Eyes closed in the crystalline glow of LA’s Lodge Room, composer and performer Julia Holter serenaded a select group of in-person and virtual guests for the Audiotree STAGED series on Thursday evening, February 25. Ten people attended the socially-distanced performance space while other Holter fans sent their love from across the globe.
The series enables artists like Holter to reach her audiences near and far during the ongoing pandemic. “It’s nice to play a show,” Holter remarked, “and I know we’re all trying to play a show.” In a moment’s ode to her fellow musicians who lament their once bustling concert life, Holter is grateful, and honest: “I’m kind of just going to play songs I want to play.”
Known for chamber-pop pieces that can combine harpsichord, organ, trumpets, bass, and bagpipes alike, Holter’s music can also include electronic synthesizers and intricate layered vocals that result in a profound cacophony of sound. Equal in style are her subdued, resonant pieces that move like a meditation, an “elegant calm,” as described by Pitchfork, but “often never still.”
Throughout the program, Holter peppered in bits of her own music, but mostly played the works of others in keeping with songs she “just wants to play.” A memorable highlight of her performance was an homage to Joni Mitchell, the singer-songwriter who defined a generation. Despite the striking difference in orchestration between the two California-based artists, when Holter stood with only her Nord Stage 2 synth to accompany her, the musician painted a similar portrait to Mitchell and her guitar, a bare-bones intimacy that felt like home.
Holter’s voice is telling. She is as protean and budding with curiosity as she is reverent and wise, echoing as though she’s lived a thousand lives. Such are her arrangements of Mitchell. In “Little Green,” as she often does in other songs, Holter experiments by looping certain verses in a cyclical cadence. With the left hand maintaining a swelling bass, the artist creates moments in her performance where words evolve beyond grammar and syntax. Lyrics were not only heard, but seemingly embodied by Holter. In “Jericho,” as her “walls keep tumblin’ down,” Holter rides out each repeated melody with sweeping gestures that pull the heart strings to and fro — a timeless reimagining of Mitchell still tender to the touch.
In addition to “Another Dream,” “Voce Simul,” and “Colligere” from her most recent album Aviary (2018), Holter continued performing music from years past. She sang each longing refrain of Paolo Conte’s “Chiamami adesso,” Dionne Warwick’s swooning “Don’t Make me Over,” and the ballads “Hello Stranger” by Barbara Lewis and “Something’s On Your Mind” by Karen Dalton.
Some might go so far as to say the musician’s programmatic choices represent a larger musical philosophy. In interviews, Holter stresses that music is about translation. “Art is a recycling, a sharing across generations. Everything is in translation, translation. Everything seems to me that way,” she told PopMatters magazine. Consequently, fragments of Sappho, lines from Dante’s Inferno, Tibetan Chant, medieval polyphony, and musings from Greek playwrights can all be found in her works. This sharing across generations also emerges when Holter covers artists like Joni Mitchell. As she keenly collects the past within a unique, sonic, and often electronic frame, Julia Holter rebirths old ideas anew.
Ushering each piece into the next by her reverberating synth, the artist featured well-known originals from her 2015 album, Have You in My Wilderness. With“Sea Calls me Home” and “Betsy On The Roof,” Holter concludes with a musical style irrevocably hers. As chromatic scales twist in the piano riffs below, the performer contorts her voice to wail, cry, and curl in on itself in a way that is both novel, and yet with each breath evokes the brilliance of Meredith Monk and Kate Bush: “Arms stretched out, looking up / Won’t you please tell me the answer?” Ending the night meandering on an unresolved leading tone, it’s truly with the smallest of gestures that Holter keeps us on our toes, bowing with a knowing grin, leaving us longing for more.
Visit Julia Holter’s website.