[Photo by Andrew Cholakian/Orange Aperture Photography]
LA native Julia Holter maintains a number of carefully brewed pots. A graduate of CalArts, where she studied electronic music, she combines classical elements like piano and cello with synthesizers and drum machines. Her compositions unfold at the breathless pace of a theatrical production, and sound kind of like what might happen if Arthur Russel, Brian Eno, and Joni Mitchell were sent back to the 18th century to make chamber music. Between collaborations with everyone from Nite Jewel to acid-folk legend Linda Perhacs, and two (potentially three) records on the way, you have to wonder how she makes it all happen. We got together at Stories Café in Echo Park to discuss phonetic translations, tAtU, and her forthcoming album, The Tragedy, which is based on Euripedes' Hippolytus.
AZ: How did you become interested in Greek Tragedy?
Julia: I don’t have any background in classics. I read Medea in High School, but I wasn’t that into it. I started reading them at some point and just became interested, specifically, in Hippolytus. It's such a weird play because it starts with Aphrodite saying, “I’m going to do all this bad stuff. I’m going to ruin everything.” She’s so mad because Hippolytus isn’t worshipping her-- because he worships Artemis, who is very noble. He doesn’t care about Aphrodite. She dooms the whole story, one thing after the next. The hopelessness is just so strong.
AZ: Do classic narratives often serve as a jumping off point for your projects?
Julia: No, I think it's usually imagery. Recently, it’s been movies, but in this case it was a tragedy. I used to write chamber music for instruments, and I’d do it really badly just because I wasn’t very interested in what I was doing. I think naturally I need a film, an image, or some kind of story as a starting point.
AZ: I've noticed this sort of rumbling feeling on some of the tracks on the album. How did you achieve this?
Julia: One thing I do is pitch things down a lot, in Logic. I even did it when I was still using a really crude program called Audacity, which isn’t a program you should use to make songs. In “The Falling Age,” there's this long string section with glissando-ing strings. That was actually a piece that I did for a bunch of instruments at CalArts a long time ago. I was playing a piano that has an organ sound on it. It had really low pitches, but I tuned it slightly; I’m not sure if it was sharp or flat from everyone else. I had these basses doing these long drones, and I was like 5 cents sharper. Something barely noticeable, but just enough so that you’ll have these really uncomfortable lows.
AZ: How do you come up with the vocal parts?
Julia: A lot of the lyrics on The Tragedy come from the play, and I’m going to put them in the liner notes. I also make some of them up. Sometimes I'll have an idea, and I'll just record myself playing chords and going, “Munawmawna.” But those aren’t the actual words. I rarely write the words before the music but with The Tragedy I actually did. There’s one called “Try To Make Yourself A Work of Art." I found a really good percussion sample, and that generated this sort of mantra. At the time, I was reading some commentary about Hippolytus, and how there’s this idea that Aphrodite is criticizing Hippolytus for worshipping Artemis because Artemis is so good. She’s like, “You want to make yourself this great work of art.” I just started singing that.
AZ: Tell me about your phonetic translations project, where you take a song in another language and "translate" it into your language using a phonetic interpretation?
Julia: I started doing that because I really like this one Burmese song, and I wanted to do a cover of it. I realized that I just loved the inflections, and I loved the music. I loved the sound of the vocal part, but I didn’t know what it meant, and I couldn’t really find out because I didn’t know anyone who spoke the language. What ends up happening is the songs have the same spirit as the originals. I’ve even been told that in one of my songs, the name of the song meant "sadness" in Tibetan, and I had called it “Why Sad Song”. I didn’t know that was the name of the song originally. The emotions behind it end up being channeled through the music and the way the person is singing. It's taking away the specifics that can hinder us from feeling those emotions.
AZ:Will we ever get to hear your tAtU cover?
Julia: I don’t know. It was a cover of "Not Gonna Get Us”. That was back when I used to make very cute songs that had me shifting my voice up. Kind of what people do when they first start recording. Sort of like, “This is funny! Look how cute my voice sounds.” I always really liked it. It's very fragile. My drumming abilities for recording are still just as crude, I think. I used these very crude drums, and I’m just singing, “Not Gonna Get Us.”
AZ: How did you start working with Linda Perhacs?
Julia: I actually hadn’t heard her music before until dublab asked me to participate in this show that they had in conjunction with some other people at the Red Cat. A bunch of musicians from LA performed Linda Perhacs music, herself included. She had never performed before. I was sure she would hate what I did because I used a synthesizer. I thought, “this is too Enya for her, its not folky” but I think to her it was folky in the sense that it was soulful. What I really connect with her on, is that the substance of something is there regardless of the technology used to convey it. She really liked what happened that night and I just said if you ever want to work on your music let me know. She’s been working with Aaron Robinson and Michelle Vidal. I worked with the three of them, and now my friend Ramona Gonzales is joining us.
AZ: Lastly, how did you link up with Leaving Records for this record?
Julia: I first met Matthew [McQueen, aka Matthewdavid] and Jesse [Moretti] at [the dance night] Part Time Punks. Matthew gave me one of his CDs, and said he really liked my music. I really liked what he gave me, and so we were in contact. They wrote me and proposed doing something, probably something simple. I was like, “today, I started working on this Greek tragedy." I like the way they present themselves online, the art and everything. It seems so effortless, but still so beautiful and natural.