Julia Holter: 'I Don't Write Music Based on What I Think People Want'

Julia Holter
Dicky Bahto

Julia Holter 

Five songs in on Julia Holter’s new album Aviary, out this week on Domino, listeners are greeted with a near four minute bagpipe solo. It’s alarming and unexpected, but indicative of everything the 33-year-old Los Angeles-based musician wanted to do with her new album. Simulate the mind’s inner workings and go beyond the lush, indie-pop song structures that dominated 2015’s celebrated album Have You In My Wilderness.

Birds were a big inspiration (which the title tips to), as well as how memory wrestles with our current mood in today’s shaky political climate. Much of the record feels like improvised musings caught on tape, but that’s the point. Songs are often dreamlike in sound, devoid of rhythmic elements — a challenge, in a way, to the listener to keep up, pay attention, and open your mind to what you’re hearing.

Holter will take Aviary on the road worldwide starting Nov. 24 in the Netherlands; she’ll start performing stateside on Feb. 19, 2019 in Washington D.C.

Here, she talks to Billboard about composing around memory, Blade Runner, and why she loves a good squawk.

After Have You In My Wilderness, does Aviary feel like a 180 for you?

Every record for me is a specific project. Wilderness, in a way, was based off the songs “Sea Calls Me Home" and “Have You in My Wilderness.” Those songs were older songs at the time and I wanted to make a bunch of songs that worked with those. In that way, I was building these ballads in a tradition of verse-chorus-verse. [Aviary] is me doing a lot of things that have been in my mind for a long time, in terms of sound. Taking importance over meaning. Sound coming first. And the meaning emerging out of the sound, based on the choices I made. That’s been the guiding start of this record. With the last record, I was building narratives with the lyrics. This record, I was letting myself go with the sound.

Did you find that meaning?

Yeah totally.

What was it?

Well, there’s a lot of different themes that I started to notice. Memory was a theme that kept coming up. Memories that emerge in the mind that get in the way of your own thoughts. I started noticing there was wings imagery, birds. That’s pretty typical of me. I tend to have a lot of bird imagery. I’ve been very into medieval stuff for a long time. I was trying to explore that more with this record. I was also listening to the Blade Runner score. For me, the time now, which is very chaotic - our situation, our atmosphere, politically. I think all of these things inform this. I was feeling very overwhelmed. Sometimes we look to the past to understand. I notice a lot of people reading history books these days. There’s something to that. I was really feeling the Blade Runner sound, which is funny, because it’s the 1980s anticipating the future, based on a book that was written.

When the album was announced, you described it as a “cacophony of a teeming mind in a melting world.” Were you literally trying to recreate how your mind exists with sound?

Writer Etel Adnan says “I’ve found myself in an aviary of shrieking birds.” [She] was a writer I was reading when I was making this record. Her stories were paralleling how I was feeling. She also writes about how memory stalks you. I thought that was so great. It’s true, right? They stalk you. I was invoking that, that feeling of the physical presence of memory. Just like birds can be beautiful, memory can be beautiful. But birds can also be terrifying and shrieking.

Do you worry about how a record of yours is going to be received?

I worry about it sometimes, I guess. But mostly I have no idea what people want. I don’t write music based on what I think people want. I just don’t think people can predict what people want, especially these days, because kids listen to everything. People are super sophisticated. So I don’t even know what people want so that’s not an issue for me. For some reason I feel the need to listen a lot better in this world of chaos and disaster. I’m trying to be a better listener. So, I’m trying to be a better person. I’m not saying my record makes me a better person — art is translation and we’re always translating other work. We’re all just sharing.

Not having an idea of what people want is perhaps rather liberating when you’re making an album.

I don’t think a lot about it being risky.

If you listen to “Everything Is an Emergency” - that’s a challenging song!

That song goes with the beauty of birds, the shrieking of birds. It’s a sound I like, that squawking of instruments. It’s painful at the same time. I enjoy that duality. Maybe this is a general feeling I have about everything, too. It’s complicated.