Julia Holter's 'Loud City Song' Is A Story On Top Of A Story

Aug 25, 2013

The lush vocals and minimal orchestration of Julia Holter's music has graced albums dedicated to such high-minded concepts as Greek mythology and French New Wave films. Her latest release is no different, taking its narrative thrust from Gigi, the 1958 film musical about a teenage girl in turn-of-the-century Paris, raised to be a courtesan to wealthy men but longing for something more.

"I'm not really into musicals, but I grew up watching that particular one — it was at my grandma's house and I would watch it when I was a kid, and so the character was, like, kind of in me," Holter says. "It's a really easy character to, like, relate to, I suppose: someone that just wants to do their own thing."

The new album Loud City Song projects that sentiment onto present-day Los Angeles, the city Julia Holter calls home. Holter spoke with NPR's Jacki Lyden about the appeal of overlaying her favorite stories with a modern vision. Click the audio link to hear more of their conversation.

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If you're just joining us, this is WEEKENDS on ALL THINGS CONSIDERED from NPR News. I'm Jacki Lyden. And it's time now for music.


JULIA HOLTER: City shoes find ways down green fertile valleys / I never could fall straight, I'm not so sure. Someone with the thing you say...

LYDEN: This is L.A.-based singer and songwriter Julia Holter. Her music resides somewhere between indie folk and minimalist composition, and she often draws inspiration from some pretty heady material. She's based some of her past recordings on Greek tragedies and French New Wave films. For this latest album, she's taken on, for her, unlikely source material.


MAURICE CHEVALIER: (Singing) Thank heaven for little girls...

LYDEN: The 1958 musical film "Gigi," the story of a young woman raised to be a courtesan yet longing to marry the man she loves, and yes, you did just hear Maurice Chevalier. That Lerner and Loewe classic sparked the ideas behind Julia Holter's lush new album. It's called "Loud City Song."

HOLTER: It wasn't really a choice I made, initially, to do something like that, because I'm not really into musicals. But I grew up watching that particular one. It was at my grandma's house, and I would watch it when I was a kid. And so the character was, like, kind of in me. And then I think at one point, like, a few years ago, I watched it again, the movie, and I really like this one scene in it where she walks into this bar that's actually famous. It's called Maxim's. It actually exists.


CHEVALIER: (as Honore Lachaille) Gaston and Liane are joining me here at Maxim's tonight.

HOLTER: And she walks in and everyone's staring at her and talking about her because she's with this, like, socialite man. And so she becomes like the subject of a bunch of gossip.


UNIDENTIFIED GROUP: (Singing) Isn't she a mess? Isn't she a sight? Let's invite them out tomorrow night.

HOLTER: And the theatricality of the scene is, like, was really appealing to me. And I just felt like making a song out of that scene.


HOLTER: (Singing) Tonight, the birds are watching me. Do they have more important things to do?

You're wondering: Is this really what I want? I don't like the way society is. This makes me uncomfortable. And so it's a sort of a song about discomfort in a situation where, you know, the society is proving to be very superficial and unpleasant.


HOLTER: (Singing) Into Maxim's we will see them walk. Will they eat a piece of cheese or will they talk? When they're loud enough we can hear their words. By night we are inquisitory birds. Some nights we are asked if we ever tire of gazing at their heels and everyday desires. Remember every dewy tale written of their loves? Compare them to the ones they touch in front of us.

It's so easy for me to work with material that I know really well. Like, it's just part of me. Like, I grew up watching it. I know her character really well, and it was easy for me to become - to, like, work with the characters. And so it just felt like - it just was something I just had to do regardless of whether I really liked the idea of building an album out of a musical.

LYDEN: I see. Well, you had no choice but to cast this one...

HOLTER: Exactly.

LYDEN: ...at Maxim's. It's an early version of Gawker, I suppose. How does your hometown of Los Angeles fit into here? You say that the story of "Gigi" dovetails with this place that couldn't be further from fin-de-siecle Paris if you tried.

HOLTER: Like, whenever you do something and you're dealing with something from the past, you have to sort of relate it to what you know as well in some way. And that's where L.A. comes in. I mean, there's also the fact that it's the hub of Hollywood. I - like, I do write about the paparazzi, like, in "Horns Surrounding Me."


HOLTER: (Singing) Seen through a window, my love blurred, mute and slow...

HOLTER: One thing I do like about L.A. is the fact that you can be - whether you're famous or it's just a matter of, like, seeing people you know all the time on the street, you can be pretty anonymous and walk around and, like, not run into people, because it's such a big city and because a lot of people drive. And it doesn't happen that you, like, run into people easily.


LYDEN: I'm speaking with singer and songwriter Julia Holter. Her new album is called "Loud City Song." How are you trained? Are you trained as a composer?

HOLTER: Yeah. I studied piano for a long time to, like, classical piano. Wasn't really a virtuoso but loved it anyway. And I studied that for a long, long time, and then I went into composition.

LYDEN: That really comes through. And, you know, obviously, you're rather fearless about what you choose as inspiration. Euripides, Virginia Woolf, Frank O'Hara. I can see a bit of the literary major in here too, or maybe I'm being a bit too self-reflective.

HOLTER: Yeah. I mean, I choose different things every time, I think. I'm inspired by nonmusical things a lot, whether it's a film or a book or whatever. It's - sometimes the thing that really gets me the most is, like, one sentiment. Like, with what happened with "Goddess Eyes," which is on both "Tragedy" and "Ekstasis," actually, is I saw lines like "I can see you but my eyes are not allowed to cry."

And that's, like, the statement that's spoken from Artemis the goddess to Hippolytus as he's, like, falling and dying, basically. She's like - she's trying to express something to him, and it's like this really intense line. And it just kills me, and it just makes me want to make music, you know?


HOLTER: (Singing) I can see you but my eyes are not allowed to cry. No more. I can see you but my eyes are not allowed to cry...

HOLTER: And that's what happens, is I see situations that make me just want to realize them musically. And I - that's what, a lot of times, what inspires me.

LYDEN: Julia Holter, this really seems like an album in which you want people to listen to the whole work from beginning to end, not so much, you know, playing singles here and there. Is that really what you're going for? And what is the narrative that you want them to take away, us your listeners?

HOLTER: The record is really a search for love and truth in a superficial society, is kind of how I sum it up. And then it finally concludes with "City Appearing," which is suddenly the whole city is - finds love kind of all at once. And there's this, like, apocalyptic, like, orgy of, like, love. And it's supposed to be sort of abstract. It's not like just having this orgy. But it's like an idea, you know?

LYDEN: It's not the "Book of Revelation" at the end.


HOLTER: (Singing) Everyone has left early without a heart. A fire without a hat. All the birds of the world make their way over with a new softer song to sing...

LYDEN: That's Julia Holter. Her new album is called "Loud City Song." Julia Holter, thank you very much. It's been really great talking to you.

HOLTER: Thank you.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG "CITY APPEARING") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.