Search The Line of Best Fit
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Julia Holter Camille Blake 1
Nine Songs
Julia Holter

With her lavish, nocturnal new album Something in the Room She Moves, Julia Holter embraces the joy and reward of living in the moment. She talks to Alan Pedder about finding inspiration in the soundtrack of her life.

15 March 2024, 11:00 | Words by Alan Pedder

There’s something of the night about Julia Holter’s sixth studio album, but it’s intimacy rather than darkness that defines it.

Something in the Room She Moves flickers and dances like a flame. Sometimes as naked as a single candle, at other times combusting with all the passion of a furnace. As ever, Holter is flush with inventive ideas and playful experimentation. Surrounding herself with many of her inner circle, including her partner Tashi Wada who plays synths and bagpipes, Holter sounds incredibly present and vivid in a way that’s refreshingly different from some of her more arch work on, for example, 2018’s Aviary.

This new emphasis on presence comes partly from her experience of new motherhood, having given birth to her first child during the pandemic. Wracked with exhaustion and the pervading weirdness of the world at large, Holter found the songs reluctant to reveal themselves at first, perhaps forcing her to show up in ways that she hadn’t in the past.


Speaking to Best Fit over the phone from her home in Los Angeles, she explains how that period of inertia left her little time or motivation to escape into her usual sources of inspiration. “I wasn’t really listening to music, I wasn’t really reading, or watching many movies,” she says. “Tashi would put a lot of music on the stereo, a lot of jazz. There was one record that he was playing a lot, by an Indian flute player called T.R. Mahalingam, that was really inspiring, and that reminds me a lot of when our daughter was born.”

One movie that she did watch, repeatedly, was the Studio Ghibli animation Ponyo, a favourite of her daughter’s that directly inspired the liquid production style of recent single “Evening Mood” and the theme of transformability central to songs like “Spinning”. More broadly, Something in the Room She Moves relates the human capacity for change to our capacity for love, which in Holter’s hands can seem fantastical and endless at the same time as restful and mellow, close to home.

When it came to choosing her nine songs, Holter draws on what she describes as “quite a limited repertoire” of favourites. Not limited by imagination, but by the simple fact that Holter tends to come back to the same pieces regularly. “I don’t listen to music constantly like some people,” she says. “I’m not a record collector, so it’s hard for me to not repeat myself when doing this type of thing. But I did try to pick songs that have been with me at various times throughout my life, so the ones we’re going to talk about might be a little different as well as probably a lot of stuff that I’ve talked about in the past.”

"Molimo (1970-present)" by Simone Forti

BEST FIT: Your partner Tashi Wada was involved in the making of Al Di Là, the album that this track comes from, and you and Simone have both featured on one of his records. How did that connection begin, between you and Simone?

JULIA HOLTER: Tashi's father, Yoshi, who was an artist, was in the same friend circles as Simone and they were also neighbours. Simone is originally from LA and had moved back there at some point, and Tashi reconnected with her when he moved here, which was more than 15, maybe almost 20 years ago now. So it’s through Tashi that I met her and became very inspired by her work. She’s so multifaceted.

She’s not as well known for her sound works as she is for her work as a dancer, a choreographer, and as an artist. It’s interesting because everything she does encompasses so many different elements. There’s a large visual element to her work and there’s often a speech element as well. She’s a writer and a poet, too. She’s been writing a lot in recent years, and I feel like she always has something surprising to say. Often there’s a humour to her work as well. She’s kind of a visionary really.

It's a breath of fresh air to watch Simone perform. Right before the pandemic started, in February 2020, Tashi and I did a really fun show with her, performing some of her sound works, including with the ‘molimo’.

That’s an instrument that kind of looks like a shower hose, right?

Yeah, it’s a found instrument, obviously, but it’s her thing. She plays it almost like a flute, bending and twisting this corrugated tubing to get different sounds.

What is it about this particular piece that you find inspiring?

Well, the whole record is great, and I have used songs from it on playlists that I’ve made for other publications in the past. I wanted to choose one that don’t think I’ve chosen before, and I just love the way she plays the molimo instrument. I feel like I’ve learned a lot from Simone, more broadly. Even just her general vibe is just so infectious. It’s like I get a fresh perspective from her all the time. There’s poetry in everything she does. There’s no pretense to it.

I don’t know what her work is ‘about’, but when I experience her work it feels very much like it’s exploring how, as humans, we respond to things in an immediate way – like, what are the immediate impulses of the body? But at the same time it’s also very thoughtful. She’s often ruminating on things. For example, she has this performance called News Animations, where she moves around the room while speaking in a stream of consciousness kind of way about what’s going on in the news at the time. I don’t know exactly how to explain it, but to me it’s very poetic and not planned in an obvious way. Obviously it is structured to some extent, but it’s also improvised.

As I said before, she's very well known in certain worlds, but maybe not so much in the music world. Sometimes the music world can be a little insular and you need to break out of that and go look at some art, or to get a little fresh air from some other medium. I think Simone's work is extremely important for people to experience, and I think a lot of musicians would really appreciate it, even beyond the sound works.

"Turiya and Ramakrishna" by Alice Coltrane

BEST FIT: From what you’ve said in the past, Alice Coltrane has obviously been a hugely important figure to you, and she left such an incredible body of work. What is it about this piece in particular that makes it special?

JULIA HOLTER: There are a lot of Alice Coltrane recordings that I come back to, for my mental health [laughs], but this song is one that makes me feel really crazy when I listen to it. There’s a piano solo that comes in after a little while that just affects me so much. It’s like there’s something chemical in my body that changes when I listen to this music. It instantly calms me, but not in a New Age-y way.

When I listen to it or experience it – and this is actually true of Simone Forti’s work, too – it brings me to the feeling of embracing the most important thing about being alive. It’s very abstract and I don’t know how else to put it, but when I experience this music I’m like, ‘Oh, this is the centre, this is where everything means something and, wow, I’m feeling a lot right now.’ I don’t mean this in a religious way, although of course Alice Coltrane was very religious, but that feeling feels to me like a sort of spiritual experience. That’s probably the easiest way to describe it, as some kind of sublime thing.

There are a lot of other things I love about this song. I especially love the way she incorporates the blues harmonies and gives them this really embellished quality that maybe comes out of her interest in modal and Indian music. Her combination of the blues harmonic world and embellished modal world with raga-inspired elements is unique, I think.

"De profundis clamavi" by Josquin Des Prez

BEST FIT: This is a piece for five voices written in the early 16th century. Do you have a favourite recording of it?

JULIA HOLTER: Yeah. I’m not 100% but I’m pretty sure that the one I’ve listened to the most is by the Hilliard Ensemble.

My love for this piece of music goes back a long way, all the way back to when I was in school. I first heard it as an assigned listening exercise in my musicology class, and that’s when I really found early music for the first time. It’s funny because I got so obsessed with it that I couldn’t focus on anything else that we were studying. I had been struggling a lot with what I was doing at the time, and I was really insecure. I think I was quite depressed as well, and the first line of this song is so dramatic – “Out of the depths I have cried unto thee, o Lord” – so it kind of became associated with that time period.

It’s the most incredibly beautiful music, the way the multiple lines and melodies work together. I don’t really have a lot more to say about it other than it’s truly, profoundly beautiful and it has always moved me so deeply.

"Piano Concerto in G: II. Adagio assai" by Maurice Ravel

JULIA HOLTER: I like Ravel, but it’s not like Ravel is one of my favourites of all time or anything like that. There are certain pieces of his that I like, and this is one of them.

It’s funny because I have a weird relationship with this song. It’s another piece that I heard for the first time in school. One of my music theory teachers brought it in for us to dictate the intro, which is something we had to do a lot. Basically the assignment was to listen to a piece and then write out the pitches by ear. There’s this melody on the piano at the beginning that’s very gentle and beautiful, and it’s so funny to me now that when I first heard it I thought it was so cheesy.

I was kind of arrogant in college, you know? Well, I don’t know if you could really call it arrogance. I was just very self-conscious and thought everything was cheesy if it was pretty. In my mind, everything had to be atonal or really aggressive. I’m so much more emotional and so much softer now than I was when I was younger, and this song that for years I thought was so cheesy has turned into this thing that makes me cry. I just love it so much.

The recording I find myself listening to most is the one of Martha Argerich playing with the Berlin Philharmonic conducted by Claudio Abbado, but I don’t know if I am as stuck to that particular recording as I am with the Hilliard Ensemble of Des Prez. Anyway, it’s so gorgeous with such beautiful orchestration, like the way the flute comes in. So beautiful.

The funny thing is, I have this thing with classical music where I always like the slow movements and then the fast ones kind of annoy me a little bit. I think that’s why I didn’t work so well in the classical realm, because so much of classical music is about the contrast between fast and slow. It’s all about the balance, but I’m like, ‘Why do we need to have the fast part? Why can’t we just have the slow, pretty one?’ [laughs].

BEST FIT: Honestly, I feel exactly the same way.

It's a very modern way of thinking, like a contemporary millennial mindset or something.

"Angel Chile" by Jeanne Lee

BEST FIT: Jeanne Lee seemed to have been something of a polymath, and she has quite a big discography with all her solo work and collaborations. But she’s also been kind of overlooked in a way. What’s your relationship to her music?

JULIA HOLTER: I discovered her music a few years ago, during the pandemic. I was working on this class called ‘Words and Non-words in Music’ and was looking for artists who did cool things with language when I found this Jeanne Lee record called Conspiracy. It’s from 1974 but it had been recently reissued. Listening to it, I especially fell in love with this track because in it she is playing with the letters of her daughter’s name, Naima, transforming them into sound.

I’m just so into the idea of playing with language and abstracting words from their meaning. It’s a name in this case, but there’s something so fascinating about freeing the words, transforming them in such a way that we no longer think of them in terms of their literal meaning. They just become sound. I think “Angel Chile” is a really good example of this.

The whole album is great, and there are a couple of other tracks on it that I love so much. Some people might call this music minimal, because a lot of it is just voice, but to me it’s not minimal at all. There’s something so bold about creating new meaning by freeing words from their literal meaning, just by playing with how each letter sounds.

Is that something you've consciously adopted in some form on your new record?

Um, I don’t know if I thought about it that much but, I mean, I guess there is a track “meyou” that kind of does a similar thing. It’s funny because I wasn’t even thinking about it so deeply. But, yeah, I do love playing with words in that way, for sure.

I was listening to Conspiracy on Bandcamp earlier and saw this nice quote from Jeanne that said, “I feel the music like a dance. I think it's an important part of the music that it has to be felt like a dance.” Is that something you feel is important as well?

I don't know specifically that I always feel that way, but I can definitely relate to that feeling. Some music I think of as like a painting, but, yeah, sometimes I do think of it as a dance and I can see why she says that. I like that connection of music with movement.

"Kalimankou Denkou" by Le Mystère des Voix Bulgares

JULIA HOLTER: I think a lot of people feel very drawn into Bulgarian choir music for the vocal harmonies, which, for people who maybe aren’t coming from that culture, are pretty surprising and gorgeous. It has a lot of harmonic seconds that you don’t hear in other music. There are harmonies happening on major beats, which creates this beautiful form of dissonance. I don’t know if that’s the right word, because the thing about dissonance is that it’s often quite subjective. But, yeah, there are these surprising harmonies that are brought out in the vocal textures.

I just love the tone of the singing in this song. There’s a beautiful timbre to it. The way it’s sung has a real sort of push to it. Generally, I just love the sound of voices singing acapella, like on the Josquin Des Prez and Jeanne Lee tracks we’ve talked about already. I love it because the voice is unique to each person. Every person has a different set of overtone structures and frequency spectrums to their voice. We all have different harmonics that are brought out in different ways when we sing, and I feel like the Bulgarian choir music really embraces that whole harmonic world.

Everyone in the group has a push to their voice and they’re all using it – I don’t know what it is technically, but it’s a certain range in their voice that they are using. I guess it’s like with any choir where everyone’s taking a certain similar approach. All of the voices doing that together is very moving.

I can say from very limited experience that singing in an acapella choir is very difficult. It’s hard to stay in tune, so you have to be very, very good. These singers are incredible. Whatever it is that they are doing, it’s crazy how they create these beautiful, beautiful harmonies.

"Automatic Writing" by Robert Ashley

BEST FIT: You’ve spoken very highly about this piece before, and having now listened to it I can see why. It’s an incredible piece of music, a little over 45 minutes long. What is it about this piece that affects you?

JULIA HOLTER: I think it’s cinematic, in a way. I’ve been very inspired by this recording because of the way it was recorded. Listening to it has actually made me love recording and all the things you can do with distance to create an atmosphere.

There’s a lot of mystery in this music. You never know exactly what’s going on. It has all these different elements. I don’t know exactly what he’s doing to bring out those frequencies in his voice. I guess it’s some kind of filter or something. Anyway, his voice sounds crazy. Also, there’s a woman speaking in French, there’s an organ that’s so far away you can barely hear it, and there’s a bass groove coming from somewhere in the building, but not the room you’re in. There’s a whole atmosphere going on, and it goes on forever, and I just love that. Very inspiring.

How did you first come across Robert Ashley’s music?

I went to music school at the University of Michigan, and although Robert Ashley wasn’t closely affiliated with the school, his ONCE Group was based in Ann Arbor and held a festival there throughout the ‘60s. I think I must have heard about him first through the music school. We talked about “Automatic Writing” in a sound art class and I was so obsessed with it that I actually made a track in response to it, which is probably the only thing I made in school that I ever liked [laughs].

The term “automatic writing” pops up in the biography for your new album, in relation to how you subconsciously came up with the album title as a twist on a Beatles lyric. Is automatic writing something that you are interested in and actively practise?

I’m interested in the concept of it, because I think there are various levels of it within songwriting for sure. I think what Robert Ashley was doing with this piece could, in a sense, be the purest kind of automatic writing. He actually had this condition where he would speak a lot and couldn’t really control it. I think it was some form of Tourette syndrome. So, for him, this idea of automatic writing was quite complex and there was a lot of internal stuff that he was exploring through this process of recording himself.

For me, I definitely do think about ideal ways of capturing the imagination. I do ponder all the different ways that you could get out the most pure thoughts from your brain, the ones that are coming at you right in that moment. But they are never perfectly pure. They are always filtered in some way. So, to me, it’s like there’s this ideal of automatic writing and then there’s the reality, which is that you’re sitting there transcribing thoughts from your head as well as you can. But, in general, I do think that it’s a great process to work with for writing. So, yeah, my final long answer is yes.

"Roaratorio: An Irish Circus on Finnegan's Wake, Pt. II" by John Cage

BEST FIT: You've talked about your connection with John Cage’s music quite a bit in the past, but what is it about this particular piece that is interesting to you?

JULIA HOLTER: John Cage had this piece called ____,____ ____ circus on ____, which is basically an instruction manual on how to turn a book or text of any kind into a performance, how to turn it into sound. A quick way of describing what it is might be to say it’s like a series of chance operations that leads to a poem that works as a condensed version of the text. Then, through a very fun process, that text becomes the skeleton of a whole recording. This track that I’ve chosen is part of the first recording of this, which was him transforming Finnegans Wake [by Irish writer James Joyce] into sound.

I had a project where I performed ____,____ ____ circus on ____ using a cookbook from the 1920s, which was very fun, though I actually don’t know if I ever finished it. Some people think this exercise comes off as a bit esoteric but anyone could do it. Roaratorio is a great recording capturing what can happen. I’ve never read Finnegans Wake but I’ve heard it’s super complex, so it’s very fun that John Cage used it as an example. I also like the word ‘circus’, because it implies that there’s a lot going on, a somewhat chaotic scene.

"Tears in Rain" by Vangelis

JULIA HOLTER: I talked a lot about the Vangelis soundtrack for Blade Runner around my last record, Aviary, and there are a lot of tracks besides this one that I really love a lot.

I love what Vangelis did. It’s very noir and it’s depressing, but it also has this romantic quality that’s really enchanting. The soundtrack is what makes me really into that film, and I think that’s probably the same for a lot of other people, but one of things that has become very clear for me over time is that I just love the synth they used. The Yamaha CS-80. I am obsessed with it. It’s used a lot on the score, to the point where it’s thought of as the Blade Runner synth in a lot of ways. Unfortunately it’s quite rare, so whenever I get the chance to play one I get really excited.

There is a smaller version, a Yamaha CS-60, in the studio where we made Something in the Room She Moves, and I played that all over the record. There’s such a great dimension to the sound of it. To me, it’s like pathos or something. I just love it. It’s super rich. So, yeah, that synth plus the fretless bass on the new record will definitely recall a certain era for some people, but for me it’s just classic.

Something in the Room She Moves is released 22 March via Domino Records.

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