In pop and folk, the voice is often considered the most direct route to emotion, and lyrics are the articulation of the feelings expressed. While many singer-songwriters adhere to that orthodoxy, Los Angeles-based composer Julia Holter uses her voice to approach emotion from a more oblique angle. Using allusive texts from various sources to render her “self” an abstraction within elaborately constructed baroque pop, Holter has based previous records on everything from Greek tragedy to musicals. But her most recent LP, Have You in My Wilderness, shows that her music remains both intimate and direct without revolving around her own identity.
Similarly, Colombian musician Lucrecia Dalt has turned to external sources such as New German Cinema and microbiology to inspire her electronic productions. Dalt’s struggle with her own vocals led her to drop not only singing but also “traditional” instrumentation—looped and treated bass and guitar—altogether. On her recent self-titled EP, she presents a decidedly more abstract approach to composing which, like Holter, has drawn comparison to one of the great manipulators of sound and voice: Laurie Anderson. Dalt and Holter have worked together in the past, and when they met again in Berlin they were eager to discuss making music that isn’t a pure expression of personality.
Lucrecia Dalt: We first crossed paths via Gudrun Gut…
Julia Holter: …in 2008.
LD: She asked us to contribute music to a compilation series called 4 Women No Cry. Each volume featured four female musicians from four different countries. Then we went on tour together in Poland and Germany. I remember Gudrun wrote to me on Myspace.
JH: Myspace was amazing back then. I found out about so much music that way, particularly new artists doing crazy work under the radar. Now Myspace is a dead zone.
LD: People could format their Myspace page the way they wanted. It was a very clumsy platform, but in a charming way. I liked that you could judge the artist by how they tried to organize all those chaotic boxes and images that Myspace let you customize. It all disappeared when they tried to streamline this mess that everybody was making.
JH: We also worked together on the Terepa project for Nicolas Jaar’s label Other People. The two of us, along with five other artists, including Laurel Halo, Rashad Becker and NHK’Koyxen, recorded music simultaneously for 20 minutes with zero communication between the composers. Then these individual recordings were layered over each other to form a chance-based or “telepathic” composition. We didn’t have a discussion about what we were doing, just a time bracket within which we could play anything.
LD: I definitely left a lot of space.
JH: Yeah, I felt that too.
LD: Once the recordings were put together I was lost sometimes as to who contributed what.
JH: You can’t really tell at this point. The final piece is a real wall of sound. It sounds like it took place in a murky sewer. I’m totally saying that in a good way.
LD: And there’s no space or silence. That would’ve been nice—if there were empty points where everybody left space for each other.
JH: Terepa was a good exercise in balancing external criteria with personal, intuitive composition. On the one hand, there’s the romantic idea of channeling an internal state, and on the other, incorporating non-musical materials into the music-making process.
LD: I’ve stopped channeling my internal drive into my recordings. Now I need external objects and pieces of information around me in order to make music. I need stimuli because the idea of pulling something from “inside” and playing a song in a romantic way became alien to me. I worked in that traditional way in the past, but it doesn’t make sense to me anymore. Now I follow a methodology.
JH: So you’re letting different things come at you and then you’re responding to them rather than just dealing with your own thoughts?
LD: Yeah, exactly. When I create only with my internal resources, without any exposure to anything outside my head, I tend to be very mathematical and structural. I end up repeating patterns, generating fewer new ideas. When I have input from outside I start to see more surprises in what I’m making. I feel this is good because, since I work alone all the time, I can get confused and tired of myself during the work. These external sources become creative partners, telling me, “Hey, this way!” For my upcoming album I worked with projections of New German Cinema. I’d play them silently while I was working on the tracks. I came to Berlin on a scholarship, and I decided that I wanted to investigate German film because I didn’t know much about it. So the album feeds from this cinema, from Ferdinand Khittl, Rainer Werner Fassbinder, Werner Schroeter and Helke Sander. I can take a little cluster of information from a film, and those scenes become a force that takes the music beyond the proscribed structures that internal “channeling” reproduces.
JH: That’s how I work with stories. Maybe they’re not as obvious an external material, but the key is that they existed beside myself. They have their own life. Then I can work with that material to make a song. People are always like, “Why do you use other people’s stories?” Whereas for me that’s precisely what’s interesting. They want to know, “Where’re you in this?” I don’t understand the question. Obviously I’m in the work—it seems like a given that you’re in a song you create. So isn’t it more interesting to find that structure or impetus via something else? You need something that pushes you. Maybe you won’t find that drive within yourself.
LD: I’m not using words anymore either, so locating a self in my work is problematic. I sing a very simple line at the beginning of my new record and then the rest is decidedly abstract. It’s a journey of some kind of object that’s dealing with time as it’s passing through different sound possibilities. The movement and acceleration of this “thing” is affecting the way the sound is perceived, and it becomes more elastic. One idea forms and when you’re trying to hold or reach it, it leaves. It’s always moving. It became a record that’s more related to physics and relativity.
JH: I’m not going to form a story of my life in my record. The idea that you’re not in a work because you’ve used other sources to push against rather than drawing on an autobiographical journal is so narrow. Yet it’s a pervasive idea that we’re constantly confronted with. Some people like to think that using external sources means no emotion exists within the music. That’s the other weird question I get asked: “What about your emotions?” Well, they come through. It’s not like something isn’t interesting if it’s not about you, or entirely from within you. It’s a very strange idea that people have about art. Maybe it’s also an argument hinged on gender. I don’t mean to attack anyone, but people tend to think of women as writing about their feelings. I can’t adopt a story without confusing people because they have these sorts of expectations. How can I sing a man’s perspective? There are plenty of weird assumptions people make regarding what a female artist can and cannot do.
LD: For me it was a fight. Every time I took the microphone it didn’t feel right, especially performing. Paradoxically, I was generating a more interesting dialogue without my voice, when I was just playing the music. The voice is susceptible to everyday changes and it behaves differently according to the situation. I feel I have more control over a performance when I’m not singing.
JH: When music is physical or absolute, it’s not working language anymore right? It seems like you find that liberating.
LD: It can be liberating on a personal and a creative level. With my album Syzygy, I was passing through a crisis and living in a weird state of mind generated by sleep deprivation and over stimulation. I enjoyed being in this state, because I was able to let this thing out. I would say it was my most emotional record in this sense because I was desperate. I needed to make this album to have relief.
JH: I have this idea that’s hard to logically explain in plain language: I don’t think of music as a form of communication. Or art in general. The only time that I come up against a contradiction to this idea is when I think about political music, or music that is somewhat political, but not obviously so. In any case, when it comes to my music, I don’t feel like I’m communicating. It’s a confusing thing for people because I work almost exclusively with language. I started making music in school. I was writing music for other people to play and I thought of myself as a behind-the-scenes person. Then I found that I was most happy when I was recording, and one of the main things that I found difficult is to make absolute music, to make music that is just there. Classical music is very much about developing themes, musical figures and motifs, and it was really hard for me to do that in music school. I couldn’t get interested in it and I think it’s because I’m not really much of a musician, in a weird way. I don’t find it fun to work with the development of musical themes. I’m much better when I work with words.
LD: But I have the sense that your album Tragedy was working with themes.
JH: Maybe. I don’t like to think about it. In school it was always like: [in a curmudgeonly voice] “How does this theme develop?” Instead, I was working with language, and the language was guiding me through. It doesn’t mean that I only work with words, but it means that when I don’t work with words I might be thinking about language. That said, I don’t think of the music as a message, so it’s confusing. I don’t have a thing to say, I just have things that come out of me so that people can feel something. I kind of spew things out and make people make sense of it. I feel no sense of responsibility, which might make me a jerk. There’s a mystery in things and that’s what I like to bask in. When I make these songs they’ll start by just coming out—then I develop them. There are songs that appear with imagery whose origin is beyond my logical understanding, and then I like to work with that as a basis. I think there’s a surreal quality to it because I don’t know where the imagery comes from. It’s like looking at another person’s sketches and then developing that other persons’ work. That’s what the process of making this new record was like. It’s not like my last album, Loud City Song, where it was all inspired by one story. By the way, did you go to music school?
LD: I studied civil engineering.
JH: That’s so cool.
LD: I worked two years in a geo-technical company, designing foundations, retaining walls and other stuff. We’d do all the tests of the soil, analyze the samples and from there produce the results and offer recommendations like, “Okay, you have to dig down 20 meters and there you can lay your foundation, it has to be this diameter, et cetera.” It was mostly an office design job, mathematical design, but someone would have to eventually go down underground to make sure the strata reached was the expected one for the foundation. I was one of the few who didn’t mind going way below the surface of the earth. It’s not a very nice situation, being god knows how many meters down there in a hole that’s only around one meter in diameter. You’re beneath the water table so it’s raining basically. It was a cool job and I really enjoyed it but it was a very, very difficult job for a female.
JH: Because you were treated weird?
LD: You come into the industry, your boss puts trust in you, but when you reach the construction projects, they’d expect someone older, most likely a man. And they would suggest to hear a confirmation from another engineer. There is this gendered history behind you that’s quite difficult to fight.
This article originally appeared in the Fall 2015 issue of Electronic Beats Magazine. Click here to read more from the magazine. Photo by Luci Lux.