This time last year, few music fans knew the name Julia Holter.
She’d already released three beautiful, acclaimed and highly idiosyncratic albums (she started recording the first, Tragedy, at home using the free software program Audacity) which drew inspiration from all sorts of sources: Euripides, Virginia Woolf and films from Gigi to Last Year at Marienbad. But her smart, inventive music was undoubtedly something of an acquired taste.
Then, last September, Holter released her fourth album, Have You in My Wilderness. It tempered her more outlandish excesses by ramping up the pop tuneage and forefronting Holter’s magnificent voice, without submersing her intelligence one jot. And it worked. The album rated highly in the major ‘End of Year’ polls, topping many of them.
Tonight Holter is playing to a sold-out crowd at Manchester’s Gorilla. At one point she reminisces, not unkindly, about playing the nearby Burgess Institute to a tiny audience back in 2012. Now, standing behind a keyboard, wry and shy, she’s not exactly a show-boating performer but she manages to be riveting nonetheless. The sheer joy she takes in playing her music, and presumably in playing it to sharply increasing numbers of people, is heartening and infectious. Occasionally she takes a fortifying sip of wine before embarking on the more intense songs, at one point explaining, “wine makes me sing better”.
Backed by a tight trio providing strings, percussion and vocals, Holter does a fine joy of translating the cinematic soundscapes of her work for a live setting, albeit losing a little of Have You in My Wilderness‘s pop clip. Nor is the set-list making too many concessions to those new fans. She opens with the slow-burning City Appearing from her previous album Loud City Song, and fits in the spellbinding Goddess Eyes, one of her oldest songs. The new album is covered well, though she does skip Everytime Boots despite a new promotional video. On the other hand, the main set concludes with Vasquez, complete with an extended experimental jazz section.
It’s perfectly done and illustrates how Holter stands on the cusp between a cult following and much broader success. Where she will go next is anyone’s guess. It’s highly unlikely that she’ll ditch her avant-garde tendencies altogether and head for the mainstream. Then again, it’d be a shame if she played the contrary card and recorded an out-there album which alienated her army of new admirers. It’s the perfectly poised balance between the two that has made her so cherishable. However her future career plays out, tonight proves that Holter is a rare talent, and being present here is to witness at close quarters one of the great singer-songwriters of her generation hitting a creative peak.
By Andy Murray
Photography by Jack Kirwin
Follow Julia on Twitter: @JULIA_HOLTER