The past six months have been quite extraordinary for L.A. based singer-songwriter Julia Holter, especially here in the UK where people have taken to her much more than they have back home. Since the arrival her fourth full-length album Have You In My Wilderness last September she’s appeared in music publications galore including on the cover of Wire and the Guardian‘s culture pull-out The Guide, was voted album of the year by Mojo and Uncut, and her songs have featured heavily on both BBC Radio 2 and BBC 6 Music.
Julia Holter gone down so well here that after touring the UK last November she’s decided to return once again, this time covering a few cities that had previously missed out. Her performance at Gorilla in Manchester had sold out over the Christmas period, but judging by how packed the small venue was it seemed like the organisers had made some extra tickets available in an attempt to squeeze a few more in, fire regulations be damned. Those lucky enough to obtain one witnessed an artist on the rise.
Her latest album saw her move towards a more accessible sound, but despite this she hasn’t dispensed with the more experimental side found on her prior three releases. Some of the songs on to Have You In My Wilderness were in fact written several years earlier, around the time of her 2010 debut Tragedy and its 2012 follow-up Ekstasis. Her set at Gorilla was a fine example of both sides of her songwriting, and the ease with which she is able switch between the accessible and the experimental.
It’s standard procedure following the release of an album that songs from the most recent release dominate live shows. This was largely the case here but the first half of the set also saw Julia Holter hopping between her latest album and material from 2013’s more theatrical Loud City Song. Beginning with the closer from her 2013 album, “City Appearing” was a stark and strange way to open a set. The other two songs to feature from this album were “Horns Surround Me”, which still managed to retain its unsettling feeling despite the absence of horns, and the more playful, double bass-led “In the Green Wild”.
Woven in between these were two singles from her latest album, the gorgeous, undulating “Silhouette”, and the sweeping, unconventional pop of “Feel You”. Among the other songs to feature from Have You In My Wilderness were a selection of long players which included the passionate, piano and violin-led “Betsy on the Roof”. During the encore there was a surprise cover of Donnie Warwick’s “Don’t Make Me Over”, but the song many had been waiting for was saved for last, the stunning “Sea Calls Me Home” off her latest album, the poppiest song she’s written so far. It may have been missing the sax part but the audience didn’t seem to care.
With Julia Holter on vocals and keys, she was accompanied by three other band members on double bass, violin and percussion. The dynamics between the four of them have really developed through all the touring together. For someone who prefers to be in the background composing music, Julia Holter has certainly grown into her role as a live performer, despite coming across as a little detached in between songs. She’s someone who exists in her own artistic space, making the kind of music that she wants to make, naturally walled off from popular culture and its powers of persusation.
Often likened to great female artists like Laurie Anderson, the more experimental side of Katie Bush and jazz-era Joni Mitchell, such are comparisons are definitely valid given the influence all three have had on her musical development. But despite such flattering comparisons, Julia Holter clearly follows her own path with her unique blend classical, jazz and pop, her wonderful storytelling ability and a beautiful but often underrated voice. Based on the evidence witnessed at Gorilla, it’s a path that could lead almost anywhere she likes.