Julia Holter second album, Ekstasis, is a collection of songs written and recorded across the span of three years in Los Angeles, California.
Holter’s songwriting stems from a mythological reverence of that which is incomprehensibly beautiful. Her Eating the Stars EP (2007) was a first attempt at musically transcribing this beauty, while discovering the honest enjoyment of unadulterated creativity. The anonymous authorship and shimmering gold detail of medieval illuminated manuscripts particularly inspired the ornately-orchestrated pop song mystery of Stars. Holter’s debut album Tragedy (Leaving Records, 2011) embraced similar strains of shimmer, but used sparser textures in a narrative context.
Ekstasis marks a return to the playful searching of Stars, but guided by newly-learned disciplines, slightly better technology, and nearly limitless home recording time. Formative experiences at Cal Arts studying with Michael Pisaro and in India singing with harmonium under guru Pashupati nath Mishra marked a slight detour for Holter in what started as a more traditional composition route. The trajectory leading to the creation of Ekstasis suggests her thirst for knowledge and experience.
While Ekstasis reflects the conventions of her classical training, the album is also uncannily, if unknowingly, poppy. Holter’s approach to crafting the songs of Ekstasiscentered around what she describes as, “open ear decisions: what seemed to sound best for that moment.” This blindness to reference unintentionally steers Ekstasis along the experimental pop spectrum most commonly associated to New York’s Downtown music micro-universe of the 80s, specifically the works of Laurie Anderson and Arthur Russell.
With the blindness that leads Ekstasis, there are also many compositional methods at play. “Marienbad” was built while playing around on a Fender Rhodes with imagined imagery of topiary gardens and scenes from the song’s film namesake in mind. The entirety of “Boy in the Moon” – the Casio SK-1 noodles, melody, and lyrics – was improvised over a seven minute catharsis. The melody and lyrics for “Four Gardens” were written spontaneously while rearranging an older song on a loop pedal for a live performance. “This is Ekstasis” contains a bass line built from a medieval isorhythm technique, allowing it to maintain a sense of repetition, but shift slightly with every turn.
There is a unique story and approach with each song, but all are united by the magnetism of the medieval manuscripts and Holter’s “desire to get outside of my body and find what I can’t define.” It took Holter stepping outside of her solely self-written and recorded body of music to engage fellow Los Angeles musician and friend Cole M. Greif-Neill in the final phase of Ekstasis. Greif-Neil added perspective and brought out the greatest sonic potential that each song secretly contained. Holter says, “The first time I heard his mix of ‘Marienband” the garden became so rich. Suddenly there were bright greens, the statues’ edges defined, the fountains pouring…”
Ekstasis is an album indulged in these beautiful, simple, unfolding life mysteries. “All of these fleeting images and muses are so important,” says Holter. “As with the manuscripts, when I see them, I hear voices. I am continually following the voices in the gold leaf. I can’t know them, but I will follow their beautiful song.”