Usually, it’s hard to know what Julia Holter is singing about. She gives hints in album titles (“Tragedy”, “Ekstasis”) and you can occasionally make out the odd lyric (“Bright blue flames under my fingers/I’m taken by surprise”). But Holter, a singer and composer from Los Angeles, often mixes her warbles and trills, chants and whispers, so that they puddle together. With underlying washes of sound from violin and cello, her songs are like watercolours, and there’s a beauty in that. But on a damp February night at Oval Space in east London, she sang a different way. Her voice was unclouded, pure – and far more forceful as a result.
Her set was dominated by songs from her latest album, “Have You In My Wilderness”, which was released last September. If her earlier records have a dreamlike quality, on this one, her voice has woken up, in order to tell the tales of Betsy, a suicidal woman standing on a roof, and Tiburcio Vázquez, a 19th-century Californian bandit. Her often wispy voice was now limpid and expressive, with enough power to give life to her characters. As Vázquez, her voice stabbed the air with proud braggadocio; as a spectator watching Betsy, she keened with horror.
It was a revelatory performance – largely because we could hear her lyrics. Despite sometimes giving the opposite impression, Holter does care about words. You practically need a bibliography to decipher her work. “Tragedy” (2011), her first album, is based on Eurypides’ “Hippolytus”; “Ekstasis” (2012) quotes Frank O’Hara and Virginia Woolf; “Loud City Song” (2013) is a re-working of Colette’s novella, “Gigi”. For “Have You In My Wilderness”, add Christopher Isherwood’s “Goodbye to Berlin” to the reading list.
Given how much thought she puts into her lyrics, it’s strange that she often arranges the music so that we only ever hear fragments of them. Shimmering vocals are interleaved with intricate melodies: the sound is entrancing, but the overall effect frustrating. You have a nagging suspicion that the music has been composed for something other than enjoyment. Holter doesn’t mean to come across as difficult. “[My music] is about a feeling,” she has said. “I can say, yes, my song is about this guy or that woman saying: ‘Come be in my wilderness’, and that’s the way you can read the lyrics, but I don’t think the essence of the song is that meaning. It’s [about] the experience of listening to it.” But too often, the experience of listening to her feels like being caught out by your English professor: you haven’t read the source material and you have no idea what she’s talking about.
At the Oval Space, the only source we needed was Holter. She had stopped hiding in her books; now she was telling stories. It was like spending several nights with Scheherazade, though in this version it was the audience that was held captive.
Julia Holter tours America and the UK until March 6th