You’ve heard the term “bedroom artist” applied to everyone from perfectionist synth-poppers to sloppy, one-man garage-rock bands to stoned chillwavers, and while it’s accurate in all those situations, overuse has robbed it of any connotative power. It simply describes someone who makes music by themselves. There’s rarely a reason to believe they couldn’t just be recording in their kitchen or home office as opposed to the one truly sacred, one private place in one’s home somewhere. But Julia Holter’s Ekstasis feels like the rare record that really earns the distinction of “bedroom pop” — it’s intimate but strange, private and welcoming all at the same time. Enter Ekstasis (out March 8 via RVNG INTL but streaming now on NPR) and it’s clear you’re on her turf and her time.
“‘Ekstasis’ is a record you never hear the same way twice.”
Since it’s more accessible than her impressive 2010 album Tragedy, it’s tempting to place Holter within the context of many of the other female artists currently making some of indie’s most exciting music, regardless of gender. There’s a bit of BRAIDS applying the intuitive song structure of Animal Collective to a bracing femininity, the cloistered synth fanstasies of Nite Jewel or Zola Jesus. Holter doesn’t quite fit; she’s someone who clearly thinks about music in the abstract as much as she does in the visceral sense. A fixture in Los Angeles indie-art scene on the strength of several limited-release cassettes, as well as a music teacher for underprivileged youth, Holter applies an exploratory, curious approach to music-making itself that views the listener as a traveling partner rather than an audience.
Constantly refracting and reimagining bits of sounds, thoughts, phrases and textures, Ekstasis is a record you never hear the same way twice. It’s a rare time when saying its 56 minutes feel longer is a compliment — it’s an epic in miniature, the sort of thing that ends with a satisfied “where did the time go?” “Marienbad” is initially a loping waltz of synthesized thumb piano that could conceivably loop for all five of its minutes while Holter coaxes a halting vocal melody. When it eventually bursts towards a coda of regal drum rolls and birdcall, the segue somehow feels completely natural and yet you can’t quite figure out where “Marienbad” made its pivot. Indeed, even with all the loops, aged synthesizers and arcane melodic scales, Ekstasis is living and fluid. At any given point during “Four Gardens,” it can either by led by Holter’s breathy incantations or an armada of lo-fi drum or wordless, Eastern-scale ululation, and I’m almost hesitant to point out the rollicking shuffle beat that pops up halfway through the closer “This Is Ekstasis” without using a spoiler alert.
But even after dozens of listens, Holter remains an unusually grounded and kind guide during Ekstasis, keeping things on earthly terms even as the music ascends endlessly upwards. During the free-time swooning of “Boy in the Moon,” a synthesized whoosh precedes Holter intoning “This plane is taking off” – in this zero-gravity dream, an airplane seems anachronistic, you expect her to invoke a more fantastical flying machine. Amidst the mesmerizing “Goddess Eyes II,” Holter opens up in light of what often sounds like a very meditative and introverted record, repeating “I can see you but my eyes are not allowed to cry,” doubled by a vocoder to give it a paradoxical emotiveness. Likewise, as a stately harpsichord and pattering drum machine align during “In the Same Room,” she sings “I can’t recall the space but I want to remember your face.” Maybe that’s the key to Ekstasis’ strange magnetism: As she sings earlier in that particular song, Holter may want the listener to be in the same room to hear their secrets, as much as to reveal her own.
Ekstasis is out March 8 via RVNG INTL.