Flavorwire Interview: Julia Holter on Intertextuality, Sexism, and the Cultural Bombardment of TV

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Julia Holter’s Loud City Song is already one of Flavorwire’s favorite records of the year — a dense, fascinating listen that’s characterized by intricate orchestral arrangements and oblique, poetic lyrics. The album grew out of a song inspired by 1958 musical Gigi, and Holter spoke to Flavorwire about the idea of intertextuality, along with the album’s themes of searching for love and truth in a superficial society, and also her recent series of tweets about sexism in the music industry.

FLAVORWIRE: I wanted to ask you about the idea of intertextuality, which seems to crop up often in your work — there were references to Hippolytus on Tragedy, and Last Year at Marienbad on Ekstasis. What is it about that idea that you like?

JULIA HOLTER: I do it sometimes; I don’t do it sometimes. Ekstasis is an example of me not doing it very much. People do mention, yeah, “Marienbad,” but a lot of the songs, like “Moni Mon Amie,” they’re just things I just made up, situations I made up. When I do do it, it’s just because I really love connecting sentiments from previous times or other places in time into a new situation, into contemporary time, and that just comes really naturally to me. It just seems like a really natural way to… it just happens. It’s just what inspires me to make things a lot, making those connections.

So I think, for me, what I argue — I get this question a lot, and what I argue is that most poets and writers and musicians do reflect on the past, or reflect on something. You’re not just writing about what’s going on — a poem is something abstracted from reality. Even Taylor Swift isn’t just writing about her boyfriends, you know There’s something else going on. It’s funny that maybe adapting other stories seems like something I do a lot and seems unusual, but I would argue that it’s actually very common. Maybe other people just do it in ways that are less noticeable, or they just don’t talk about it.

Maybe it’s also that you tend to adapt from interesting places.

Yeah, maybe. Maybe.

I’ve read a couple of interviews where you talked a lot about how this album all came out of the one song that was inspired by Gigi. You’ve also said that the record is a lot about searching for love and truth in society, how it’s superficial and loud in a way that you’re not comfortable with. Can you expand on that?

Not really. I mean, I can — I can go on a tangent, but I think that’s pretty much… I like to [talk about that idea] when I do interviews, but one thing I do emphasize before I do it is that it’s a tangent. The record is simply that: it’s about an individual in society feeling like society is superficial and trying to find ways to work against it or work within it. That’s where I leave it. That’s the best way to explain it. You have to be general about it, because when you actually listen to [the album], it can become anything for anyone. It can become something else, it can become a different story for other people. So for me, the stuff about loudness, these themes of loudness and being bombarded, it doesn’t come from as much a personal experience as much a reflection on contemporary society… the way [we treat] celebrities, all that stuff.

I find it really interesting to watch television — I don’t have TV, but when I watch it, when I do go to someone’s house and they have it, it’s really interesting to see the kind of stuff that is on it. And the internet — I’m an internet girl, I grew up going online all the time, so that’s my TV. It’s not like they’re that different. You see celebrities, the craziness of reality television, the loudness of advertising, and all that stuff is really interesting to me, and it’s a contemporary situation. I wouldn’t even say it’s a problem. It’s just interesting to observe, and what it does to an individual is interesting.

It feels to me, when I watch TV, I feel bombarded just by watching TV. I feel like I’m being yelled at or something because it’s so oppressive, like all the latest gossip about some horrific reality television star who’s not even, like — they’re supposedly average, normal people, but they really are just people that are changing themselves to become a reality TV star, so the definition of reality is crazy. That’s some of the stuff I was thinking about when I was thinking about the [coffee house scene from Gigi] in “Maxim’s II,” and how I could loosely bring it to a contemporary situation. So it’s a tangent, but it’s definitely seems, to me, kind of relevant.

It’s interesting that you say that you’re an internet girl because I feel a lot of people would say the information overload you’re talking about seems to come from being online rather than old media like television.

Oh, really? You think the internet’s more bombarding?

I don’t, and I suspect my generation probably doesn’t, but people seem to want make these arguments that everyone’s on the internet now and everyone has smartphones…

No, yeah, I think both. The ADD internet stuff for sure. I wouldn’t say one is worse than the other; I think that’s just my own personal thing.

It also strikes me that this record is a lot about society itself. You’ve talked a lot about the fact that it’s based in a city, and it seems to be a lot about the way people relate to one another. Would you agree with that?

Yeah. It’s basically like this record is a story, and it’s just a story I built based on another story. So it doesn’t have a political message or a message, it’s an observation of the individual and on the society.

The other thing I wanted to ask you about is how you used the same set of lyrics twice, for “Maxim’s I” and “Maxim’s II,” which I found really interesting. It reminds me of John Cale’s HoboSapiens, where he does the same thing, and I was wondering what you were trying to achieve with that.

It’s just like with “Goddess Eyes,” where I did two versions of “Goddess Eyes.” It just happened, and for different reasons than “Goddess Eyes.” It just happened. I was on my keyboard one day and I’d already written “Maxim’s,” which is what is now called “Maxim’s II,” because that’s confusing. I was on the keyboard and I found some patch on my keyboard that I liked, a sound on my keyboard that I liked, and I started playing chords on it, and I was like, “I really like these chords with this sound,” and then I just started singing “Maxim’s” with it, and I was like, “Wow, this really works,” and it just happened like that. It wasn’t a conscious decision, and then it just made total sense.

At first, I was like, “This is absurd.” The whole time, even when we were recording, it was absurd that we had two different versions, although when we started recording I figured out it was actually great to have two different ones, but at first I felt weird, like, “Why would I do that?” But I really liked how the lyrics fit with both songs in different ways and I think it just works perfectly because that song is the center — sort of conceptually, that song is kind of part of the record, lyrics-wise, and so it was really nice to have two extremely different approaches to it: one being kind of inviting and atmospheric and dreamlike, and one being really uncomfortable and in your face.

For sure, it’s a really interesting effect. This record also seems a lot more acoustic to me. Did that have anything to do with a budget of getting to have those instruments available, or was it a sound you were specifically going for?

Oh yeah, for sure. It has more instruments in it because of that. That’s why, yeah.

Are there things that you would’ve liked to have been able to work with if you’d had the opportunity on your previous records?

I think so, yeah.

I also wanted to ask you about some stuff you were tweeting about the other day, which I wonder if you were interested in talking about. You were talking specifically about being compared to other female musicians and you said it was a big topic, and I kind of agree. Do you want to expand on that?

I was hoping [you would mention that]. Sometimes I just say things on Twitter and I don’t like to have it on my Twitter page forever, so then I delete them, but I assume that someone will ask me, so that’s perfect. Yeah, I have so many friends that a lot of the music they listen to is by women — I mean, I think it’s equal, like 50/50 — and I have a lot of female musician friends, some close and some that I just sort of know. And I think it’s just frustrating because they all make such different music, but it seems like a lot of times… I’ve had interviews where the way people talk about a lot of the music in some kind of reviews, which — I try not to read reviews, but if I do — not even necessarily my reviews, but reviews of other musicians that are female, and you’ll always see these comparisons. A lot of times you see comparisons where you don’t feel like the person was actually listening to the music, like they were looking at the situation of it being a woman.

I was just thinking about it one day after someone in the audience had said something [comparing me to] Joanna Newsom. I love Joanna Newsom. But I don’t know — they just shouted something, and I was like, “What does this have to do with Joanna Newsom?” I actually think her music is very different from mine, although I can think of other artists that are way more different. I can see how we both have kind of thorough, composed music that doesn’t repeat a lot and stuff like that, but our voices, just everything, [are different].

I’ve [also] had an interviewer ask if I was competitive with a friend of mine, and it was a friend of mine that makes music that’s very different than my music. I mean, she barely even sings much, aside from a million other things that are different. It was just really appalling to me. It seems like a question you wouldn’t ask a man. And I honestly have not had a lot of sexism in my life. I’ve been really free, I’ve had a great life, I’ve had so many opportunities, and I’m really thankful. It’s just a little bone to pick. That’s one thing that I think really needs to stop, and it happens with everything. It’ll happen with people’s culture or race all the time. You get comparisons. It’s inevitable. People just tend to look at what you look like and judge based on that. That’s a very human thing to judge people by how they look at first, but you have to get beyond it.

Do you think it’s endemic in the music industry?

For me, I haven’t had problems. I’ve been really happy with how my music has reached out, gotten out there, so I wouldn’t say it’s a big problem for me. It’s more just like in interactions with people, It’s just something to be conscious of, that we need to be more conscious of. It’s not a problem with the industry that I think is huge. I don’t know if it’s a career problem for me or an obstacle in my life. I just think it’s one of those things that people should voice, to make people more aware of it. It just keeps happening, and it happens all the time. I think it’s just annoying more than anything, and it’s like anything where people could be more aware of it.

I think this is it, this is the bottom line: it’s about really listening to music. Do we really listen to music? It’s just getting people — “people” meaning anyone, like listeners or people at a label or wherever — but encouraging people to really listen to music. Do you like that music? Do you not like it? Maybe a general thing about the industry I would say is that because it’s falling apart, moneywise — like, financially, it’s completely falling apart because people don’t buy records anymore — it’s a very fearful industry, and people don’t want to think for themselves. I think people just need to decide whether they like something or not.

The other day, Ramona from Nite Jewel, my friend, said this thing that was really great. She was like, “I think the best way to really think about what you like and what you don’t like is just, what do you feel when you listen to this? Do you feel pleasurable or do you feel really turned off by it?” And I think what she was saying is really true, and I don’t think it doesn’t mean that you can’t listen to experimental or provocative music. It’s something deeper. I sometimes listen to music that’s very in your face and really aggressive, but still, I can really find it pleasurable or have a deep response to it.

I think maybe we all need to just listen to music more and listen to how we’re feeling about it, and that’s the bottom line, and that’s really what I’m trying to say when I complain about being compared to someone who is a woman, and it’s just because she’s a woman, and I don’t think it’s really because society is so sexist anymore the way it was for my mother or my grandmother — that was a sexist time. I don’t think it’s so sexist now, but we really need to listen, and that’s it.