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Like a deep breath on a subway car, or a private meditation amid a bustling city street, her songs exude an elegant calm, but they do not often stay still.
Los Angeles-based singer-songwriter Julia Holter has amassed a body of work that explores song structure, atmosphere, minimalism, and the authority of her voice. Aviary, Holter’s most recent release, is an epic journey through what she describes as “the cacophony of the mind in a melting world.” It is her most breathtakingly expansive album yet, full of startling turns and dazzling instrumental arrangements. The follow-up to her critically acclaimed 2015 record, Have You in My Wilderness, it takes as its starting point a line from a 2009 short story by writer Etel Adnan: “I found myself in an aviary full of shrieking birds.”
“Amidst all the internal and external babble we experience daily, it’s hard to find one’s foundation,” says Holter. “I think this album is reflecting that feeling of cacophony and how one responds to it as a person—how one behaves, how one looks for love, for solace. Maybe it’s a matter of listening to and gathering the seeming madness, of forming something out of it and envisioning a future.”
To evoke an overwhelming swirl of voices, Holter indulged her love for wordplay, often combining multiple languages and temporal tenses in a single phrase and embracing phonetic sound over meaning. “Chaitius” playfully combines her own words in English with lyrics from a medieval Occitan troubadour song. “I Would Rather See” borrows its references to chariots and steadfast foot soldiers from a mesostic poem she made using an Anne Carson translation of Sappho; “Why Sad Song,” the album’s ruefully meditative closer, is an English-language phonetic translation of a song by Nepalese Buddhist nun Choying Drolma. But Aviary also elevates the “babble” concept to a compositional principle. “A lot of the songs play with hocketing, which is something you have in medieval music, where melodies are shared by different interrupting voices,” says Holter.