant – the tail end of Les Jeux to You has horns that could herald the arrival of a Roman emperor on his chariot.

"This is an embrace of things I’ve been trying to do for ten years," she says. "It’s a culmination of a tonne of things I’ve been interested in and it’s hard to describe. I’m really digging at my subconscious with this record in an intense way."

This month, Holter and her band of incredibly talented musicians bring Aviary to Edinburgh’s Summerhall. To a mere journalist, the complexity of the sonic universe it creates for 90 minutes seems like it would be quite the feat to translate live. Holter, breezily, is just looking forward to it: "We rehearsed before we recorded, and live it’s almost all the same musicians as on the record. It’s not actually that hard – do you know what, it’s so fun. I think this is actually the most fun record to play live for me so far."

Holter’s music has developed, rather disparagingly, a reputation for being somewhat academic. It’s definitely true that she mainlines every ounce of her intelligence into her music. Reading Aviary’s lyric sheet, it seems to have been put together with the same care as an annotated thesis. It's full of references and interpolations, nods to Nepalese Buddhist nuns, and lots of wordplay: Holter juggles English, Latin and the language of a medieval Occitan troubadour song over the course of a couple of tracks. Sometimes it’s like a musical Finnegan’s Wake.

This album won’t dull those claims, those underhanded criticisms, as if this music is too difficult to be enjoyed – it’s not. To minimise this sprawling work to just its inspirations ignores the spontaneity, personality and meaning which come to the fore. Meaning though, as Holter pointed out, isn’t necessarily her end game. "What I find is, when I explore the sound of words, the moments I love the most end up meaning something as well, and that to me is what’s magical about not always having a strong intention of what you’re meaning. It comes through anyway."

Like any good artist, Holter is almost allergic to explaining her work. She pushes back against the idea that she is putting across some kind of message. In an interview with Mary Anne Hobbs on BBC Radio 6 Music, she described her music as simply waveforms. "I really appreciate you bringing all this stuff up. I do say a lot of things about this and try and hammer it in," she says animatedly. "Music is not communicating something specific. A lot of people would disagree with me and I’d be happy to hear what they’d say. I think there’s probably complications that I’m simplifying. But it’s very true for me personally.

"I don’t have a solution to the world. People have literally asked me, 'What is the answer?' I don’t know if it’s to shut yourself away and listen to my record. I don’t know, in a time of noise, what the purpose is of making something else that’s noisy, which is what my record is. I can’t logically tell you why I did that. All I know is I wanted to make it. I don’t know exactly what I’m trying to communicate. But yes, the personal is all a part of it, and the politics is all a part of it. People are receivers."

Aviary is out now via Domino
Julia Holter plays Summerhall, Edinburgh, 10 Dec