Tragedy is my personal favourite record, and this is how I’ve always wanted it performed.
Julia Holter has always preferred the quiet life, with one of her main ambitions being to fade more and more into the sanctity of the composing world, rather than performing. So it was something of a surprise when she announced a new show at the Barbican, the main draw being that she was performing songs from her criminally underrated debut record Tragedy (as well as her other albums), in collaboration with the Berlin-based contemporary classical music collective, Stargaze.
Dan Wilkinson talked to Holter ahead of the event about the show, chamber music and grand life ambitions.
Where did the concept for the show come from?
The people behind the ensemble Stargaze and The Barbican contacted me, I had an idea in mind for the whole show. I thought of a lot of songs would translate well in that setting, especially from Tragedy.
Why that record in particular?
They were things that I’d written with the intention of having players perform them, it’s a much fuller sound. I’d never played a lot of those songs before because they deserved more.
When did you first discover chamber music?
When I was fifteen, with my parents; we went to the Philharmonic Orchestra, but I wasn’t that into it.
I had just started learning piano and was interested to play pieces there, but orchestral music didn’t really grab me. When I got to high school though, everyone was into different types of music so my interest really spawned from there. This coincided with me writing music, sort of as an outsider to that world. I then became a composition major in college.
What composers got you interested in the genre again?
Mostly modernist European composers because they sounded so unusual. People like Hans Werner Henze, Bubliczki, Ligeti because it was different. Debussy and Ravel to play on piano. I found more intimate music like chamber music easier to wrap my head around. In the end I was more interested in early music and medieval music, the choral stuff mainly.
What inspires you musically?
I don’t take inspiration from other music, I prefer films or a scene in a book. I then think about the character in the song.
What about your location, does that play a part too?
Not that much, I’d say. It’s more the location within my mind of the song. I like to make up environments. I have to be comfortable when writing, I can’t be depressed or drunk, I have to be healthy and happy.
Is it easier to do that, when doing music as a full time job?
Definitely! I have so much more time to focus. It took me two years to make Tragedy whilst I was working because I wanted it mixed right. I also spent two months on the transition of one song. I waste a lot less time now with people who can mix my music.
What are your long-term plans, where do you see your music taking you?
I don’t want to be touring when I’m seventy. I want to be in the background more, writing and arranging for other people. I don’t really want to be the face of my music.
Does that mean it was a surprise to end up on stage?
To me yeah, I thought I was just going to be a composer. But I’m definitely happy now regardless.
Finally, why should people be heading down to The Barbican to see this show?
I’m doing a lot of material that I’ve never performed before that is perfectly suited for this ensemble. It’s quite intense because it’s gonna be our first show performing. Tragedy is my personal favourite record, and this is how I’ve always wanted it performed.