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Interview: Julia Holter Talks About Her New Album 'Aviary'

Interview: Julia Holter Talks About Her New Album 'Aviary'

Interview by Ducklingmonster / Wednesday 12th December, 2018 2:18PM

LA pop experimentalist Julia Holter is visiting Aotearoa for the first time this January, for a headline show with full band to celebrate the recent release of her fifth studio album Aviary. That kaleidoscopic fifteen track collection is already considered a musical highlight of 2018 for many, guiding listeners through what Holter describes as “the cacophony of the mind in a melting world.” Auckland electronic innovator Ducklingmonster (of Dunedin no-wave legends The Futurians) recently caught up with the US artist via email, for an in-depth exploration of the ideas behind Aviary...

We live in heavy times and Aviary is very much an album of its times. There are really joyous and dancing moments in your music. How do you get to that place? Is creativity a form of empathy for you?

When I write it’s a solitary activity and so in some ways I’m really isolated but I guess in other ways I’m reaching out to some kind of unknown place, desiring of listeners somewhere somehow, so I guess in that way it could be trying to ‘connect’ / empathise, but without a specific communication / language goal. I was thinking about empathy and love a lot on this record but I don’t know if I was totally aware of that until after. I definitely had this sense that I just wanted to immerse myself in sound (ie. the immersive kind of blanket of sound / noise on 'Turn the Light On'), and that that somehow felt like something I thought other people might want these days too (haha!), like a warm continuous undulating noise blanket. Something that felt purely passionate without much thought.

I don’t know how I get to a place of playfulness, but if I had anything like a kind of ‘goal’, it might be to achieve a place of playfulness and experimentation, and I think I can get there best when I feel free (not touring or moving around, with some time, not around other people). I think the sounds that result from moments of spontaneity are totally interesting and mysterious, and I think most of my music is built around those moments. So those spontaneous moments come out and then the more thought-based ideas build around them, as support in a way.

Intertextuality is an important part of your practice, and for Aviary you have said you drew on the Blade Runner soundtrack by Vangelis, medieval historical theory, and the writing of Etel Adnan. How are these elements tuned into the concept of Aviary? Can you describe the concept form?

There’s a song on the record called 'Colligere' which apparently means like "to collect / gather," and for a long time I’ve thought about that word as a way to describe my writing process. A lot of times I feel like I’m gathering layers of different things, both with sounds and with words, and both my own sounds and words and others’ found sounds and words. And, especially with words, since it’s language and thus coming from a communication-based form (as opposed to sound, which I find much easier to spontaneously create/improvise with without imposed thought), I find it more fun to gather other texts that are not my own, to build a collection of voices and contribute to the sort of endless process of translation that art is.

Anyway, the way the inspirations like Vangelis and Mary Carruther’s Book of Memory and Etel Adnan all contribute to this is hard to quickly go into (and not super important because I don’t really intend for it to be necessary to have a clear “understanding” of any of my inspirations or any of the connections between them to enjoy the record — for me it’s much more about building _something_ new out of the voices) in some ways it’s that I just happened to be reading those things while I was working on the record, so they worked themselves in to the music. There is never a direct quote of any of those three texts / recordings mentioned above in the record though, they just were inspirations for me. If I were forced to tell you what I think was going in my mind when I was working on the record (and I would understand why you would ask because I know some of these things were mentioned in the press release!), I would say that I was interested in memory and how it works in our mind, and how it functions along with all our present thoughts, and interferes with them, adding to the cacophony.

Etel Adnan, in one of the stories from her collection Master of the Eclipse, talks about how memories “stalk” us, and I liked that. She also describes these frightening “shrieking birds” and angels / winged-creatures flying around, the former frightening, and the latter more like visionaries, and that duality fit with the duality I was feeling on the record of beauty and ugliness/consonance and dissonance, and how those things are so subjective and based on our aural experiences. Meanwhile, Mary Carruthers writes in her Book of Memory about how bird cages were sometimes seen as visual metaphors in art for storehouses for memory, which she talks about played an active and understood role in composition at the time. This admission of memory as a key part of creativity is really interesting to me. In Blade Runner, it’s funny because you have a film that was made in 1982 that is about the future which is supposed to be around now, so there is a funny time warp going on, and to me, I was really into time warps on this record and basically always have been in my music. How the past exists with us in the present, etc.

Listening to Aviary made me think of physical space shifting in time and Virilio's statement on causality “The invention of the ship was also the invention of the shipwreck.” There is a sense of deconstruction in the compositions. How do you edit and use improvisation?

I wonder if it’s destruction — to me it’s more like an accumulation of layers to reveal something surprising and new that feels like more than the sum of its parts, almost the opposite — the “colligere” process I mentioned above — but I could imagine destructive interference happens. Each song was made a bit differently in my mind, but I do try to record everything I improvise when it feels really right, and I think the ‘meat’ of the resulting songs consists of these spontaneous moments, as opposed to anything super thought-out and conceptual. Once I have certain key elements that surprise me and excite me — that I didn’t see coming necessarily — I build them, stretch them, whatever. And yes sometimes I probably do destroy them in various ways, filter out frequencies, chop them up, etc. I do all these things in Logic when I’m working alone, although there are so many other things involved — I also transcribe my ideas into notation for musicians or myself, which causes another layer of translation and thus some kind of distortion of the original, and then there is always post-recording editing of the recordings that others who I work with do, like Kenny Gilmore and Cole MGN.

Throughout Aviary you employ layering and chanting. You have spoken about the influence of early-music scores, in particular, the use of hocketing and verbalisation of writing, and also the chant work of Alice Coltrane Turiyangitananda. In your mind what happens to music and language through techniques of repetition and interruption?

I don’t know yet haha but I guess I’m into it. I think it’s interesting how language functions in music, it becomes something else, not language communication, to me. And I’ve heard that is true scientifically as well in a way, the way our ears hear sung words is different than spoken I think. So language stops being language and becomes sound. What is received is totally different from person to person, and is really subjective. I think I’m into that, the freedom of writing music, because you are going beyond language.

I really enjoyed seeing your studio process in Dicky Bahto's making of Aviary short doco. What is your process for translating your bedroom and studio recording to a live band context? What instrumentation can we expect at the show?

The instrumentation is almost exactly the same as on the record! It actually sounds more like the record than my live shows ever have, which is really fun. There are 6 of us on stage and so it’s a very rich sound. We have: Corey Fogel (drums, vocals), Dina Maccabee (violin, viola, vocals, electronics), Sarah Belle Reid (trumpet, flugelhorn, electronics), Tashi Wada (bagpipe, synth), and Andrew Jones (bass). Because most of these guys played on the record, revisiting rehearsals for performing were very similar to rehearsals for the recording sessions, so it really is so much like the recordings.

You seem to be a very project-focused artist, do you have anything on the horizon?

Touring Aviary. I also finished scoring for a TV show called Pure that should be coming out in January.

Julia Holter with full band is playing with Ryan McPhun (solo The Ruby Suns) on Thursday 24th January at Auckland's Tuning Fork.


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Julia Holter
Thu 24th Jan 8:00pm
The Tuning Fork, Auckland