Albums of 2015 (#5): Julia Holter – Have You in My Wilderness

LA's eccentric poet laureate has made the year's most intelligent pop record – just don't over-analyse it

Feature by Joe Goggins | 01 Dec 2015

“Oh, they’re out there. I’ve found them, occasionally.” Much as she might try not to read her reviews, Julia Holter insists that she’s still managed to come across a few stinkers. That, in itself, is impressive; in the run-up to our chat, The Skinny's own search for appraisals that were anything less than glowing was largely unsuccessful, despite the much larger sample size.

The Los Angeles native has turned out four full-lengths in the past five years, and what began as a general consensus amongst the music press that she had huge promise as a songwriter, with 2011’s Tragedy, has given way to a veritable avalanche of praise for September’s fourth LP, Have You in My Wilderness.

It is, again, a reinvention. To Holter, repetition is anathema, and the latest part of the arms race of progressiveness that she’s entered into with her own back catalogue sees her ditch the tightly-woven intricacy of her last album, Loud City Song, for something brighter, sharper and – whisper it – accessible to the casual as well as the committed. It’s a record that’s grown organically out of her love of classic songwriting; the three songs that form its nucleus were, to begin with, as straightforward as Holter’s ever really gotten. 

“They were piano ballads,” she laughs from a tour stop in Brussels. “Betsy on the Roof, Sea Calls Me Home, and Have You in My Wilderness; I’d had them for a little while, and I’d been playing them solo on the road, just me and a keyboard. Because they were written in such a classic way, I knew they could be different if I fleshed them out and made them into something that a band could play. Once I did that, and once it seemed to work, I had the basis for the record – I would build the rest of it around these three tracks.”

"I just work with whatever comes to me" – Julia Holter

It’s not just that the style of songwriting appeals to Holter; she genuinely believes that she does do things the old-fashioned way. Much of what is written about her focuses on just how complex her songs can seem – instrumentally diverse, riddled with highbrow cultural references and sometimes structurally unusual – but she’s quick to shoot down the idea that she crafts her albums with the endgame always in mind, meticulously making sure that the songs always work as part of a bigger picture.

“People are always saying that there’s overarching themes, and then I have to talk about it. But there’s never really a trajectory. To me, it’s always been more about stories; Tragedy and Loud City Song were both inspired by stories, but it was really loose, really vague. At the same time, there’s no overall theme to Ekstasis or Have You in My Wilderness, but that doesn’t mean that there isn’t this intangible thing that links the songs together. Everybody thinks I need some kind of through-line, but I just work with whatever comes to me.”

You get the impression that there’s an ambition and intelligence to Holter’s work that tends to overawe, or even intimidate writers; Have You in My Wilderness doesn’t wander as far from convention as her previous LPs, but that hasn’t stopped it from being described, almost invariably, as ‘avant garde'. It’s a term that Holter herself finds reductive. “It’s basically hierarchical – that’s why people use that phrase,” she says. “I really dislike it. I realise that most artists are probably always going to find the tags that people apply to their music distasteful – I can’t ever imagine going, 'Oh yeah! That’s totally right!' – but I don’t want to make music that’s inaccessible, or that’s supposed to come across like it’s ahead of other people. I put a lot of love and care into my music, but that expression is really vague and complicated. I think it’s just supposed to make people fearful of something. That’s not what I’m trying to do!”

Holter’s appetite for weaving literary references into her work – often in abstruse fashion – has provided commentators with another point of discussion; Loud City Song, for instance, was by her own admission an abstract take on the 1958 musical Gigi. That she’s relaxed that approach on Have You in My Wilderness has not been lost on the critics, but she’s also laid-back about the importance of cultural concepts to her songwriting. “There’s never really been some high literary ambition to my music. You know, most musicians who make music, they’re not just writing journal entries.”

“The real world is going to permeate what they’re talking about, and for me, if I’m reading something, or if I’ve seen a movie or a TV show where I can connect emotionally with the characters, then there’s a chance they’re going to make it into whatever it is I’m writing. I really don’t think that’s unusual. Art is borrowing, and anyone who thinks they’re reinventing the wheel is lying to themselves. Whether it’s the themes in the music or little fragments of melodies or harmonic progressions, things you’ve heard before are always going to crop up when you write. It’s not that I’m trying to draw attention to other stories, and make my music this list of footnotes. It’s just supplemental. I’m happy to talk about where these things come from, if I’m asked, but they really aren’t that important.”

It’s increasingly obvious what Have You in My Wilderness actually is, then; golden age songwriting, filtered through a unique perspective. “I often get asked about why there’s so many direct references to characters in my songs,” Holter says, “and there’s always this assumption that I’m trying to be impersonal, that I’m trying to deflect attention from my own life by doing that. People think I’m sitting writing, like, 'Oh, this thing happened today with my boyfriend, but nobody knows my boyfriend, so rather than write about it, I’ll just wrap it up in this cultural reference.' It’s totally not the case. I write intuitively. All I’m doing, really, is making music the way people have been doing for centuries.”

Playing Manchester Gorilla on 16 Feb; Glasgow SWG3 on 19 Feb and Edinburgh Summerhall on 20 Feb