“I’ve just got to do something …” are Julia Holter’s distracted first words tonight, accompanied by a shuffling of papers across the top of her keyboard. Reinforcing the idea that she’s on a more abstruse plane than other singer-songwriters, she spends the first five minutes of her set arranging these sheets on a music stand, bending so far forward that her hair almost touches them. Task completed to her satisfaction, she plunges seamlessly into Lucette Stranded on the Island, from the album she’s currently touring, Have You in My Wilderness. While Lucette clatters and creaks, one thing is proved beyond contest: reports of Holter’s move towards pop have been greatly exaggerated. For the next hour or so, jazzy atonality and avant-rock abstraction, laced with what sounds like synthesised harpsichord, attest to Holter’s singularity: the breadth of imagination that landed her fourth album in many end-of-2015 polls also ripples through her live offering.
The 31-year-old Californian is backed by drums, double bass, viola and saxophone – a selection of instruments that covers all eventualities, from the lullaby tones of Silhouette to the 20-minute drone-jam that spreads like melted chocolate when they revisit her 2011 track The Falling Age. Holter probably didn’t write the latter with the intention of sticking two fingers up at the instant-gratification mindset, but as the song slowly swings from tense electronic pulses to a carnival of tiny sounds – whirrs, clanks, judders – it’s too much for some people, who leave before it crashes into a brow-mopping industro-rock climax. The last time I saw a walk-out at this venue was when a song suite by fellow travellers Godspeed You! Black Emperor provoked a dash to the bar, and seeing fans abandon ship tonight is as puzzling now as it was then. If anything, listening to The Falling Age’s isle full of noises should have been a respite after the past week in the real world.
“Here’s another oldie – kind of a similar one,” Holter promises when The Falling Age concludes. “There’s some A-minor in this one.” It turns out – what a wag! – to be entirely dissimilar. In fact, In the Same Room, from her 2012 second album, Ekstasis, is four jaunty minutes of C86-style electrorock inspired by her interest in ancient Greece. Holter sings caressingly, “In this very room, we spent the day and looked over antiquities,” which is consistent with her lyrical style – though she claims that many of her songs are inhabited by fictional figures, that’s hard to believe, when characters such as the equivocal Betsy in Betsy on the Roof feel so closely cherished.
Real or not, they contribute to the spell Holter casts. And “spell” isn’t entirely an exaggeration. There’s something rather magical about an artist who can hold a sold-out audience on the strength of her small voice – which is mainly employed as a texture rather than as the music’s focal point – and her galloping imagination.
• At Manchester Cathedral,15 November. Tickets: alttickets.com; Sage, Gateshead, 16 November. Box office: 0191-443 4661. Then touring.