Speaking with Los Angeles singer-songwriter Julia Holter can initially be a cagey tussle. In composition, the 28-year-old California Institute of the Arts graduate cultivates a scape of droned hymnals and firm-footed pop lyricism so rich with contrast and allusion that her work just begs to be whacked at with expository questioning, like the world’s haughtiest piñata.
The academic cum populist’s third LP, last month’s “Loud City Song” shows her insular bedroom layerings now gadding about town. Before her Friday stop at the Cedar, Holter remained less interested in the literals of the record’s metropolitan narrative than in her more playful arenas of abstraction, like the spaces she creates and those she occupies — namely the frenetic influences of her surroundings.
“I love L.A., and a lot of musicians that I know love L.A. because it doesn’t cause anxiety,” said Holter, who was born in Milwaukee and has paternal lineage within Minnesota. “People seem to work really easily here, because they have space compared to … well, you know where I’m comparing it to. That other big city.”
“Loud City Song” occupies an urban space where there’s plenty of room to stretch the legs. Inspired by the narrative of “Gigi” (not so much the French novella as much as a childhood VHS copy of the 1958 Frederick Loewe musical), Holter’s perspective shifts through floating vantage points and vocal incantations. Impish French inflections can carry certain tunes like the two-part “Maxim’s” suite — a song that revolves its backing cast of gossipers to the foreground with such heightened drama that it wouldn’t be surprising if Holter choreographed stage directions in the studio. In her past work, Holter’s vocal layers carried much of the harmonic weight. Now working with a collective of session musicians, her vocals have become more malleable.
“I used a lot less layers on ‘Loud City Song’ than I did in my other work, and that’s because I didn’t have to,” Holter said, citing an influx of acoustic instruments into the arrangements. “The subject matter’s also more performative and theatrical, so the styles are just different.”
To say Holter’s sonic mural of metropolitan vitality is a distilled alternative soundtrack to “Gigi” would be an oversimplification. However, the ephemeral qualities of “Loud City Song” do seem rooted in the artistic explorations of Holter’s formative years, not unlike the ball-of-clay manner in which she describes her surroundings in Los Angeles. She likens spiraling track “He’s Running Through My Eyes” to apocalyptic imagery stirred by ’30s-era portraits of a rioting Angelenos, like Nathanael West’s “The Day of the Locust.” Oppositely, her lighter-than-air cover of Barbara Lewis’ “Hello Stranger” — originally impressed upon Holter as a child via the TimeLife collection — functions as a compositional tool wielded for necessary pause.
“The abstraction of the past is really interesting to me, and that really comes through on ‘Hello Stranger,’ ” she said. “It’s very vague and you leave everything to the imagination. Plus, with everything, you need to have moments of introspection like in operas or arias, and that’s kind of what that is.”
As Holter begins transferring the high-reaching material of “Loud City Song” to a stage show, there’s a reassurance in hearing that her touring band has been fattened. Holter will have a cellist, violinist and saxophonist supporting her. With her productive ambition finally progressed past solitude, the Cedar’s space should look notably crammed Friday night. By the next time Holter comes through the Twin Cities, she may need a bigger stage altogether.
With: Nedelle Torrisi.
When: 10 p.m. Fri.
Where: Cedar Cultural Center.