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Immersive and Surreal: Julia Holter at the Walker

To spark discussion, the Walker invites local artists and critics to write overnight reviews of our performances. The ongoing Re:View series shares a diverse array of independent voices and opinions (it doesn’t reflect the opinions of the Walker or its curators). Today, Sean Donovan shares his perspective on Thursday night’s second Sound Horizon performance from LA musician Julia Holter. Agree or disagree? […]

Julia Holter, Photo: Sean Donovan

Julia Holter. Photo: Sean Donovan

To spark discussion, the Walker invites local artists and critics to write overnight reviews of our performances. The ongoing Re:View series shares a diverse array of independent voices and opinions (it doesn’t reflect the opinions of the Walker or its curators). Today, Sean Donovan shares his perspective on Thursday night’s second Sound Horizon performance from LA musician Julia Holter. Agree or disagree? Feel free to share your thoughts in the comments!

Remember in the television show Twin Peaks when Julee Cruise sang that really sad song for Agent Cooper? In the scene, Cruise performs on the red-curtained stage, casting spell-binding sounds and and slowing time way down. Thursday night at the Walker (April 11), I felt a bit like Agent Cooper myself. LA musician Julia Holter drenched the museum walls with her dreamlike melodies and hypnotic storytelling.

Unassumingly shy to start, Holter gradually became more relaxed, and at one point mentioned to the audience how much she liked it there. Breaking the ice a few steps further, Holter sang an appropriate song for the moment, In the Same Room. As many us had braved the ridiculously snowy weather to get to the museum, it was comforting to hear lyrics like, “In this very room, we flew across the sea… I hope the ship will carry us there.” Housed in a wonderful setting (Bruce Nauman’s mulit-channel video installation), the dimly lit room offered a dynamic mood for Holter’s music. At the end of the song, I was left thinking, “Where will Julia carry us?”

Julia Holter, Photo: Sean Donovan

Julia Holter, Photo: Sean Donovan

Although Holter didn’t seem to physically engage on stage, her voice most certainly struck a chord, with both the room and the audience. When experiencing Holter’s music in person, it becomes very obvious how rewarding her voice sounds live; kind of a King’s College choir-boy meets Trish Keenan.

Grounding her melodies, synthesizer harmonies painted colorful backdrops and carried her songs in many wandering directions. In fact, most of her music included borrowed chords. Such exploratory harmonies captured my ears and my expectations. Although rhythmically simple, these supportive layers were extremely rich and emotional.

The five-song set covered a wide range of dynamics. At some points, we were all hushed to hear what she would do next. At others, she was launching echoed and passionate vocal ascensions and impassioned organ swells. Why Sad Song featured Wendy Carlos synth textures that builded and faded. Slowly looping layers into the mix, she then added a sensitive and humble vocal melody. This mantric repetition was touching and expansively cinematic.

Julia Holter, Photo: Sean Donovan

Julia Holter, Photo: Sean Donovan

To finish, she first thanked her extended family, who were sitting in the audience, for coming and then started into her last song. I couldn’t help connecting her mention of her family to this version of Don’t Make me Over (originally by Dionne Warwick). With lyrics like, “accept me for the things that I do, accept me for what I am,” it implicitly felt like a nod to her family. This final song was a triumphant ending to a somewhat reserved beginning. With neo-baroque harpsichords and Nico-like chants, she ended her set with a maturely optimistic mood.

As her music seemed to exist in such a whimsical world, I can image enjoying her show (even more) at a planetarium, laying down and looking up at the stars. I’d be really interested to see her later in her career when her stage presence is further developed. I wasn’t fully convinced with her engagement or her urgency.

Overall, I was impressed with her compositional creativity (both with her own work and her interpretations of other songs). Although at times, my spirit felt a bit unmoved, my ears and my imagination were profoundly mesmerized. She expressed intricate and immersive songs which were stylistically enchanting.

In the words of Twin Peaks creator David Lynch, “Ideas are like fish. If you want to catch little fish, you can stay in the shallow water. But if you want to catch the big fish, you’ve got to go deeper. Down deep, the fish are more powerful and more pure. They’re huge and abstract. And they’re very beautiful.” From what I could tell, I’d say Julia Holter is searching for the big fish.