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Interview: Julia Holter

6 min read

“I’m at peace with it,” Julia Holter says of her new album Have You In My Wilderness. And as she should be. The record has already been rightly lavished with advance critical praise, and the beautiful strains of lead singles Feel You and Sea Called Me Home have been poured over by Holter’s ever loyal fanbase.

The record sees Holter launch headfirst into what she describes as ‘ballad’ mode, and indeed, though the songs are drenched in the ethereal soundscapes her long-time listeners will know and love, Have You In My Wilderness also sees Holter exploring new, unchartered territory.

Over the phone, Holter is calm, collected and kind, answering every question with respect and intelligence. She speaks of topics as diverse as her first album, Tragedy, the band she will be touring with come her new string of dates (“four people. A violist…and a bassist and drums and then me”) and the odd interpretations of her own lyrics that continue to crop up online.

JE: As you are now: you haven’t started the tour yet, the album’s done…What does a day in your life look like?

JH: I had a kind of crazy few weeks, cause I was really sick but I was also finishing this film score. And it was the first time I’ve done that professionally, so there’s a lot of work. I had already written a lot of it, but getting it all together…Finishing it with the film director…I did that, then I’ve been doing interviews and getting my band together for touring, so it’s just been like a lot of craziness. But it’s fine.

JE: Will you still get nervous before a show?

JH: Not in the normal way. I mean, if there’s something I’m really nervous about, like if it’s our first show ever, it’s hard, because there’s a lot of things to remember…But once you’ve done it a few times and you don’t have to worry about the technical side it’s really fun. And I don’t really get nervous exactly. It’s fun. It is a nervous energy, I would say, but it’s not really nervous.

JE: When you have that nervous energy, does that mean…Like, how are aware are you of the audience? Or are you just in the moment?

JH: I would say…I don’t know. Ideally it sounds good to say yes [I’m with the audience] but I don’t know if it’s quite true. I feel like I’m not myself. I feel outside of myself in some way. I can’t really feel like myself. I have to feel a little bit distant because otherwise it freaks me out that I’m onstage in front of a bunch of people. It’s too weird.

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JE: To talk a little bit about the new record…I know Sea Called Me Home has been around since 2011…Right? At least?

JH: Mmm-hmm.

JE: Are all of the other songs…Are they more recent than that? Or are there others that are also older?

JH: Betsy On The Roof and Sea Called Me Home and Have You In My Wilderness are all old. From that same kind of time period.

JE: What made you decide to bring them together then?

JH: I wanted these songs to be on some record that was like, a bunch of ballads. And so I wanted to make a record that did that. So I kinda started writing more songs for them to fit on a record together.

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JE:  I know you’ve said that this is the first album where you didn’t have some kind of narrative. But did that make things easier or harder?

JH: I guess in some ways it makes it harder for me because it comes more easily for me to have [a] project. But I think once I realised that the project was this sort of collection of ballads it was easier because there is something unifying about that. At least to me.

JE: Talking specifically about your song-writing…Like, will you come up with the melody first, or the lyrics?

JH: It’s both at once. I’m usually at the piano and I’m playing it mindlessly, kinda coming up with stuff and then start singing along with it and then something happens.

JE: And just about the lyrics, I always assumed that you’re lyrics weren’t autobiographical, but I suddenly recently thought…I don’t know. Are they autobiographical for you?

JH: I think all of my music has a little bit of autobiography to it, because you have to write as an…experiencer of emotions so obviously, yeah it’s coming from me, but I don’t ever write directly about my life. I rarely do that. It just doesn’t come naturally to me really. I mean, it’s just not something I’m very interested in. I think that these kinds of distinctions though are very relative. I would say that most people do what I do and it’s just that they don’t discuss it. They just say like, ‘oh it’s personal.’ But everything is slightly removed.

What is real? What is your actual life? Like it’s always ambiguous for a writer.

JE: That’s true. It just reminds me of what Don DeLillo said about writing: it is always of you, but it’s not you.

JH: Yeah, exactly.

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JE: I’m thinking specifically from this record: there’s a line that I love, from How Soon? where you go ‘Do you know the proper way to ask for a cigarette?’ I was just wondering about that line.

JH: I think I just pulled that one out of thin air, although it could have been a scene in the Berlin Stories. I think I just made that up, because I was thinking a lot about ex-patriots in Berlin. I was in Berlin at the time and I was reading Berlin Stories which is about a totally different time period than now in Berlin, but still kind of centred around these ex-patriots…Like, people who live there now, like my friends, are ex-patriots. I don’t know just somehow, despite the total difference in environment – now versus the depression – I wanted to explore the idea of being somewhere that you’re not from. Living in this world where a lot of people are ex-patriots and the weird sense of home and what is home. So I think it came from that. Like, ‘do you know the proper way to ask for a cigarette?’ Like, crucial questions.

JE: It’s interesting about your lyrics, because I found recently one of those lyrics websites and the lyrics it gave for Sea Called Me Home were hilarious. So off.

JH: [Laughs] I know.

JE: Does that happen a lot?

JH: Yeah it does, and that’s why I’ve tried to make my lyrics available to everybody. The press all got copies of the lyrics, I think and that’s very important to me that people know what the right lyrics are, as opposed to these weird absurd things.

JE: That one [lyric website] was like ‘awesome sauce.’ Totally off. Fantastic.

JH: Oh my god. I know. It’s funny. Well, it’s funny, but I don’t want people actually thinking I wrote that.

[Editor’s Note: the line from Sea Called Me Home is Get up early just to charm unawakened souls.’ The lyric website instead has it as: ‘Get a burley just to charm, and waking sauce.’]

JE: Did writing lyrics…has it always come naturally for you?

JH: No, actually, it’s a new thing. It’s a new thing for me. It’s a new thing for me to be writing lyrics in the sense that I didn’t start as a songwriter even so I had to like borrow lyrics from other things. Like Tragedy, a lot of that is borrowed texts, and I work with different ways with playing with texts.

With the last two records I think I’ve really come into my own. Really enjoying it and having enough to confidence to do it. It takes a lot. It’s hard for me.

Have You In My Wilderness is out on September 25th.