In an age where pretty much all artists are at the mercy of limitless sub-genres, fastidious categorisations and trivial pigeon-holing, the music of Julianna Barwick somehow manages to separate itself. It is a sound which seems to exist outside the realms of normal life, a rare unquantifiable type of sound which defies simple placement.
Until recently, the Brooklyn based artist’s recordings were created and recorded exclusively by herself, using little more than a loop station to contort her own voice into abstract waves of sound which tread a fine line between intimacy and flashes of something far more capacious. While the vocal looping technique in itself might not be anything particularly new, the ways in which Barwick uses it provokes a more primal reaction than most – in no small part down to her own soft guileless tone, and her enthusiasm for her methods is apparent:
“My friend introduced me to this pedal he was using – it was just a car pedal which had a looping feature. He showed me what you could do with it for your vocals, so I asked to borrow it and then began making singles with it. I totally fell in love with that way of creating music – it’s a really fun and spontaneous way of making music and something I really enjoy.”
That kind of spontaneous writing style is evident in the sincere nature of the finished tracks too, even as far back as her earliest releases, like the Sanguine EP which was self-released back in 2006 and featured mainly untitled tracks – with the lack of proper titles seemingly be to underline the purity of the sounds. The soft, overlapping vocal lines sound wonderfully unstructured, almost as if they ghost into place naturally like a web of thoughts – it was innately intimate stuff. The widescreen potential which can be teased out of such a simple set up has slowly become more apparent over time, however, and is really brought to the fore with her latest album Nepenthe, something which is no small part down to the method of its creation. As Barwick elucidates:
“I made Nepenthe in Iceland, and was working with a producer along with a string quartet and guitarist…this way of making a record was complete experimentation for me. Working with musicians was something I’ve never done before but something I wanted to try. I really loved working like this and trying new techniques.”
The collaborators in question are particularly notable too, as Barwick had some of Iceland’s best alternative artists involved in the project. Most specifically, the man behind the desk was Alex Somers; long term Sigur Rós collaborator and one half of the ambient duo Jonsi and Alex. Linking up with Somers seems to have proved a perfect move at this point, as Barwick’s music moves towards the kind of epic beauty which he is familiar with crafting.
“I got an email from Alex saying he liked my music and would love to work with me, so we started talking. We talked for about year before I went over to Iceland to make the record. We got along really well and he’s so good at what he does – he also knows how to do things in the studio which I just don’t know, so this opened up so many possibilities for me with the album.”
Indeed, Nepenthe embraces its own sense of beauty much more fully than its predecessors, and on tracks such as “One Half” steps into that sort of grandiose territory where Sigur Rós have found their most epic and successful work – ephemeral and natural, but remaining purposeful. It’s something which almost instinctively filters through from the natural surroundings of the country where it was made.
Barwick agrees, describing how “there’s no way that someone can’t be impressed by the beauty of Iceland. It’s not like any other place I’ve been to, and I definitely had a really emotional response to the stunning surroundings. It’s such a beautiful and unique place – you can definitely hear it in the record.”
The record was crafted almost from scratch in the country and this no doubt adds to the somewhat unique genetics of the finished record – in that spontaneous, visceral response to those surroundings: “I didn’t have anything written before I went over to Iceland. “One Half” is the only exception, which pre-existed as something else. Everything was composed while I was in Iceland, everything was made up while I was there on the spot. I’d plug in my gear- having some time to mess around and try out new stuff, and then after an hour Alex would come in and I’d show him what I’d made.”
Other contributors included fellow Sigur Ros associates, string quartet Amiina, who contributed to several tracks, as well as a choir of teenage girls who filled out the sound, and presented Barwick with the new challenge of arranging her music for someone other than herself. “It was actually pretty easy,” she explains. “For the strings and guitar, we didn’t tell them what to play – they just improvised, which kind of kept that feeling of spontaneous creation which went into making the album. The only exception were the singers, as we’d planned out what we wanted to them to sing already. I had to conduct them though which was a really funny and amazing experience.”
Barwick is clearly being embraced by that tight knit community of Icelandic musicians with which she has always shared a musical kinship, and following her work with Alex Somers, she’s also set to go out on tour properly with Sigur Ros later this year, an offer which was very exciting for her. “It was a dream come true for me. I opened for them a couple of shows in May but being asked to support on this tour was shocking and amazing, I’m such a big fan.”
Despite, or perhaps because of, its propensity to elude simple description, Barwick’s music seems to be spreading to a much bigger audience. With the backing of the world’s number one soundtrackers of natural beauty, it seems likely her star will continue to rise. However, Barwick is just focusing on continuing to develop her music, particularly after the personal experience of crafting Nepenthe. She continues,”All of my records are all really personal and emotional, but yes – there’s something deeper emotionally with this record than with the others. It’s definitely the most unique. There are so many stories around the making of this album, so I’d say it’s been a really life changing experience.” While listening to Nepenthe might not change any lives quite so directly, you can bet that it will be a source of blissful escape for more than a few.
Nepenthe is out now on Dead Oceans.