So I sit on the other end of the phone in silence, confused.
"It's more just that I think of my songs as these little entities, almost like they exist beyond the recordings. They could evoke visuals, or a dance, or food—they could take on all these different mediums."
"I just meant that it could be. I meant it as an example. A pretty melody might compel someone to make a very elaborate chocolate cake or something."
Well, no, Julia Holter says. She doesn't know if her music's that good.
I reserve the right to disagree with Julia Holter, though maybe our disagreement has more to do with our opinions on chocolate cake than on her music.
She has just released Ekstasis, her second album in six months. She claims to not know what genre the album falls into. Ordinarily, this would make me suspicious. Artists like to pretend to be above these things, or to the side of them, as though the world is just one glorious stream of—of art!
Julia Holter doesn't know how to classify her own music and I don't either. Some stretches of Ekstasis are dreamy, low-lit pop blown out with echo and reverb; others are closer to ambient or drone; others sound like psychedelic folk and musicals.
Form and structure for Holter sound like flexible things. There are tracks on Ekstasis that start with long, drifting passages that come slowly into focus, then spend two minutes crumbling before disappearing completely. She's as capable of writing a crisply ornamented line as she is warping the line into a blur of sound. The result is music that either lacks solid ground or always threatens to pull away from what little solid ground it makes, music that bends the definite into the indefinite.
I ask Julia Holter about this, about whether the blurring of song and ambience in any given track is by design, or just something that happens in the course of music-making. She confesses to not understand the question. For her, it's all the same piece of music.
Ekstasis is an album that intuitively cuts across decades, even centuries. There are cellos and vocoders and breathy vocals and flute-like synthesizer sounds. In Julia Holter's music, drum machines and harpsichords have been best friends forever.
This is a world that doesn't exist. Or, it exists only in Holter's songs.
If not chocolate cake, I wonder what else belongs there. "I'm into sensory deprivation," she says.
I've been in a sensory deprivation tank. Has she? "No. I mean, I'm only into sensory deprivation in my songs."
Ekstasis means "outside one's self," she adds, like ecstasy, like the oceanic, like drugs, though Julia Holter doesn't seem like the drug-taking type. "It's not like I'm some vessel for god," she says, and laughs.
No, she isn't: she is a young woman who lives in Los Angeles and works as a part time tutor.
She tells me that the song "In The Same Room" was inspired by the image of two people who meet in a room but one can't remember the other. "Sometimes I think of them as .gif files that keep repeating and repeating."
This I can understand, this repetitive feeling, this confusing mixture of intimacy and unfamiliarity.
On Julia Holter's website, she used to offer what she called a HANDMADE THING, which consisted of a CD-R and a sculpture. She charged $25 for them. When I first heard her music in late 2010, I fell in love with it instantly and I wrote her to order something.
Your music feels like it has been playing inside my head, I told her. It feels like how I feel when I wake up disoriented in the middle of the night and have to go to the bathroom.
"I am so happy," Julia Holter wrote back politely, "to hear about your experience of domestic surrealism while listening to my songs."
Ekstasis is a Greek word and Julia Holter is into Greek things: Hippolytus, Eurpides, tragedy. I tell her I don't want to ask about that because I don't really think it's that interesting or that relevant.
"That's fine," she says, "because I don't know that much about it anyway. I know what I want to know, I guess. I'm not as academic about it as I should be. I'm kinda careless, really."
In college Julia Holter studied classical composition, and though she still notates some of her music, the environment felt disorienting and forced. "What I do see a lot in the academic world—because it's academic—is that if you use something, you're making an explicit reference to it, as opposed to the more intuitive [approach]. I had trouble working in a place where I had to justify everything I used, like [assuming haughty academic voice] Well I used this rhythm because it's reminiscent of a salsa beat, then I used this phrase from Beethoven, and then we developed that phrase into…."
What Holter calls her "carelessness," I'd call her intuition. She's been compared to Laurie Anderson and Meredith Monk, artists who were born in the classical and avant-garde worlds yet still trade in forms that resemble songs. But the foundational difference between Holter and Monk and Anderson is that Holter's world isn't smart, not particularly. It is careful and delicate and above all beautiful, a place—like classical music, jazz, or instrumental techno—where sound doesn't exist as evidence of research but as an attempt at metaphor—an attempt to create sounds that mean nothing unto themselves but in the realm of the listener's imagination gives birth to the image, the scenery, the chocolate cake.
"I think about topiary gardens," Julia Holter says when I ask her about Ekstasis, and then, almost as though the image is blossoming in her mind, continues: "Floral gardens. Flowers." But when I ask her if she's gone to one since recording the album, she says no, she's never been to one, not now or ever.