Oftentimes, the greatest takeaway from any gig is an insight of the artist’s personality around the music, of the human being that forged and directed these songs, work that has taken them from wherever home is to this public place. The exchanges between musicians, the anecdotes, the sideways smiles and knowing nods; everything on-record plays can’t provide. Julia Holter, though, feels as if she’s entirely performance; or, perhaps that impression comes from there being so much character in the LA artist’s songs already. I don’t know. What I’m trying to say is that everything she does, however minor, from a comment on the deliciousness of cod to how Brighton is an okay place to be, just fits with this construct of her that I’ve built up based on four albums of material. Nothing breaks character.
And that’s fine. Better, indeed, than discovering that this wonderful musician is just another person underneath the uncommon mystique of her output. Just another person is boring, and Julia Holter is so very far from that. After several years of writing about music, for the most part in a full-time capacity, and I’m still at something of a loss when it comes to pinning down just what it is that breaks Holter free of the solo artist pack. She doesn’t have a guitar, perhaps that’s it – on stage in front of her is a keyboard, she’s flanked by Deanna Maccabe on violin and a Devin Hoff-manned double bass, and at the back is Corey Fogel on drums and, for ‘Sea Calls Me Home’, whistles. There are traditional roots to her combination of what some might consider quirky (uh, hate that word) constituents, but these arrangements go beyond baroque confines – and much of that transcendence is down to Holter’s voice, which frequently reaches spellbinding highs only to push further upwards into electric hypnosis. It is impossible to look or listen away.
‘Betsy On The Roof’ is a case in point, a highlight of Holter’s most recent LP, the Domino-released Have You In My Wilderness. Here, words are sometimes abandoned for senses-ensnaring textures born of a larynx with no recognisable limits. This isn’t Mariah Carey scales; it’s more measured than that, more affecting than anyone working in the diva sphere. Not that Holter can’t hold a candle to that kind of artist, if she wanted to – you wonder where he career would be if she laid her incredible singing voice atop songs of a more mainstream-palatable persuasion. But it’s better for music that she’s steadily been carving out a very singular niche since her debut album Tragedy came out in 2011 – better for inspiring future mavericks and finding an emotional sweet spot in the listener that few artists consistently strike. Even an atonal, clangourous ending to ‘Betsy’, all heavy hands and gleeful boisterousness, can’t compromise its inherent beauty.
Holter’s setlist naturally priorities her newest productions, but there’s time enough for a number from 2012’s Ekstasis album, the first of her records that I head. ‘Marienbad’ is slight of build but strong of body, emboldened by tightly woven vocal interplay between the headliner and her fellow performers, evidently foundational compared to what’s come out since but dazzlingly unique on its own terms. From 2013’s Domino debut Loud City Song we have the lurching march of ‘Horns Surrounding Me’, one of the more percussively insistent selections on the night that some in attendance almost dance to; and the jazz-contoured ‘In the Green Wild’, a song that can leave the listener hot or cold, no in-between, but for me stands as one of Holter’s boldest arrangements to date.
It’s no misrepresentation of Have You In My Wilderness to call it Holter’s most accessible record yet, but its immediacy will still resonate as entirely alien to anyone unschooled in what the alternative can offer. As its elegant, magnificently melancholic title track brings the pre-encore set to a close to the sound of the hearts of this sold-out crowd swelling as one, I’m genuinely awestruck by the manner in which its maker has continued to fuse individuality to increasingly populist (relatively speaking, of course) compositions. She’s a special artist who doesn’t need to show two sides of herself to any audience; she doesn’t need to be just like us, and I prefer it that way. I don’t want Julia Holter to be anything like me. And no offence, but I’d rather she was nothing like you, too.
Julia Holter performed at The Komedia, Brighton on November 9, 2015.