Julia Holter talks the empathy and escape of new album ‘Aviary’

Interview Julia Holter talks the empathy and escape of new album ‘Aviary’

We’re also sharing the singer’s grainy, atmospheric video for new track ‘Words I Heard’.

Julia Holter is releasing her new album ‘Aviary’ next week (26th October) via Domino. After sharing first preview ‘I Shall Love 2’ back at the start of September, she’s now sharing sprawling second track ‘Words I Heard’ along with its grainy and wonderfully atmospheric video.

As with everything that exists in Julia Holter’s world, the music and visual are tied together supremely, creating a world to fall into and escape from real life in.

Telling us about the new track, Julia says: “‘Words I Heard’ is dear to me and really feels like such a true expression of how I’m feeling these days. It was one of the songs that started as an improvisation on synth and voice, and it eventually morphed into something different, a piano and voice song, that was earnest, an expression of frustration about and love for our human faults these days, with a bit of hope, and the ballad-like vibe was a struggle for me to deal with actually.

“At first, it felt a bit dreary/sad, and this was a moment that I realized how important arranging is—I knew it needed a spaced-out crazy string arrangement, to avoid the dirge-like quality, and I played with it a bit harmonically as well. I improvised some melodies to fly around the song, and then transcribed that for violin into 4 parts, (inspired loosely by Alice Coltrane’s approaches to strings and synth on her record “Universal Consciousness”) each in similar ranges, doing similar things but at different times, kind of diving into that “hocketing” effect I was into throughout the record.

That exciting combination of synth and strings in Coltrane’s music feels hopeful in a way, the beauty feels infinite or something, and I was inspired by it. There were a lot of production choices made as well, I wanted everything to blend so it was not just a traditional ballad where the voice overpowered everything, I kind of wanted the voice and the 4 violins to sit and blend together in the beautiful ugly murk of humanity—Kenny Gilmore worked a lot on this song with me to give it the best sound despite the tricky components, getting so many mid-range frequencies to work together can be a challenge, this might forever be the case with my music, as I love mid-range haha.”

The new video, directed by Dicky Bahto, pans around a countryside wilderness, giving a gorgeous space for the track’s luscious strings to exist in. Julia explains: “Dicky Bahto’s beautiful video features footage of Mount Tamalpais (which I haven’t been to yet sadly!) on a moody colorful day in Marin, and he shot there in honor of Etel Adnan, a painter and writer whose work (mainly a book calledMaster of the Eclipse) I was reading and found very inspiring while working on this record. She’s written a book calledJourney to Mount Tamalpais that also features drawings of the place, and it captures an artist’s/writer’s view of nature.

“The video also features footage of us recording Aviary in the studio, which I think is a nice surprising seemingly-unrelated thing, but I think what makes that so nice to me is that this song (and a lot of the record) is very much thinking about how humans behave within both their controlled and uncontrolled environments, and what it means to be “human”. Sometimes when we see nature I think it immediately incites fear in some of us, because it’s so beautiful and scary, and I think it makes us think about what we are more, and introspection is a good thing.

We spoke to Julia about all things ‘Aviary’, how empathy can change the world, and the importance of finding escape in psychedelia. Watch the ‘Words I Heard’ video and read the interview below.

You’ve said that ‘Aviary’ is an album that searches for a place of calm amongst the chaos - did you isolate yourself in order to write it and try and enter that state of mind yourself?

I didn’t know I said that, but sometimes I say the wrong word I guess. I wonder if I meant something like “an album that searches for catharsis” (on a more experiential sonic level) or “an album that searches for love” (on a more abstract level). I really was confused and had a very blank mind, had no preconceived conceptual ideas, and wanted to just jump into a sea of synthesizer and swim around and follow that (cathartic maybe more than calm, although there are definitely moments of calm). Songs like “Turn the Light On” and even “Les Jeux to You” were like this I think, really a cathartic expression through enveloping sound and the sound of words, a kind of sound ‘game’, with no real winner haha. I think I needed that and I think people need that in these noisy days. I didn’t really isolate myself actually, in that I wrote this in the middle of the city (LA) where I live, and I did it amidst working on other stuff, which I don’t really prefer, but sometimes is just how it is, it’s hard to just be able to focus on one thing when you have to play shows occasionally if you’re lucky enough that they come up. I don’t really get out much though and do feel like I’m working constantly, and I write alone in a room of my own to do it, which I’m fortunate to have. So in that sense, there is a kind of solitude, I guess, in that I have the space to write alone and in relative quiet (although I live close to downtown so it’s pretty loud haha).

Did writing the album help you achieve this state of calm, or are you still searching?

I’ll never be calm unfortunately. I thought the process of jumping into the synth sea would lead me somewhere formed and it did, but I didn’t think of it as a thing for my soul only really, I thought of it as a means to an end of creating something that was outside of myself, so I wonder if I’ve been confused in communicating the goal. For me maybe it’s about sharing with others, reaching out, sending out a signal that hopefully moves on its own (not a language-based message but something more like a radio signal?). Like as opposed to personal therapy. I think that the process of making something in of itself can be therapeutic/cathartic, whether or not you mean for it to be, but I don’t think I thought of the actual process as healthy or balanced exactly haha.

Do you feel like the musical community is becoming more important for musicians recently, finding solidarity in an often fragmented world?

I have a lot of thoughts about what “musical community” means these days. I think these days a lot of times it’s some kind of virtual internet community and I don’t know how that works ultimately. I don’t reach out to people often online I don’t think, unless I really want to, but I tend to stick with people I’ve met, sometimes old friends, or friends of friends, I’m just really trusting so I have to be careful and not accidentally fall into the wrong vibe I guess. But in-person musical communities—playing shows in people’s houses, singing for fun in groups, meeting up and listening to music, even group jams (lol!)—were really important to me when I first started making music and to this day, although more recently I find myself slightly more isolated probably just because at our age a lot of people I know are also super busy these days juggling a lot of things. I have to make an effort and shove in more stuff than I can really handle mentally, just to keep myself learning more and not stagnating.

I’m happier when I have the time to work with artist friends or play shows together, especially shows where I’m doing new things that are a contrast to what I’m working on on my own. I always learn from others and I develop respect and love for other artists when I see them both as artists and as people, sometimes whether or not we really bond as friends. I notice a lot of musicians and I ask each other questions, we’re so curious how the other one does it, we always have respect for each other and also help each other, give each other advice. Listening is so important. I think that listening is hard on the internet, I’m not sure if it’s the same thing.

Do you think the lack of empathy in the world that you sing of has been more apparent to you than most others due to your profession as a touring musician, seeing so much of the world?

That’s a really insightful question. I think that’s probably true for sure. Sometimes I don’t think about how much I learn from traveling, because we do it so quickly, often with not much time off, that I breeze through so many cities and places, but actually you still learn something, because you meet wonderful people (and not always wonderful people, because everywhere there is a bit of both haha) in every place. You come to understand that all over the world, people find solace from struggles in small things like coffee or tea or some kind of something lol or whatever, everyone eats and breathes and needs music. It’s always insane to go somewhere new and very different from where you come from, and have someone know your music, that is something I’ll never get used to, it’s scary but also really moving, and special, and I always appreciate that. And the fact that those people may listen to other music that I listen to and love as well.

I understand that people who live in homogenous places and have seen nothing else might feel that people who are different from them might be mysterious and scary. But I also know that many of us as humans can use our imaginations to channel empathy even for strangers, and that’s something we’d do well to excel at here, in that our country is big and full of a variety of different geographical and cultural scenarios. Unfortunately, throughout the history of our country (and obviously you have this in many countries), and more so now than in a long time maybe, we have had people in power abusing their positions and lying to and convincing people otherwise for their own gain, and then we get the xenophobic trends to the point where empathy and social responsibilities are seen as being opposed to one’s rights, it’s an intentionally confused blur of what human rights are. Empathy is an obstacle to people in power who know they can’t stay there if their people start working together and listening to each other. I also think that people in power tend to lose the ability to empathize at all so it’s a vicious cycle? I feel very privileged, and I am always checking myself and trying to see other perspectives, it seems necessary to me to feel alive.

“Empathy is an obstacle to people in power who know they can’t stay there if their people start working together and listening to each other.”

‘Aviary’ is your fifth album - do you still get an urgent compulsion to write, or have you become slower and more deliberate with what you choose to sing about? Did the themes of what would become the album present themselves to you quickly and easily or did you have to search them out?

I think I honestly haven’t changed that much in an essential way in terms of how I write—I tend to do so kind of compulsively and in intense spurts of activity, there are a lot of trial and error and mistakes involved, even if I’ve had more experience in recent years working with other people and communicating my ideas to musicians—that always is hard, but I force myself to try. The themes on this record definitely emerged as I was writing it, and the initial writing of it involved these recorded improvisations on synth and voice, and then I pulled stuff I liked from those and developed the moments I liked into songs.

As the sounds pushed themselves into various forms, imagery began emerging, but I definitely had to search and think a lot about how it all fit together, I was kind of observing that as I went, but I kept in mind that my long-held interest in medieval stuff seemed weirdly relevant to now for a few reasons. I was listening to the Vangelis Blade Runner score a lot. And also medieval music haha. I think that stuff helped guide the imagery for me. The record started to become a reflection of the chaotic busyness of one’s mind this day in age, haunted by memories of humanity’s past and trying to confront the future, in this time of hyper-communication via internet and extreme changing weather patterns.

All the thoughts of the mind are represented to me by birds flying around, inspired by Etel Adnan’s quote “I saw myself in an aviary full of shrieking birds” as well as her discussion of how memories “stalk” us felt really relatable, and also inspired by how in medieval times, bird cages were used visually as a trope for a storehouse of memories (as mentioned in Mary Carruther’s Book of Memory). I thought of birds as memories flying around in the mind—beautiful birds, shrieking birds—just like beautiful memories and terrible memories, and, as a parallel there are tracks like Everyday is an Emergency, where you have these hocketing harsh tones split between bagpipe and trumpet and violin and synth and voice from the highest range to lowest range, and those are some of my favorite sounds, those reedy sounds, but they are also harsh, and I like that duality, and thus ambiguity, of harmony and discord, etc. like what is considered beautiful and what is not?

One of the tracks is called “Colligere” (as in “collecting”) and that one is about the process of collecting different texts from different places and reusing it and transferring from one voice to another, this constant translation from one era to another, that sharing from era to era feels like what this is all about, and that’s all we have, to me that sharing is love.

The album artwork for ‘Aviary’ feels somewhat psychedelic - do you like to escape into another space and another universe through the songs you write?

Yes I sure do hahaa. I like thinking of it as a “world” of its own, absolutely, ideally it is. And I should say, I don’t necessarily feel like it’s a total escape, to me it’s more like building something that walks on its own eventually. I like to build this living creature, that moves around and is independent of me, some kind of organism that is not part of me, or that’s how I like to think of it. But parts of me are in it—when people ask if my work is “political” or “personal”, yes it’s both of those things, as is all art—all art is political and personal whether it wants to be or not, but ideally it also is its own creature, so we send ourselves into it but then it becomes something else.

The artwork (by Dicky Bahto who also made the video for “I Shall Love 2” and “Words I Heard”) felt like a parallel to the ‘collecting’ aspect of my music (which I reference in the title for the song “Colligere”)—a lot of times I like to layer sounds together to see what crazy harmonics come out, it’s always more than the sum of its parts, and that layering and collecting is kind of how we approached the artwork. Dicky sometimes layers images with projectors as a part of his performances, and we took a bunch of photos that felt, in different ways, relevant to the record to me for whatever reason—nighttime dark ‘noir’ urban photos, medieval imagery, etc.—and projected them into a space and made a sort of “environment” where we could just play with overlaying these different photos and create various surreal scenes. It was extremely fun and felt a bit like how I work when I’m writing—there might be technical limitations that you decide upon, but you don’t come in with a clear set of expectations on a bigger, emotional level, the emotion and meaning emerges almost magically, that’s really fun to me.

'Aviary' is out 26th October via Domino.

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