(In the first installment of what hopefully becomes a semi-regular feature, three of our writers came together to discuss the simultaneously abstract and pop-minded music of Julia Holter.)
ALEXANDER BORG: I believe that it is important that we begin this discussion by establishing our differing musical backgrounds and tastes. Julia Holter's music incorporates so many distant elements that we will get into later that I'm curious to know what specifically attracts you to her music.
STEVE JONES: I only heard Tragedy, my first exposure to Holter's work, a little over a month ago, and I think what attracted me so immediately was how gosh darned pretty it was. I have more history with "classical" music than any other genre--it's just what I grew up liking, and when I started learning the piano it was the kind of music I was most consistently exposed to. Even though I have thankfully and significantly diversified my musical palette, I'm still often drawn close to musicians who have been "classically trained." My most sterling example would be Owen Pallett, but others include Simon Bookish and, most recently, Julia Holter. Tragedy is a more spacious and abstract album than I would initially consider myself enjoying, but its composition is so masterful and warm and pleasant on the ears that I could not help but find it inviting.
Also, I do love a good concept album, and Tragedy's basis in Hippolytus, my first Euripedes play, only sweetened the experience for me. So I suppose it was her incorporation of both classical music and classical antiquity that really stuck out to me and made her music so enjoyable. Holter is a strong and unique voice in the current musical sphere, and I always want to hear more of those.
DANNY SPITERI: Although I do have soft spots for certain styles of music, I've found that many of my favorite artists tend to be those that sidestep easy genre classification. Examples like Flying Lotus, The Books, and Stereolab don't sound particularly alike, but they each embody a certain penchant for exploration that keeps them detached from narrow stylistic approaches. Julia Holter strikes a similar chord with me by incorporating elements of a variety of musical flavors I find appealing, including experimental music, art pop, and ambient music. Most importantly, she blends these sounds together in a way that is both unique and cohesive, and consequently finds a delicate balance between familiar ideas and that ever so fascinating factor of individuality.
I also appreciate that Holter is "classically trained." Her classical background truly allows for her compositional skills to shine, resulting in songwriting that I think feels much more realized than that of many other rising independent artists.
ALEXANDER: While I consider myself an ardent pursuer of the perfect pop song first and foremost, otherworldly music has always entranced me. Imagine my delight when I first listened to Tragedy. On Tragedy, Holter's masterfully arranged compositions perfectly integrated atmospherics and field recordings to transport the listener into a realm distant and strange with subtle pop melodies that only revealed themselves through multiple listens. With her followup Ekstasis, Holter inverting her formula, letting pop melodies take center stage as complimented by her arrangements. While I deeply enjoy both of her records, the sheer greatness of its melodies and its awe-inspiring beauty make Ekstasis my favorite Holter record.
While I do realize that it is very early to call, I believe that Julia Holter's career will be defined by constant reinvention and her unique ability to meld seemingly disparate influences. Equally inspired by ancient and medieval works (both literary and musical), modern classical, and 80's synthpop, Holter's music (in my mind at least) defies definite classification, a sentiment that she has stated herself in interviews.
In these same interviews however she has also confessed that she feels that too much emphasis is applied to her classical training, stating that she views her music as pop music.
I feel conflicted in viewing the work of an artist differently than the artist who created it but I feel that Tragedy and Ekstasis are works that clearly could only have been created by a musician with a classically-trained background. Would the two of you agree?
STEVE: Of course her music is pop. Even the significantly more abstract Tragedy is quite the accessible listen. But her classical training has to factor somehow into the way she composes pop music. An education of any kind affects the way you perceive and create things, for better or worse. I mean, I took one theory course and one composition course in college, but I haven't been able to listen to music the same way since then. My education certainly comes nowhere close to anything resembling "classical training," but I have to imagine that such training provides you with certain mindsets and tools unique to that background. In fact, while I cannot quote them, I remember reading interviews with people who have lamented a music education precisely because its effect is so inescapable. I can't confirm firsthand that this is true for Holter, but the parallels I hear in her pop music to the pop music of the artists I mentioned previously (Owen Pallett, Simon Bookish, etc.) support that. It is certainly nothing to be lamented, however. At least in my mind it isn't.
Oh, and because I know this is going to become a point of contention eventually, as much as I like Ekstasis, I find Tragedy to be the superior record.
DANNY: Holter's music unquestionably strikes me as pop, but that's not to suggest that her classical background isn't prominent. As I said earlier, I feel like its influence on her compositional approach is very apparent, and regardless of what genre term(s) best classifies her music, that influence is difficult to ignore. However, I would also argue that it doesn't define her music. It's simply a medium through which she writes songs, rather than something that characterizes the way the songs function. Holter still has an ear for accessibility that modern classical composers generally forgo, which is partly a product of her vocal presence and the element of human warmth it offers, and partly a product of her use of easily digestible melodies. This sense of approachability is what ultimately pushes her music into pop territory in my mind. It's intricate, abstract, and relatively complex, but it's pop music nonetheless.
Regarding the Tragedy vs. Ekstasis debate, I haven't spent quite enough time with the latter to be able to say with confidence which one I prefer. However, at this point in time, I may have to give a slight edge to Tragedy. Although I love hearing Holter tap more deeply into her pop influences, I cannot turn down the lengthy, droning explorations of tracks like "The Falling Age" and "Celebration." I am open to the possibility of Ekstasis continuing to grow on me, though, especially considering that my love forTragedy did increase with each of the first several listens I gave it.
ALEXANDER: I think one thing we can agree on is that Julia Holter is a venerable paragon of modern art pop. Equally surreal and accessible, Holter's music certainly makes the modern music scene a lot more interesting. Here's to her scoring a hat-trick with Gigi.