Julia Holter stood centre-stage at London’s Cecil Sharp House looking for a way to explain herself: “Sometimes in love you are unsure. You’re hopeful but you’re also hesitant, she said, like a warning. Then she laughed. The song described was He Is Running Through My Eyes, a haunting and serious piano piece, but the laughter meant more. It buoyed the tension of the night, the feeling shared by the large but sparsely-spread crowd: anything could happen to these songs. A stray laugh could affect a ballad; a smile was enough to change the nights course.
Because of its reverent setting a looming ceiling, wood-panelled bars, and four distant walls, one hanging an abstract and iridescent mural I assumed Cecil Sharp House would marry best with the songs of Ekstasis. A special kind of folklore lives on that album; Holter told a fantasy story that was antiquated, offering us a new world to step into with her chamber pop, but first setting up the ancient and creaking one we left. Instead of keeping that dichotomizing tone alive, however, Holter took the chance to change these songs. Marienbad, the third song she performed, became less of the spiraling introduction it was originally used as, its floated opening keyboard notes sounding less remote and more tangible. The bands transition into the songs second passage was intensified by an assault of relentless cymbal rumbles from Corey Fogel, changing the focus of the arrangement to one that filled the room with a wall of noise. Four Gardens, too, felt far more physically intimated than it does in album form, a result of its more classical arrangement; the artifice of the original, a song with a pulsating programmed beat and a plethora of whirring noises, was embellished by bringing the violin and saxophone to its forefront.
Surprisingly, it was Loud City Song Holters new album, based around L.A.s cruel, swallowing infrastructure that played off the venues world-away-from-the-world aesthetic. Cecil Sharp House is the kind of venue that expounds upon the most microscopic sonic detail; someone walked into the room half way through Holters opener, the sparse, continually suspended World, and the floorboards creaked, punctuating the empty scene for a moment. A car-horn sounding in the distance led to smiles from those around me during In The Green Wild. There was a sense this was all natural; Loud City Song contrasts the silence of an empty city street with what happens at rush hour, and live, these songs lived in a place where people could change them in a movement. Nobody blinked at it; for World, the crowds concentration was fixed on Holters commanding vocal aphorisms (her exhales of Heaven, Hats, and Mothers), which rippled with the acoustics of the room. The song played off different types of tension: the building crests of sound brought in from separate parts of the band, but also the sense that anything could have happened in the moments when the music stopped. Later in the show, Holters voice interlocked with the quiet again fittingly, it happened on City Appearing, Loud City Songs closer. Holter paused and chose her words with precision: So, she began, in this late hour/ maybe trouble/ maybe fantasy.
Holters band was able to recreate the tension of Loud City Song with ease, but what struck most about the performance was its fluidity. These songs diverged with superb clarity; I was stunned by the interplay of violin phrases and saxophone on In The Green Wild, Andrew Tholl and Danny Meyer trading different sounds both representative, in their timbre, of passing sirens. You could see them interlocking across the stage. This was surely the show at its most collaborative, with Chris Voteks sturdy cello notes intricately knotting the songs two parts together. After an isolating rendition of He Is Running Through My Eyes accompanied only by cello, and paying close attention to how full a sound she could get out of her small keyboard Holter continued her shows most meditative passage with Hello Stranger. This was the shows biggest revelation. On record, it sounds like a pop song suspended in the air, Barbara Lewis original refrains manipulated into an ominous, cityscape drone; the show made it feel as expansive, but clearer, Holter playfully referencing Lewis by bringing in her use of shoo bop!. On record, Hello Stranger enters a loud fog towards its end, and such was laid out gorgeously on stage; it came from Fogels brushed drumming and the subtle crash of instruments around the songs ambient epicentre.
Holters setlist proper concluded with Maxims II, another song with tension ringing around its edges. Holter introduced it with a shriek of the refrain that runs through both versions of Maxims (Tonight! The birds are watching me!), assuring a maximalist performance therein. Her whispered segment was horrific, a last gasp of the albums anxiety, and the dissonant extended outro that ended the show sounded like a conclusion of what the city is: unrelenting and punishing, even when youre in a building as fabulous as this. With Maxims II, Holter had played every song from Loud City Song, but the decision to make this the last of them was telling: in an excruciating silence, we are left pining for something to deafen us.
Photography by Christian Harrop
In The Green Wild
Horns Surrounding Me
This Is a True Heart
He Is Running Through My Eyes
Goddess Eyes I
* – Corrected quote in paragraph 1.