#15. Julia Holter: Have You in My Wilderness
Often when a musician makes avant-garde music, it’s clear that their goal is to experiment or make a statement. When you listen to a Björk or Zappa record for instance, it’s no secret that they’re trying to push the envelope. Their musical explorations are overt, and are central to their identity as artists. Much of the appeal of avant-garde musicians comes from the very fact that they make such “out there” music.
It wasn’t until I’d listened to Have You in My Wilderness a good eight or ten times that I began to consider it an avant-garde album. Despite what we’ve come to expect from music with this genre tag, Julia Holter’s experimentations are neither overt nor the central focus of her compositions. She stretches the boundaries of singer-songwriter pop, but she’s not trying to make a point, she’s just a bit more creative than many of her peers. Making avant-garde music isn’t her goal; it’s just a means to an end—a serendipitous byproduct of making a pop album.
“Avant-garde” might describe Holter’s level of creativity, but the actual genre of Have You in My Wilderness is more aptly identified as baroque pop. The opening moments of the album sound like a 21st century sunrise orchestrated with 17th century instruments. The harpsichord quickly gives way to swelling strings that lift up Holter’s pure vocals. Her lyrics are largely unrhymed, frequently through-composed prose. They defy the typical couplet form, instead spinning organic mouthfuls of words like: “figures pass so quickly that I realize my eyes know very well, it’s impossible to see who I’m waiting for in my raincoat.” Sometimes, she slips entirely out of her singing voice and recites the lyrics as if they were spoken word poetry. On the jazz-laced “Vasquez,” she pays great attention to detail when she speaks her lyrics, subtly outlining key harmonic and melodic notes without giving the impression of being sung.
“Betsy on the Roof” is intentionally vague lyrically, opting to get right to the heart of Betsy’s ambiguous desperation and leaving her identity and story a mystery. The subject matter is more tangible on songs like “Sea Calls Me Home”—the song encapsulates the free-fall sensation of newfound freedom—but even here she's much more poetic than the majority of contemporary singer-songwriters. Musically, the track is probably the closest she gets to being inside the box. Much of the song is built around a bassline that repeatedly outlines a single descending tetrachord. Despite that, Holter manages to create impressive harmonic and melodic contrast between the verses and the chorus, and she even tosses in a jazz saxophone solo at the end for good measure. Each song is unique and expertly crafted. Each word, instrument, vocal inflection, and harmonic cadence is exactly where it should be. The fact that Holter puts all of these in places that nobody else would isn’t indicative of her trying to prove something—she just has a wonderful, innately creative approach to songwriting. Have You in My Wilderness is not only an impressive piece of art, but it represents a delicate balance of humility and erudition that every artist should strive for.