Listen to the gently subversive songs on Julia Holter’s fourth and most accomplished album, 2015’s “Have You in My Wilderness,” and you’ll hear words not often found in pop-music lyrics. Words like “decamp,” “lucidity” and “Bandido.”
Whether you understand these words when she sings them, or understand exactly why she is singing them, is another matter.
“The meaning of the words in my songs are very important to me. But what’s most important to me is that the music works,” said Holter, a 2009 CalArts music graduate, who kicks off her 2016 U.S. tour tonigh, Thursday, Jan. 28, at The Irenic in North Park.
Julia Holter, with Circuit Des Yeux
When: 8 tonight, Thursday, Jan. 28
Where: The Irenic, 3090 Polk Ave., North Park
Tickets: $12 (plus service charges)
“So, basically, I don’t believe lyrics are poems. Sometimes, people think of them in that way. But I think, sometimes, lyrics are dependent on the melody. Alternately, I feel that they are not really words, they are just other things, a sound. It’s much more important to get the vibe of it across, so you don’t want to enunciate (too clearly).”
Even so, Holter wants to ensure listeners can discern the words she sings, if not all by ear, then in written form in the sleeve notes to her albums.
“That’s why I always make my lyrics available as a reference, because I know it’s not so easy to hear them when I sing,” she said. “For me, it’s about the performance.”
Holter, a classically trained pianist, was born in Milwaukee and raised in Los Angeles. Her intensely atmospheric songs can be simple, intricate, or both, with allusions to multiple eras and styles of music.
Her inspirations range from 1970s German electronica, jazz and experimental pop to contemporary classical, Joni Mitchell (circa the classic 1974 album “Court and Spark”) and French composer and poet Guillaume de Machaut’s “Messe de Nostre Dame” (a polyphonic liturgical Mass composed in the mid-14th century).
Holter’s debut album, 2011’s “Tragedy,” was thematically based on “Hippolytus,” the Greek play written in 428 B.C. by Euripides. Her third album, 2013’s “Loud City Song,” is inspired by the 1958 film musical “Gigi” (which in turn was inspired by a novella by the famed French author Colette).
Her latest album, last year’s “Wilderness,” features members of Holter’s touring band and edgy jazz saxophonist Chris Speed. In December, it was named Album of the Year by England’s Mojo magazine.
The median age of Mojo’s readers places them squarely in the baby-boom generation, in contrast with the much younger indie-pop audience expected to hear Holder perform here at the all-ages Irenic.
“It’s really cool,” she said of her Mojo honor. “I try to not think too much about how people are receiving my music. And I’m not really famous enough that it’s a problem. So, for me, it’s good if people are listening to my music.
“I never know how to predict these things. I don’t think I’ll ever become a pop star. I don’t think that will happen, even if I wanted it to. Ideally, younger people will be interested, as well as older people. But if no one is interested, I’m going to keep making music anyway.”
Holter’s use of rhythm and percussion on her “Wilderness"album is often unconventional and just as often intriguing.
The song “Sea Calls Me Home” begins with gamelan-like tinkles. “Vasquez” has an open-ended jazz pulse, without ever going into a conventional swing feel. “Everytime Boots” has what could be an inverted Bo Diddley beat. On other songs, the rhythm is implied as much as it is played.
“Yeah, the rhythms are really intuitive,” Holter said. “I make them almost like a child. I play them on my Casio, which I got when I was 15. There’s a drum setting on it that I use. I just play with my hands, like a pianist playing drums. In addition to that, there’s an actual percussionist I work with, Coryy Fogel, and he translates those crude ideas into something more human and interesting.
“Usually, it starts at my keyboard. For the drum parts, I do play out drum parts. But, in terms of rhythmic idea,s that also comes from the way I play on piano.”
The past month has seen the passing of two music giants, contemporary classical composer and conductor Pierre Boulez and David Bowie. How influential were they on Holter’s music, directly or indirectly?
“I think both of them were, indirectly, and David Bowie more directly,” she replied.
“I never listened to much Boulez, but I actually want to now. I felt his presence studying composition in school. There was a collaborator of his who was a visiting professor, and I looked at some of Boulez’s scores. A friend of mine went to see a Boulez piece performed in Paris, and was really glad he did. So there definitely is a presence of Boulez in my life, aside from his work as a conductor and the fact that a lot of composers were inspired by his music.
“David Bowie I definitely knew some of his music as a teenager, but I didn’t actually listen to his music as much until I was in my 20s. And I was really moved by his music and found it so exciting and wild, and all over the place, creatively. He did so many different things and didn’t seem at al limited, like some people.
“It just seems like he really went with what he wanted to do. It’s hard to say; I’ve had trouble trying to explain how I feel about David Bowie. I really love his music. He was really good at getting a mood and atmosphere, and to me that is the most important thing in my songs.”