LA Songwriter Julia Holter on Gigi, Lynch and Loud City Song

Julia Holter's previous albums have explored poetry and Greek tragedy. The LA songwriter and composer talks to us about how, with its themes of celebrity and the loss of love, a 1950s musical has influenced her new LP, Loud City Song

Feature by Sam Lewis | 04 Nov 2013

In The Crying of Lot 49, Thomas Pynchon describes the joy of the simple pop song: 'When those kids sing about "She loves you," yeah well, you know, she does, she's any number of people, all over the world, back through time, different colours, sizes, ages, shapes... And the "you" is everybody. And herself.' There is at the heart of pop culture this strange vagueness, especially in the music and cinema of the 1950s and 60s. Before the introduction of precise demographics, before home entertainment and the internet allowed culture to be fractured into a thousand different genres and niches, pop culture really was mass entertainment. Tens of millions of people watched the same shows, and bought the same records. IMDb has 2,201 films attached to 1958, and 8,261 for 2012 – in the 1950s, there was simply a bigger captive market and fewer cultural products.

One of those 1958 movies was Gigi, a watchable but modest musical starring Leslie Caron and Maurice Chevalier. Julia Holter was working on Ekstasis, her second album, when she wrote Maxim’s, a song about a scene in Gigi. “I wrote this one song,” she explains over the phone as her tour rolls out of Nashville, “and then I was like, ‘this doesn’t work, I need to make a new record for this song,’ so it would fit. And then I thought, ‘what should it be about?’ And it just happened, it came in an instant – the story of Gigi! It’s just really easy for me because I grew up watching it, it was at my grandma’s house.”

Born and raised in Los Angeles, both of Holter’s parents are historians, although her father also played guitar. “He used to play labour folk songs," she recalls. "He’s a labour historian, studying miners. As a kid at least I think he’d sing songs to us like I've Been Working on the Railroad. He does a lot more music now, but growing up it wasn’t a particularly musical household.”

Holter herself “just really wanted to make music. I played a lot but very secretly, I didn’t take it seriously. I wanted to play piano, mainly, I started doing that when I was eight.” Following her parents’ academic bent, she enrolled to study composition at CalArts. She started writing at 16: “It wasn’t really ‘songs.’ I started composing music first, for other people to play.” Indeed, Holter explains, “I still think of myself as a composer in a way. ‘Composer’ gives you more freedom. I don’t want to always perform my own music necessarily. But I’ve mainly been writing songs for the past few years and I find it hard to do anything else, musically, I don’t know why that is. It just happened; writing music was so hard until I started doing that, and it was so much easier for me to work intuitively than it was for me to have to think everything out.”

“With a lot of my music, it’s hard to detect where my actual experience of life comes in” – Julia Holter

So was songwriting a counterpoint to her education in composition? “I wasn’t doing it to rebel,” she assures. “That’s not really my personality, it was just so much easier for me to do. Well, it’s not always fun, it’s hard, but it came naturally.” Of the process of writing about Gigi she explains, “it was just really easy – things that come easily are the things to do, whether or not they’re the things you think are the coolest! If it’s something you know you have a good sense for, I think it’s worth trying.” It’s a theme that crops up repeatedly, Holter explaining that she gravitates towards what feels ‘easy’ or ‘natural’ – partly, you sense, to pre-empt overemphasis on the intellectualism of her work.

Nevertheless, Holter’s music reflects her background, both studiously composed and artistically freeform. Each of her records has toyed with a ‘theme’ – 2011’s Tragedy was based on Euripides’ Hippolytus, 2012’s Ekstasis engaged with the poet Anne Carson’s work, and now this year’s Loud City Song tackles Gigi, both the film version and Colette’s source material. Her songs are full of overlapping vocal layers, fluttering keys and rich harmonies; they are complex, kaleidoscopic pieces that are often driven by strong narratives, with Holter herself lost somewhere in the middle, her voice inhabited by other voices. “With a lot of my music,” she admits, “it’s hard to detect where my actual experience of life comes in.”

The idea of exploring other texts is one driven by her background – “that’s what composers do traditionally, they don’t write down lyrics, they use other poets' lyrics. When I started writing I would usually not use my own text; when I started recording my songs they were usually songs where the text was from somewhere else.”

It’s an impersonality that suits the tone of Loud City Song; Holter’s voice lurks somewhere in the background of the story, watching the characters and the city they inhabit drift around each other. The album’s final track, the jazz-inflected ballad City Appearing, describes people leaving a restaurant, swimming, standing on a roof. One of the themes of the album is celebrity voyeurism: the outside world spying on an individual, or, as Holter puts it, “a failed love life in the public eye.”

“One of the things I mention,” she explains, “is the [Parisian] tabloid called Gil Blas. The weekly edition had this illustration on the cover that was the latest celebrity intrigue and romance. You see it in the story of Gigi, how the love interest is this wealthy guy, this socialite guy, all his romances are talked about and gossiped about – that was their version of that. And you have this really obvious and intense thing going on in the world now where everyone watches reality TV. It’s really crazy, it’s exponential, the intensity of celebrity and the interest in celebrity.”

As such, Holter’s records are less ‘concept’ albums than explorations of other voices, closer to the poetry and literature that inspires her lyric writing. One influence was the American poet Frank O’Hara, whose work often anthropomorphises the world around him, invoking discussions with a leaf, or the sun. So Holter, on Ekstasis, inhabited a statue: 'I can see you / But my eyes are not allowed to cry.' She says she likes “to play with words a lot and I like things like games, ways to generate poems, without it necessarily just being free.” Predating her first album, she worked with a John Cage piece that calls for the performer to transcribe a text into sound – Holter duly created a mesostic poem from a 1920s cookbook, accompanied by field recordings around LA.

The Cookbook piece betrays a fascination with the incidental – Holter’s interest in Gigi was first piqued by a scene in the Parisian bar Maxim’s, when the singing stops every time a new character enters the room, leaving a strange hush for a few seconds. “I just like the sound of movies, the ambient atmospheric sound and the foley art, the sound of people running, people whispering.” Loud City Song’s second track, Horns Surrounding Me, begins with the unsettling sound of footsteps crunching on leaves, then a woman’s hurried breath as she escapes paparazzi, with marching horns mimicking the photographers’ chase. “I like the idea of making music that’s like a film, in a way. Like you’re listening to what’s happening; rather than listening to a person recall a story, for it to be the story. I think I want to make it even more like a film, what it sounds like to listen to a film. I’ve never really done it completely, as extreme as I want to go.”

Perhaps the appeal of Gigi for Holter was its amount of incidental detail. In the film, young Gigi’s mother is left unseen; we only hear her singing in the next room, a scene that works its way into the lyrics of World, the album’s opening track – 'Mother, mothers of the world... Singer on the fifth floor.' We get to talking about David Lynch, whose exploration of Roy Orbison’s songs excavates a similar mystery from 1950s pop culture. “I do really like his work and I also have this interest in making the most of mystery, letting yourself take some paths and not question what that path is. I have a sense that when he writes his stuff he doesn’t plan out the thought logically. It just feels right for some reason, there’s always some darkness and mystery.” She pauses, momentarily. “We just passed a town called Lynchburg, by the way, right now!”

Holter explains how the inclusion of an eerie cover of the 1963 Barbara Lewis song Hello Stranger was intended as a mirror of Gigi'song I Remember It Well, where two older characters misremember an old romance. “I grew up listening to Hello Stranger, the original, and I loved it," she says. "I thought it would be nice to include on the record, it’s this moment of sudden introspection and nostalgia, similar to I Remember It Well. These songs are being nostalgic about some past love without any details that are firm, everything’s so hazy and mysterious. In the Barbara Lewis song it’s very unclear what happened, except for the basics that her heart was broken. She’s saying ‘please don’t leave me like you did before, I still love you,’ and that vagueness is really appealing to me. It’s really powerful because you know there’s something there that isn’t being said.”

The culture of the period was vague, perhaps, because it could afford to be – it was appealing to a truly mass market. But by leaving details out, it let as many people as possible – including Holter – fill in the gaps in the narrative to make the stories their own. As Loud City Song weaves in and out of Gigi’s narrative, it explores the specifics, the mystery, and the strange silence when the story stops.

Julia Holter plays The Deaf Institute, Manchester on 13 Nov; Leaf, Liverpool on 15 Nov and CCA Glasgow on 20 Nov. Loud City Song is out now via Domino