The first thing that stands out on Julia Holter’s new record is the way her vocals have come to the forefront. From 2010’s Tragedy to 2013’s Loud City Song, the experimental pop artist’s voice served more as a piece of her compositions than the focus, but on Have You in My Wilderness, it takes center stage.
That intimacy and directness pervades the record, her biggest departure from her previous work to date. Wilderness marks Holter’s second release on Domino, as well as the second time that she didn’t serve as the sole producer on an album – she worked again with Cole M. Graif-Neil, who produced Loud City Song and mixed 2012’s Ekstasis.
Speaking over the phone, Holter explains that the decision to make her vocals more prominent was less about aesthetics and more about the stories she wanted to tell this time. “It’s storytelling in a more direct way than I’ve done in the past,” she says. “It’s almost like you’re singing to one person in a room rather than my last record, which I thought of as singing onstage to an audience. It was more intimate, and it made sense to have the vocal up more.”
Wilderness retains the tranquil, dreamlike feel her work is known for, but opens up into grander and more ornate arrangements. Holter’s lyrics relay tales of relationships, longing, and the uncertainty that accompanies them. She instills a sense of calm through repetition, from the back half of “Lucette Stranded on the Island”, which features Holter performing a call-and-response with herself built around the line “the birds can sing a song,” to the title track that closes the album, where Holter repeats, “Tell me, why do I feel you running away?” Holter ascribes this strategy to her “stream of consciousness” approach to her songwriting. “I do that a lot,” she says. “I get lost in a phrase.”
Wilderness serves as an inviting point of entry into Holter’s catalog, and its accessibility seems to correct some misconceptions about her work. She has a background in music education, and she’s made frequent references to Greek tragedy and early 20th century literature throughout her music, but she doesn’t identify with the reputation she’s earned from it. “I don’t feel like I’m particularly literary,” Holter explains. “I’m definitely not academic. I feel like it’s intuitive, melodic music. I’m trying to tell a story, and I don’t think it’s particularly cerebral.”
While the album focuses more on her storytelling, the shape of Holter’s stories has changed over the course of her discography. Wilderness hearkens back to 2012’s Ekstasis in that it’s built more around individual songs than an overall concept. “I think I’m always telling a story, but it’s not always where the whole record is one story,” Holter says. “Every project of mine is different, so I don’t necessarily use a story where in the past I have.”
Compared to Loud City Song’s portrait of crowded city life, Wilderness, as its name implies, focuses more on beaches, islands, lakes, and the sea that calls Holter home. Honing in on these places helped to present a more impressionistic environment and a sense of losing one’s self, but Holter refers to them more as intuitive symbols than deliberate settings. “I wasn’t consciously thinking, ‘Oh, this song is going to be in a forest,’” she explains. “What I’m thinking about is freedom or fear, and those were the landscapes that came to mind.”
Wilderness includes two songs that have been around since 2010. Both “Sea Calls Me Home” and “Betsy on the Roof” appear in re-recorded form here, but were originally released in 2010 on a limited-run cassette on NNA Tapes called Live Recordings. The new tracks are structurally the same as the ones on that tape, but sound more fleshed out, with Holter utilizing the resources at her disposal to fully realize the vision she had years ago, even if she was initially apprehensive about doing so.
“I’d recorded them on my own with piano and voice, so they were kind of undeveloped,” Holter says. “It was scary to develop things that I was happy with as they were in their raw state. I wanted to develop them, but at the same time, I would never be as happy with how it sounded when they were more fleshed out, so it was hard.” Rather than reaching into a vault of previously recorded material, Holter carefully chose the songs she wanted to revisit. “It wasn’t like I was digging up whatever I had,” Holter says. “They were songs that I had meant for a long time to record.”
While Holter relished the opportunity to go back and re-record certain songs with more resources, she has complicated feelings about whether she would do things differently on her older home recordings if given the chance. “In some ways, in my early work, I wanted to have a full orchestra,” Holter explains. “Some of the songs you can tell I wanted them to be bigger than they could be in my room. On the other hand, there’s a nice quality to them that I did it myself.”
Holter says that Wilderness “needed” to be recorded in a more high-fidelity setting, though she would be open to going back to producing her music herself on future work. Everything is built around the needs of her vision. While she’s aware that many more people are listening to her work now than five years ago, she notes that she doesn’t let that expectation inform her process. She never tries to assume what people want. “That’s pretty dangerous. There’s really no reason to predict what the audience wants because they want you to be the leader,” she explains. “As a listener, I think it’s more fun when an artist is doing their thing, and they’re more convincing when they’re doing their thing.”
Wilderness represents the culmination of one of Holter’s most involving efforts to date. She purposefully took a longer time on the album compared to her previous records, working carefully to utilize a larger group of people to further her ideas. “I’ve been given the opportunity to make a record I’ve wanted to do for a long time,” Holter explains. For an album that often touches on situations of feeling lost and without control, Holter’s grasp on her craft has never been firmer.