Julianna Barwick: “I’m Not This Gentle Fairy Creature Person”
A conversation with the angelic-sounding New York artist about public expectations and her absorbing new full-length, Will.
For nearly a decade now, Julianna Barwick has made a career out of articulating the ineffable. The New York artist’s songs are built out of competing clouds of voice—her own—looped, processed, reverbed, and filtered through what sounds like some kind of divine light. Over the course of three progressively more sanguine full-length albums, Barwick has built upon her strengths, slowly adding layers of production finesse as well as deftly-employed instrumentation—synths, cello, drums—to augment her ephemeral sound.
Her newest album, Will, is also her most curiously dynamic. Recorded in fits and starts between upstate New York, the Moog Factory in Asheville, North Carolina, and Lisbon, Portugal, the record also includes contributions from Mas Ysa’s Thomas Arsenault, Dutch cellist Maarten Vos, and percussionist Jamie Ingalls. Will all but eschews conventional song structure in favor of compositions that move and mutate like cyclical, natural forms—collages of sound that build and retreat with the sonic quality of fog—a delicate mass composed entirely of soft edges. While the record certainly bears some of the hallmarks of Barwicks earlier work, Will skews slightly darker in tone, adding textural elements like more pronounced synth sounds, additional human voices, and in the case of album closer “See, Know,” actual drums.
Given the nature of her music, Barwick has grown accustomed to weird expectations. “I think people assume I’m just like some weird lady who lives in a tree or something,” she jokes when we meet up for lunch in Brooklyn. In reality, Barwick has spent the better part of the last three years continuously on the move. Spending time with her, it’s clear that her music—much of her life, actually—is deeply rooted in natural curiosity that was informed by a childhood spent singing in church choirs and a lifelong affinity with the nature.
Though she takes her work very seriously, Barwick also has a funny sense of humor about it. “I’m not this gentle fairy creature person,” she tells me. “I like to be mischievous and I love funny stuff. I get that what I do is kind of weird and not everyone is gonna get it, but I’m really not some super boring New Age person…I hope.”
Now that you are three albums deep into your career, has your process of song making changed radically?
Definitely. The first record I made, Sanguine, was done with no computer, just pedals and a four-track cassette recorder. Then with the next one there was a computer involved, and then of course I made a record, Nepenthe, with Alex Somers, so that really changed things as far as thinking about how I could make things. He really taught me a lot. Like one time I was recording some music with him and he was like, "Oh, you're going to have to redo that." When I asked him why he was like, “It’s not in the right key,” which is something I didn’t even think about. Working with him I also learned how to incorporate other voices into my records, because I hadn't done before Nepenthe. As far as the creative approach goes, mine is still rooted in improv. You know, just sitting down at a piano or sitting down with all my gear and just making stuff up. If I like the way it sounds, I keep it. It’s pretty simple.
The first song on the new record, “St. Apolonia” happened in a very accidental way. I would walk under that underpass every day to go to the grocery store what was near the studio where I was working in Lisbon. I would always sing when I walked through underpass because it sounded cool. I’ve always done that—singing in weird spaces to see how it sounds. So one day I just recorded it and then brought it back to the studio. So, to be honest, it's all rooted in this kind of experimentation. No demos, no forethought, just jamming.
You use your voice like an instrument, which I guess is technically what every singer does when they open their mouth, but you really use your voice like another instrument. How did you first figure out that you could do that?
I just never stopped singing. I've always been that way since I was a little kid. According to my sister, I was absolutely insane with the nonstop harmonizing. Like, harmonizing with whatever sound or song or person who was in my periphery. I remember one day she was like, "Stop harmonizing with everything!" As a kid I’d find stairwells and church auditoriums that I liked to sing in because of the natural reverb they had. There was a park in Tulsa that had a great public restroom that I loved to sing in. As soon as I heard someone coming, I’d stop. There was a stairwell at Hunter College that I’d totally go and sing in.
I just love singing, and my mom's a singer. I sang in choirs ever since I was a little kid. I used to play to clarinet and piano and I took voice lessons in high school. I just always had music in my life. I was always doing music—mostly singing—and I also was one of those people who always liked to have music playing. I need to always have music around.
So, I was kind of messing around with a four-track and I got an electric guitar with my student loan money when I got to N.Y.C. and I bought a pedal. I was just kind of making stuff. I didn’t know what to do with it or anything, I was just doing it. I'd been doing things that way for a long time, when my friend Brian, was like, "Jules, check this out," and he looped the feed. I had never seen a looping device before and I was like, “Can I borrow that?” Then I made hundreds of songs using loops. It just clicked for me. I didn't do music in school, even though my dad had encouraged me to. I could have gotten music scholarships and stuff, but I just didn’t want music to become work for me. I didn’t want to spend all weekend thinking about how I needed to make some music thing as a part of my homework. So I studied darkroom photography instead. It wasn't until I started looping that it started to really feel like something I should pursue. It was just so quick, like almost instant. I'd be singing da da da da da da da da, and start looping it having no idea what I was doing and then suddenly you could have a song. It just felt so fresh and so fun. Plus, I didn’t have to write lyrics, which I was never good at or interested in. I just instantly felt like this is the perfect way for me to make music…and it’s fun.
It's interesting reading things people have written about your music, because often people reference a lot of really heady New Age-y stuff that even a music nerd like me has never heard of. Do you have a history with that kind of music?
Everyone one is always like, "Oh my God, you must be huge Brian Eno fan!" and I’m like, "Yes?" I mean, I do have Music For Airports and the other important stuff, but I wasn't absorbing all the ambient music around me that I could put my hands on. I do love lots of avant garde music, but it's not like I have just tons of Terry Riley or Steve Reich or all these names that are always kind of attached to me. Sometimes, but not always. I don't hear it as an influence. However, we listened to a shit ton of Enya growing up. She's incredible. Her song "Boadicea"—a.k.a. the one that the Fugees sampled—came on my shuffle the other day and I was thinking, she's humming this entire song, this is humming. There's just this like dark, spooky, lurking genius synth underneath and that’s it. I kept thinking, this is bad ass.
Yeah. She gets a bad rap in pop culture, but her career is fascinating. She has sold a gazillion records and she lives in a castle. Literally.
Maybe people just didn't like her haircut or something, I don't know. She's obviously a bad ass and she also did all of it on her own. Many years ago a writer from the NY Times saw some CMJ thing I did and titled it “Meet the New Enya.” At first I was like, great, but then I was like, actually, I’ll take it!
Based on the kind of music you make, do you feel like people have weird preconceptions about what you'll be like as a person?
Yeah. I think people assume I’m just like some weird lady who lives in a tree or something, or that I sing into tree trunks all day, as was reported by Pitchfork once. I think people are surprised when they realize that I’m nothing like that in real life. I’m not this gentle fairy creature person. I like to be mischievous and I love funny stuff. I get that what I do is kind of weird and not everyone is gonna get it, but I'm not really not some super boring New Age person…I hope.
“I get that what I do is kind of weird and not everyone is gonna get it, but I’m really not some super boring New Age person.”
Has the way that you perform live changed much over the years, specifically in terms of the technology you have available now?
I just think it has changed a little bit with every record. The first time I went over to play a few shows in London and Lisbon in 2007 I think I had my looper and my mic and that was about it. That's how I did every show. I was just looping my voice. A couple years later I got a sampler—a 404—so that was my set up for a while. Then when I made Nepenthe, there is piano all over that record, so I had to incorporate a keyboard. With this record there is a Moog on there, so when I played at MoMA the other night, for example, I had keys, sampler, Moog, looper, and some vocal effects. There's like a lot of stuff on the plate now, but I think that's probably the max I’m going to be able to fit on there. That's where it's at now. It's so different from a few years ago.
Does the idea of having other people on stage appeal to you?
I did that once, and I much prefer to play alone. I really like to rely on myself for everything in every way. Right now I'm thinking about how I kind of have to get into a zone and close my eyes and make these super emotional vocalizations and loops and stuff, which is intense…or it can be. I just imagine, like, if there is tension or if someone's not being kind to me all day and then I have to go on stage with them and do that, it's just too much. I've done it this way for so long, too, that it's just what appeals to me. I get a lot of satisfaction from making it to every sound check in a different city every day on time while on tour and depending only on myself to make it happen. Doing it alone is really satisfying to me.
Could you imagine making pop songs? Or doing some entirely different kind of music?
Maybe one of these days. I still feel like I’ve made a bunch of records in a relatively short period of time and things have kind of changed over that period of time. I have no idea what I'm going to be doing next year…or when I'm getting close to 50. I'd love to write more pieces for choirs, I'd love to do film scores, maybe something more pop-y. The songs on the record that I sing with Thomas are about as pop as I get, you know?
If not Brian Eno or Enya, what has been some of the music that has most profoundly influenced how you think about music and how you sing?
A lot of the congregational singing—church stuff—that's where it started. I was born into that. Also my mom had a little singing group that was all acapella with all this reverb added to it, which I loved. The hymns we grew up singing are really beautiful, sorrowful, mournful songs. When you get a group of people and they're all singing together, men and women, it's incredibly powerful. It's been powerful thing throughout history, because you're involved, you know? Singing in a room full of other people really makes everyone feel connected and focused specifically on this one thing. It's really emotional. I remember welling up with tears from that kind of feeling of community and the beautiful sound of it and the sad swaying. It's definitely informed most of what I do now. Also, having the experience of learning arias and singing opera with a bunch of really powerful, strong voices. It really teaches you what your voice can do.
People often ascribe something spiritual to the music you make, whether it be just because of the way it sounds or the choral aspect of your voice. How do you feel about that?
I hear that a lot. I think the kind of music I make is very open to interpretation and I love that about it. It's open to interpretation in terms of what the song is about, what the feeling is, what genre it's in, how it's classified. It can be what people want or need it to be. I think that's just kind of like a happy accident, but I like that. If it makes people feel something or allows them access these certain kinds of feelings, then that’s a wonderful compliment.