Penning a Tragedy: The Julia Holter Interview

Julia Holter by Jose Wolff

From the first listen of Julia Holter’s Tragedy (out now on Leaving), I was impressed with the young composer’s ability to experiment with her voice and instrumentation, to tap into the art of the past to make something actually quite avant garde.

ELM: I read that Tragedy was based on Hippolytus. How did you come to that decision, and how do you see that manifesting on the album?

JH: I just was reading Hippolytus and I liked moments of it, mostly because there was so much hopelessness to it because Aphrodite has cursed everyone from the very beginning. So the characters have this tragic fate that we all see coming and it’s so touching. It’s always
certain moments that get me the most, like one emotion someone is having, and I feel like it would be so fun to dwell on that emotion for like at least 4 minutes in a song. And from the start i knew it would be best as a record that wasn’t just a bunch of different songs,
but melted from one moment to the next, with “imagery”–I wanted it to be somewhat cinematic as a whole. like watching a movie.

ELM:Some artists will use history in their music as a way of talking about the present. Do you feel that you’re doing that? If so, how?

JH: Well I definitely know I’m using something from the past to make my own thing. but I don’t claim to know much about Greek tragedies in general. I didn’t choose to use this play for any other reason that I liked the situations I witnessed in it and I liked the emotions it brought about in the characters. I wanted to deal with those emotions. people have always had emotions so it still works! haha

ELM: I read that you were classically trained. Can you tell me more about your training and how you felt about it?

JH: I studied classical piano as a kid for many years, up until college, and I loved it so much but I wasn’t such a special classical pianist. I really loved music though, and so I decided to start writing music while I was at a high school in LA that had a really great music
magnet. I learned theory there and started taking composition lessons. I went to music school in composition for college and I liked it but I would say I had more fun outside of the music school, getting an english degree and working as a music director at the radio station.

The performers were talented and fascinating, but I found the composition department itself to be boring. Of course the individuals I met there were interesting and I learned a lot, but as a whole it felt too small a world that was bogged down in tradition (ie. “recording music (vs. composing on paper) does not count as a composition”, “you must write songs that have a lot of overt word painting and a singer with a very shrill vibrato”, “you have to write an orchestra piece if you want to get into a masters program”, whatever blablah.) Of course, it wasn’t so simple– these things are changing, and I am still in touch with a lot of talented people from
that time period. A lot of people were recording actually, it just was a separate major. I would say, why should recording and composition be separate majors> But all these kinds of things take time to change.

ELM: At what point do you write the lyrics for the songs?

JH: Well Tragedy has a lot of lyrics that are just straight from the play. but when I write my lyrics usually it’s done at the same time as the music, for the most part. and I will of course edit the lyrics later. but the words come with the music, usually. But I have different

ELM: Who helped you make Tragedy? Who produced it?

JH: I produced and recorded everything myself. I played everything myself, except my friend Casey Anderson plays saxophone on some tracks, and he and a bunch of other male friends were the male “chorus” at the last track of the record. Matthewdavid mastered the record.

ELM:What are your live shows like?

JH: Usually solo, I try to sing for you with all my soul

ELM: Do you ever do any sound installations or other projects that deviate from the normal album model?

JH: Sometimes I make medieval art and sometimes I write words that don’t go with music. i’ve made a video or two. I like to dance.

ELM: How long did it take to make Tragedy? What was the hardest part?

JH: 2 years. the hardest part was mixing the songs that had so much texture–”Finale” was really a challenge. I sang all of the vocal parts for the chorale and it was so hard to get it mixed so that it really sounded like a real choir that wasn’t just me. I even had to pitch down the bass so it could sound like a man. and of course it would sound like shit if you listened to it isolated, but it blended just fine. and then mixing together right the mens’ speaking voices at
the end was a huge challenge I grappled with for like a month. It was kind of a nightmare actually–that was the point at which I realized it is really important, when possible, to work with an engineer who can help you realize certain things that you can’t figure out yourself. I think this track really works on vinyl especially–I don’t know how I managed to do it. I was really frustrated about it!

ELM: What visual art (including film, paintings, sculpture, photography, etc.) inspires you?

JH: Medieval illuminated manuscripts

ELM: What helps your creative process?

JH: Happiness.

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