Photo by Tonje Thilesen
You'll find Julia Holter in California dreaming of water.
The characters in her upcoming fourth LP, Have You in My Wilderness, are surrounded by oceans, wearing raincoats, struggling to swim, chasing rivers and wading into the testy waters of a relationship. Holter, however, wrote their stories amid the California drought in her Echo Park apartment, south of where wildfires are destroying dried-out mountainsides and engulfing anything in their path. She's only joking when she says that rationing water in Los Angeles influenced all the fluid imagery in her lush pop record, which dropped last week on Domino, but it's hard to imagine it didn't make an impression on the music.
Drought-influenced or not, water washes over Holter's focus on human relationships on the album. In "Sea Calls Me Home," the sea serves as a metaphor for the daunting yet empowering freedom that comes after a breakup.
"I can't swim / It's lucidity / So clear," Holter confesses over a marching snare. The song, like all of its composer's music, is carefully orchestrated—it has the baroque feel of ancient keys, the reverb of a 60s diva and the sax of an avant-garde soloist. Its protagonist struts confidently out to sea, freshly cut loose from the tethers of a relationship. But as she's about to take the plunge into her new life, she realizes the sea is too vast, unfriendly and larger than she'll ever be. Her newfound clarity proves too overwhelming.
"It's freedom, but freedom is scary too," Holter said by phone from LA. "There's a side of darkness to everything. The sea is beautiful, but it's also terrifying."
In real life, Holter is a city person. She admires nature from afar, but when it comes to exploring it, she prefers to stay in her urban comfort zone. That's why she uses the wilderness to represent the intriguing unknown, the ominous parts of life in her songwriting. There's the freedom of the sea, she explains, but there's also personal wilderness—the world someone pulls you into when you fall in love.
"[Have You In My Wilderness] is the idea that when you're in love, you own them, possess them, and I was interested in that," Holter said. "In human relationships, that's a romantic idea. None of the songs on my record are really romantic, sweet love songs. They're all about problems. That's what I was interested in: the demented part of it, the way you are delusional when you're in a relationship sometimes."
On the title track, Holter sings from the perspective of a man who wants to capture his lover and keep her in his realm, thinking that's what she wants because it's what he wants.
"Lady of gold, you would fit beautiful in my wilderness / Oh, in your waters I've dropped anchor," she sings in round, silky tones. "You'll see lightning cascading / Pronouncements of our love."
"In 'Wilderness,' he's saying, 'Why do I feel you running away? Don't you want to be in my world? In my crazy world?'" Holter said. "That's your wilderness. Trying to force them there and thinking that they might want that."
Her idea of possession goes even darker on "Lucette Stranded On The Island," a song you wouldn't know is about murder just from hearing its dreamy, hazy vocals. Its lyrics, however, tell the story of a woman attacked by a man while stranded on an island, and in comes the metaphorical sea again.
"I think there's this tossing and turning in that song at the very end that has that being tossed and turned in the waves that's sort of like, uncontrollable. Something is taking control of you and it's scary," she said.
The album's lyrics and instrumentation are as complex as ever, but not as abstract as her past work. Holter's melodies range from dark and Nico-esque to playful and meandering. Many of the songs, like "Sea Calls Me Home" and "Feel You," are doused in the sounds of a twangy virginal, the type of old piano featured in the latter's video, which stars her boyfriend's dog.
Holter said that while her songs draw from personal experience, she only uses imagery she's read or heard about. That cinematic approach is in part why's been enlisted to write the music for the upcoming film Bleed For This, a biopic of boxer Vinny Pazienza starring Miles Teller and executive produced by Martin Scorsese.
Despite all the references to the ominous outdoors, Holter had no intention of writing a nature record when she began crafting its songs three years ago. The water is merely a vessel that keeps the metaphors for control and possession afloat.
"Nature is a symbol for fear and power," she said. "That's not stuff that I even meant to do. It's not like I planned to make a record about nature even being involved. When you write stuff, there tends to be natural patterns."
And while Holter is "actually very scared of the wild," she's looking to conquer that fear and embrace it. Hey, she's even learning how to garden—with drought-friendly sage and succulents, of course.
Julia Holter's Have You in My Wilderness is out now via Domino Records. You can pick up a copy here.
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