Julia Holter on “Something in the Room She Moves”

Jasper Willems
9 min readMar 22, 2024


Photography by Camille Blake Web Exclusive

On “Sun Girl,” the iridescent opening track of Julia Holter’s new album, Something in the Room She Moves, the California-based composer lets her phrasing dissolve into novel expressions. It sounds as if she magically learns a new foreign tongue on the spot: “Sun girl / Sun girl / Sun may / Some girl / Sun maze / Some girl.” The song sparkles and rattles, like a celestial dial being turned back, transporting the listener to a daybreak where everything feels possible yet nothing seems certain. Here lies the beating heart of Holter’s work; she luxuriates in mystery and oblivion, never allowing sound and language to fully solidify.

Over Zoom, Holter-in an attempt to explain her songwriting process-catches herself using the word “control”-she hastily corrects herself to rephrase her answer differently. “What I’m singing is usually gibberish, but some of it comes out as actual words at the moment,” Holter peruses, weighing her thoughts carefully. “The song usually emerges gradually from that without me directing it in an obvious way. I just kind of see what comes out and start to mold it a little bit more directly once it’s a little more developed. Then I’ll start to see a feeling emerging and I’ll start to work on capturing this feeling more.”

Holter’s lyricism is something c ompletely distinct. Unlike, for example, Elizabeth Fraser of Cocteau Twins-who sings in an entirely made-up vocabulary-Holter’s approach is still anchored to written linguistics. Alternately, she doesn’t follow a linear traditional songwriting style, instead weaving her words into spirited incantations. Holter’s process revolves around a continuum of learning and unlearning; it feels like no coincidence that the environments we visit on her recent projects can’t be claimed by artificial borders. On her critically acclaimed 2018 LP, Aviary, Holter peered to the abounding skies, and on Something in the Room She Moves (her sixth album), she traverses the aquatic depths.

The title is a nod to the famous Beatles-song “Something,” and more specifically, Get Back, Peter Jackson’s much scrutinized docu-series, which shed new light on the Fab Four’s creative dynamic. Like for many of her artist peers, watching it reaffirmed many of Holter’s own instincts as a songwriter. “It came out a little later than the height of COVID-pandemic,” she says. “And I think people were really isolated at the time. It was nice to watch a documentary where people are working together to make something. There is conflict, but it resolves and falls together in a pleasing way. I think that might have happened for people…I think it probably happened for me.”

Though Holter has always surrendered to headlong lightbulb joys, Something in the Room She Moves surveys her sonic wanderings more intimately and organically than its predecessors. It’s very much an album about experiencing the now and going through the motions. “In the past my records were more focused on the past or the future, about love from afar, as maybe more of an ethereal thing. These songs feel much more present. On Ekstasis for example, it feels like I’m outside of the body, whereas on Something in the Room She Moves I’m in the body.

Holter’s life underwent a dramatic paradigm shift since Aviary. The pandemic caused her livelihood, like many of her fellow touring musicians, to take a more uncertain turn-she is an active advocate for the United Musicians & Allied Workers’ Living Wage for Musicians Act. Holter is now also a loving parent alongside her longtime partner, collaborator and fellow composer Tashi Wada (who is the son of the late Fluxus legend Yoshi Wada). Recently, Holter started teaching songwriting and composition at Occidental College, a liberal arts school at the heart of Los Angeles. “You don’t always know the things you are teaching very well. So you have to learn them, even if it’s something that is part of your practice and you are working on often.” The untimely death of Holter’s nephew Calder Powell, to whom she dedicated Something in the Room She Moves, cast another shadow, leaving her “perpetually shocked and learning.” From moment to moment, we’re often forced to exist in a vacuum, even as life pulls you myriad directions at once. Musically, the album urgently channels this reverberant multiplicity. “I was thinking a lot about love,” Holter says. “Not just the kind of love that is with you in the moment that you have. That’s the most intense thing-whether it’s a long term relationship or having a new baby or a parental relationship with your family. In poetry we tend to focus on the more romantic things. And this album for me focuses on the labor of love and how it can be very much about working on things. Also very beautiful and very like the most true kind of love. And a lot is about loss. When you have true love there’s a lot of fear of loss. My nephew passed away in the course of the past years, and then the birth of my child happened. It was a lot of intense stuff. So yeah, love is heavy.”

Becoming a mother undeniably made an impact on the recordings, although not in the most obvious way. On the tender, cavernous “Evening Mood,” Holter recorded her own ultrasound session when she was still pregnant with her daughter. Looking back, she is a little bit uneasy about capturing such a candid experience, albeit filtered through a phaser effect to “make it sound like a hi hat.” “I wasn’t trying to make a record intentionally about being pregnant or being a mom,” Holter clarifies, laughing uneasily. “It’s just that these things come through and I was trying to evoke this specific feeling on ‘Evening Mood.’ I wanted to evoke this underwater feeling. Poetically, it just felt right in the moment to do it. But I felt pretty hesitant about it. It felt a little grotesque, or in a weird way, a little exploitative. But then I just decided that it sounded good. So I used it.”

For the cover art of Something in the Room She Moves, Holter chose a painting by her childhood friend Christina Quarles, titled Wrestling. It shows two astral humanoid figures entangled with one another, similar to the dance constructions of Simone Forti-another mutual friend of Holter and Wada. “Christina’s work often has these figures in it that are so complex and layered and amazing. It’s unclear what they’re doing. Like, is it sexual? Is it kind of violent…. or maybe both? It really felt right to me. There’s so many layers to her work. I think that’s what I love about it. It’s…complicated.”

This notion of shared anatomy unfolds sonically in profoundly moving ways on the album. “Meyou” is a spine-chilling vocal-only meditation that channels the intimacy of bearing a child, a phase when two souls share the same body. Ramona Gonzalez (Nite Jewel), Jessika Kenney, Maia, and Mia Doi Todd join Holter in an increasingly swooping, ecstatic swell of emotion. Holter says the song was inspired by fellow composers Laura Steenberge and Catherine Lamb, with whom she formed experimental ensemble Triangulum. Holter explores a similar mantra-like vocal style with the aforementioned four singers. “Basically, I asked them to not worry too much, just come to the studio for a couple of hours. And we’d sing this one melody together and to let them drift apart at some point. Then we’d come back together again.”

On Something in the Room She Moves,multiple songs-including the gorgeous, wistfully sung title track-seem to move in cycles. The aforementioned “Sun Girl” is structurally very much like the spectral figures on the album cover, essentially progressing like two versions of the same track molded together like a conjoined twin. The first half evaporates in a whimsical cacophony of woodwinds and contorted bass, while the second act expands into a seismic, irradiated upsurge. Holter says “Sun Girl” has a much more fragmented origin than the other material on Something in the Room She Moves. “For the other songs, I had charts written out that were much more like planned out,” Holter recalls. “But ‘Sun Girl’ was just this rough structure for us to start stuff. Because I just wanted to take the sounds and collage them together. But the other songs like ‘Spinning’ and ‘Talking to the Whisper’ were already structured and had charts that we were just working from that were quite specific.” On “Spinning,” Holter catches creative sparks in its fluorescent carousel-like pulse like lightning in a bottle. Her rapid-fire lyrical permutations are funny, hypnotic and quizzical (“The porpoise is clear”). “Spinning” was allegedly inspired by an essay by French feminist theorist Hélène Cixous called Writing Blind, which describes the thrill of creativity manifesting during the nighttime: “The blaze of day prevents me from hearing. From seeing and hearing. From hearing myself. Along with me. Along with you. Along with the mysteries.”

“For me, this song is more like a state,” Holter explains. “A state of playfulness, which for me personally comes with other things, not just with having fun. You sit around, but you feel forced to get out in the sun. But the sun is too bright and you don’t want to go outside. But then, in the end, you’re glad that you eventually did.”

In the video, we see Holter wearing a rainbow colored dress which engulfs the entire room. It strangely recalls the spinning wheel icon on Apple computers, which is an indicator that the device you’re using is overloaded with tasks to the point where it’s frozen. Which is funny, since “Spinning” celebrates that moment of resistance against the notion of a fixed outcome. Furthermore, the visual concept also reminds of Björk’s legendary 2004 performance of “Oceania” during the opening ceremony of the Olympic Games in Athens, where she wears a dress that covers the entire arena. It portrays the ocean as a maternal entity from which all life surfaces, something that feels thematically and spiritual close to Holter’s rapturous lyrical vignettes. (It feels noteworthy to mention that, according to the press release, “Spinning” is a nod to Robert Wyatt’s “Sea Song”; Wyatt also features on the studio version of “Oceania”).

Like the ocean tides, Something in the Room She Moves is both soothing and treacherous, which reflects how Holter wrote and recorded the music with her close-knit circle of collaborators. “It’s funny,” Holter states, stifling a giggle. “I’m one of those undisciplined people that never warms up my voice before performing. And I’m really not a good planner. And I don’t own the best, most ergonomic chair. In the studio, I don’t always do things in the smartest, most efficient way. So for example, it’s very me to not plan on helping anyone get in the mood to record. I’ m more like the person that sends out an email at the very last minute to ask, ‘Hey, would it be okay if you came in right now?’” she laughs. “So that’s my honest answer. We just kind of stumble into the studio, and I desperately tried to convey what I’m trying to convey. I send these messy charts to people at the last minute. I’m trying to get better at it though. I’m trying to get better at communicating my ideas.”

By letting things happen impulsively on the spot, however, Holter’s music becomes a living, breathing entity, unshackled from rigid, linear structures. And as doggedly ambivalent as she is about meaning and intent behind her striking, windswept songs, that’s how warm and passionate she describes the uncanny ways of her collaborators. Holter chronicles Wada’s contributions of synths and bagpipes, woodwind/sax player Chris Speed (“Especially harmonically I feel like he always goes somewhere that I wouldn’t expect”), Sara Belle Reid (trumpet and electronics), and Devin Hoff, who wrote many of the fretless bass parts remotely.

“So much of my studio recorded work is a collaboration with musicians who are composers as well,” Holter concludes. “And I work with them because of my interest in their creativity. There is so much brought to the recording from that. When I first started making music I recorded almost everything myself. Which is not worse, but there’s definitely something really magical when you work with other people.”


Read our rave review of Aviary.

Read our interview with Julia Holter on Aviary.

Read our 2015 interview with Holter.

Subscribe to Under the Radar’s print magazine.

Support Under the Radar on Patreon.

Originally published at https://www.undertheradarmag.com on March 22, 2024.