You’ve probably heard something about Julia Holter by now. The Los Angeles-based singer-songwriter’s most recent album Have You In My Wilderness (2015) landed top spot in end-of-year lists compiled by Mojo, Uncut and Piccadilly Records, and singles “Feel You”, “Silhouette” and “Everytime Boots” have been rotated on BBC radio. 2013’s Loud City Song, Holter’s first release for the major-player independent label Domino, had laid the groundwork for this exposure, and precipitated a large-scale re-pressing of two earlier albums, Tragedy (2011) and Ekstasis (2012). Holter’s drift towards the mainstream end of the independent music spectrum, achieved just shy of a decade since her first release for the influential Californian underground label Human Ear Music, coincides with a definite shift in musical palette. Where Tragedy and Ekstasis felt very much like (and were in fact) lo-fi bedroom recordings, with meandering compositions based for the most part around warm synths and distorted multi-tracked vocals, Loud City Song and Have You In My Wilderness are full band productions, at once more lush and more lean, with more sharply delineated melodies and cleaner vocal lines that make greater use of Holter’s expressive range.
In an interview for The Wire published in the immediate aftermath of Ekstasis, Holter confessed that she “would love to be a hi-fi artist” and opined that “every single person that has been called lo-fi would say that it was a means to an end”, plainly prefiguring the direction her next release would take. This quote is picked up on in a second Wire interview, published last September, which is required reading for anybody seeking to get to grips with the negotiations and motivations that underpin Holter’s body of work. Frances Morgan, Holter’s interpolator in this more recent piece, praises the artist for adopting a fuller sound on Have You In My Wilderness without thereby making ‘a fetish of hi-fi qualities’: as with earlier recordings, Holter’s production choices on her latest release are a means to an end, and the album in fact sees Holter re-working some material from her lo-fi days. Of one of these tracks, album highlight “Betsy on the Roof”, Holter notes that you “always have to be so delicate with old songs because you don’t want to ruin them. You always like the demo better.” In turn, Morgan suggests that “Holter’s concern for her compositions’ skeletal versions makes it unlikely that she will ever ruin one with over-egged production, and also indicates that she trusts her writing to guide the sonics where they need to go.” Holter admits in this interview that, during her time spent as a music student, “I would have been really surprised to find that I decided to become this singer…person”, but now evidently recognises that her work needs to follow the demands of her songcraft.
Because this songcraft is, in my humble opinion, so routinely outstanding, there’s a lot at stake in seeing how Holter translates her recordings to the live setting, and there were some intriguing wrinkles to her performance at sold-out Gorilla, her third appearance to date in Manchester (at one point in the night, Holter claims – apocryphally I’m informed – that the first of these, at the International Anthony Burgess Foundation in 2011, had had to be spatially reconfigured due to only five people turning up). For starters, Holter’s touring band is relatively skeletal compared to the ensemble that came together for the album, and is one member smaller than the last band that toured here, dropping the saxophone that contributes significantly to the tracks “Horns Surrounding Me” and “Sea Calls Me Home”, both performed tonight. In exchange, Holter has added a back-up vocalist, doubling up on viola, who is trusted to perform some of Holter’s own vocal lines from the album. This is made manifest on “Lucette Stranded on the Island”, where Holter relegates herself to wordless harmonies on the song’s soaring chorus. Given this decision, it’s strange that the two don’t then go on to interweave lead and backing vocals in the closing sections of the track: on the album version, the layering of sung with semi-spoken vocals provides a properly heady crescendo. It also seems a waste that Holter doesn’t take advantage of this new live set-up to perform “Marienbad” or “In the Same Room”, two much-loved cuts from Ekstasis that make extensive use of simultaneous vocals, which Holter has typically had to perform in reduced form.
In fact, what is most striking about this particular performance is its overriding sense of sparseness and simplicity. Holter’s compositions are far from conventional but there’s a sense of immediacy to some of the tracks played tonight that is startling. The artist introduces “Feel You” as a song which began as a drum beat, and while the album recording is lush and orchestral the live version does indeed sound snappy and percussive. “Sea Calls Me Home”, which closes the set, drives home how comfortable Holter has become with performing vocals “dry” (her term, from the Morgan interview): until sometime in the build-up to Loud City Song Holter almost never sang without some sort of obscuring effects on her voice. Maybe it’s the shared theme, but the opening lines of the song as performed this evening put me in mind of Maggie Gyllenhaal’s performance of “Lighthouse Keeper” at the end of Lenny Abrahamson’s Frank (2014): there’s a pared-down quality to the track, and a sense of bare-your-soul vulnerability that you don’t ordinarily expect to encounter in Holter’s allusive, non-confessional music.
Happily, Holter’s on-stage persona between songs – a persona which carries over into her delightful Instagram feed – is as enjoyably un-earnest as ever. Holter’s real aptitude as a songwriter has never been about centring herself as the lyrical subject of her pieces. Throughout the evening she flits between different voices: “Lucette Stranded on the Island” is narrated from the point of view of a side character in Colette’s story Chance Acquaintances, while “Vasquez” – the highlight of the evening – sees Holter identifying with Mexican outlaw Tiburcio Vásquez, and the encore is divided between “Sea Calls Me Home” and a cover of Burt Bacharach’s “Don’t Make Me Over”. It’s this dialogic tendency to Holter’s music that Morgan picks up on in comparing the artist to genre-bending non-fiction authors like Maggie Nelson: as Morgan puts it, whether Holter’s words record real personal experience or not is ‘irrelevant; it is the quicksilver movement between the personal and the archetypal…that gives the writing its energy.’ If there’s a sense of bare-bones intimacy at points of this performance then, it’s less to do with stripping back the obstacles that lie between the audience and Holter’s subjectivity, and more with getting to know the raw data of her compositions, those demo versions that need to be handled with the utmost care.