Julia Holter at the Swedish American Hall for Noise Pop 2017, by Jon Bauer
Julia Holter (photo: Jon Bauer)

Words by Annie Bacon

“She’s an artist challenging herself,” fellow music writer Adrian Spinelli whispers to me as Julia Holter completes a stunning rendition of John Cage’s a cappella “Experience No 2.” The song — released in the late 1970s on Brian Eno’s short-lived Obscure Records — features lyrics by poet e. e. cummings and, between each verse, long silences that are neither breath, separation, nor distraction from the rest. The silences are a part of the song, perhaps the most impactful. And it was Julia Holter’s mastery of these silences that won me completely over to her Noise Pop set at the Swedish American Hall last night.

Not that there was much doubt from the get-go. Holter took the stage solo with a Nord electric piano and immediately owned the room. Precise and expert, her voice carried that rare air of being both well-trained and still connected to whatever unnameable source gives artists their urge. In other words, it both sounded and felt amazing, where some artists fall prey to an overabundance of technical prowess and lose heart.

Each song was a careful composition — though only one or two seemed to follow any kind of traditional pop songwriting structure. Listening to “Why Sad Song?” it occurred to me that her songs don’t contain hooks — I was not humming her songs as I left the concert hall. They are more like web-like, encompassing me and leaving me with an indelible feeling. I can close my eyes today and remember exactly what it felt like to have “Sea Calls Me Home” (from last year’s critically adored Have You In My Wilderness) wash over me.

The second song of the set, “Marienbad,” brought to mind My Brightest Diamond’s Shara Nova, and an entire echelon of intellectually outstanding musical artists of the modern era (Laurie Anderson, St. Vincent, Brian Eno, David Byrne). Artists who fuse contemporary classical impulses with pop sensibilities. Closing with “Betsy on the Roof” showed how, when applied strategically, this algorithm can produce incredibly accessible music while still holding immaculate standards.

Midnight Sister — the main supporting band of the evening — was a sight to behold. Unfortunately it seemed like the sight we were beholding was the only part of the act that was really well-composed. Not for lack of talent, which was abundant, the group moved through a set that was part Paris in the 1960s (á la Serge Gainsbourg) and part Astrud Gilberto. It also brought to mind the model-turned-singer Nico who sang (sometimes to the ire of the band) with the Velvet Underground. Don’t get me wrong, I love Nico. But her thing was her thing, and this thing was trying to be so many things that it couldn’t be entirely hers or theirs. The best songs were those that picked up the pace and gave lead singer Nicky Giraffe more dynamic vocal melodies. Based out of LA, this band has little Internet presence — no website, barely noticed Facebook and Instagram pages, a Bandcamp page that contains no content. That they are booking a major supporting spot at Noise Pop leaves me to wonder whether this is a new project of already established artists (as Giraffe seems to be in the visual/performance art world). If the band figures out what exactly it is trying to be, they certainly have the talent to explode, but right now, it seems more a performance for themselves than for the audience. As I heard someone say behind me at the end of the set last night, “Well, she’s clearly living her dream. Good for her.”

Every musician has a gateway drug of music that forms the addiction (or obsession) required to traverse the insane path of professional music maker. For Madeline Kenney, it’s clearly punk. But while punk is likely still in her veins, she was blessed with an absolutely gorgeous voice (no offense punk world, love you mean it!), and the ability to craft a tight and powerful — but deliberately hazy — indie folk pop melody. “Signals,” the lead track off her EP of the same name, saw her singing earnestly and beautifully over the top of looped guitar and tom drums, and it had me rocking out in my seat. Her hollow-bodied Gretsch gave the set twang. Her dry wit made a series of loop pedal malfunctions into a running joke to which we all returned. And the song about her brother — I can’t find the name of it — gave me all kinds of feels. The kind that tell you this songwriter is writing true things (if not always autobiographical) from a depth. We’re lucky Madeline Kenney is local.

Opening the evening to a small crowd not yet transitioned from the workday, SF musician DONCAT was like a more polite and kindly Mark Kozelek (famous for his work in Sun Kil Moon and for treating live crowds abrasively). The singer and songwriter, neé Duncan Neilsen, played a solo guitar set that was honey to ears. It was a soft, soulful, and emotive set of songs likely categorized as indie folk, each one a landscape. Neilsen called out his luck in being the only male on a bill of amazing females, and it was a indeed a well-curated evening with enough variety between musicians to keep it interesting, but always with the shared thread of the atmospheric and poetic songwriters.

Annie Bacon is a musician (her life) and writer (her obsession) in San Francisco. She loves shouting out amazing local bands and finding new music (of any genre) that is emotionally moving or has depth. She also writes for The SF Critic, has her own band, and is raising a little drummer kid.