Listen to this track by Los Angeles avant-pop and art rock paragon Julia Holter. It’s “Silhouette”, a track featured on her fourth full length record, Have You In My Wilderness.
Crafted in the same spirit as contemporaries Imogen Heap and Joanna Newsome, and certainly in the grand tradition of Laurie Anderson and Kate Bush, Holter’s approach is a balance between spare melodic lines and sweeping aural vistas. There is something decidedly European in this song, and in much of her other music as well, with that aforementioned balance being the common denominator. Maybe it’s because the narratives that the music suggests sound too ancient in their origins to be anything other than companions to folk tales from a much older culture.
In this case, the song is based on a story about two sisters awaiting a lover, whom they both unwittingly share, to return to each them. In this sense, “Silhouette” seems to have something to say about relationships that applies to mythical patterns as much as it does to modern times, catching us in the traps that love can often set for us.
The title of the album itself seems to suggest this too. To enter into someone’s wilderness is as apt a model as any for entering into a relationship with them, into unfamiliar territory as exciting as it is perilous. You find yourself plunked down into a beautiful expanse of forest, but without a path to make your way through it. The trick is not to dominate that forest or do it harm, but rather to find your way around it, and possibly make it your home. Like the act of falling in love itself, this seems like a pretty simple thing to do, until you find that you’re surrounded by trees. Sometimes when this happens, and we cut paths through the forest of another, we come to believe that those paths we’ve made are its defining features, rather than elements which we’ve imposed upon it.
As such, I think this song “Sihouette” is less about love in the sense of coming to know someone and accepting them as we find them, and more about the expectations we impose on others to fulfill our own needs. It’s about our compunction to place others in a compartment in order to feel secure. It’s about our need to control the conditions of our relationships, and the role that plays in the way those relationships end up. Ultimately, it’s about that meaning we seek in our relations with others which makes them worthwhile to us, or not. I think this is a human tendency when it comes to making sense of the world around us in general. We need to come to conclusions about things. We don’t like loose ends in the stories of our lives, even if life is full of them whether we like it or not.
Interestingly, that very same dynamic can be applied to what I’m doing right now as I write this; trying to impose a path on the music I’m hearing. In this sense, it is very easy to do that and wrap up the full value of the experience of listening to a piece of music, of hearing words, matching them to aural texture, and then deciding what it means. Where finding a meaning in the lines can offer up a greater sense of dimension, the rest of the forest will always, to some degree, remain unexplored. And maybe that’s just why we keep listening to the music we love most. We will never really figure out why the experience of listening to it is so rewarding in totality beyond how we’ve come to think of what it means to us.
Like most of the most valuable things in our lives, music is mysterious like a verdant wilderness, largely unexplored and awaiting meaning to be imposed upon it, or unlocked from it.
For more about Julia Holter, have a read of this interview in The Guardian published in September 2015, around the time that Have You In My Wilderness was released, exploring her approach to music, and to what it means, or does not mean.
Also, for videos and downloads, explore juliashammasholter.com