Julia Holter may live in Los Angeles, but the experimental dream pop musician is easier to catch live in Europe than she is on the east coast. Critically, she sees her fans spread far and wide across the globe. Financially, she makes more money playing in Europe because of the crowds she draws. The last Boston show she played her was in 2013 during a muggy summer day to a couple dozen people in now-defunct venue Church.
“It’s not because I don’t love my country,” she laughs when I ask her. “I like touring. It’s not bad, but it’s not cozy or easy. Writing isn’t either. Sometimes with writing and recording, there’s a lot more agony and self-hatred… and performing is not quite that.” She laughs again and shakes her head a bit. “It’s complicated.”
Holter pours endless hours into her work. With last year’s Have You In My Wilderness, her catalog now runs four albums deep since her debut in 2011. She’s a workhorse, but her music—a collection of fairy-like synth, soft drumline rolls, and twinkling electronics—masks those efforts in an airiness of ease.
“I think I’m just a writer sort of person,” Holter says a bit modestly. “I call my place where I work ‘my office,’ not a ‘studio.’” Fair enough. Her office isn’t outfitted like a studio. There’s no fancy sound cushioning. There’s no gaff tape on the floor. There are, however, plenty of crumpled manuscript notes and chipped pencils – the latter of which indicates her tendency to edit what’s already been written, the freedom to change miniature things, to erase what felt like a good idea days ago but today sounds off. “The erasers are all so old that they don’t work anymore and there’s pen’s that don’t work,” she laughs. “There’s a piano, a harmonium maybe, a cello, and papers. It’s totally messy. That’s kind of how I am.”
Have You In My Wilderness shifts away from a single protagonist to tell the story of multiple characters. It’s a Grimms’ Fairy Tale book – and Holter is clearly the storyteller. Light research was required to draft their backstories, be it flipping through Greek mythology texts or diving into the blackhole that is Wikipedia. “A lot of the time what happens is I happen to be reading a story and I decide to make something out of it because something will grab me about a character; I want to develop them,” she says. “I have to look things up if I’m unsure, if I don’t really understand the way the world is. Sometimes I check myself like: Does this image that just came out of the back of my head make sense? Is this a phrase you would use? Things like that. It’s kind of like everything involves research in a way.”
Despite the verbose nature of her music, for Holter, it’s all about notes: the way they interact, the ways in which they fall, the ways in which they morph. It’s the belief that words are notes in themselves. “Some words are different than [other] words,” she explains. “They’re not actually words anymore. They turn into sound, and their meaning is going to be clouded because they’ve turned into something else. I don’t have a specific article to cite here, but I think I’ve read about people with strokes don’t remember how to speak, but they can sing. There’s something scientific behind the human perception of words versus sung words and that those are two different things. It doesn’t become language anymore.”
For her, songs aren’t about focusing on a character. They’re about the trip the character goes on, much of which is portrayed thru the progression of melodies and interaction of instruments. On Have You In My Wilderness, she collaborated with Cole Marsden Grief-Neill to nail that production. The lush, cozy side of the record comes from his magic on the strings and track organization. “He’s really good at making decisions for takes, which is a hard thing for me to do,” Holter says of Marsden Grief-Neill. After his handiwork, the ‘60s-style ballads solidify their backbones. “He’s the one who really chose what takes are on the record, which is a huge deal. It’s hard for me to make decisions like that sometimes. He’s got a great mind for that attention to detail.”
When Julia Holter takes over Great Scott this Sunday, concertgoers are in for a treat. Not only do her songs come alive in a live setting, but they melt into a shimmering pool of free, glossy, cushioned pop perfect for spring. “Each musician makes his or her own choice about what to do in every moment,” she admits. You’ll just have to show up in person to see what they do this time around.
JULIA HOLTER, CIRCUIT DES YEUX. SUN 3.6. GREAT SCOTT,1222 COMM. AVE., ALLSTON. 9PM/18+/$15. GREATSCOTTBOSTON.COM.