eMusic Selects: Julianna Barwick
Julianna Barwick understands who she is as both a person and an artist, and she exudes it. A solo artist in every sense, her live performances consist of little more than her singing into a microphone, her voice rendered hollow and enormous by reverb and effects. She sings just one measure at a time, some fragment of a melody like a car radio heard from miles away, and then she builds on it, recording the measure and looping it, live, erecting accents and harmonies and melodies and octaves and all measure of human sound, arriving at this cathedral of a thing, impossibly immense and gilded. Religions have been built around more.
Barwick’s career has stayed true to her nature as a musician: she runs alone. She self-released her first record, Sanguine (2007), with help from a digital label to widespread acclaim. It’s a wonderful record and a beautiful document of what it means to really create, not just iterate on someone else’s direction.
As easy as it might be to focus on process, to get bogged down in how she makes her songs, the important thing is that, on a pure listening level, it’s irrelevant. On her eMusic Selects release, Florine, Barwick completely stunned us with these six pieces that veer from Bjork-y future-epics (“Choose”) to ornate jigsaws of sound (“Bode”) to mournful, vertigo-inducing odes to times past (“Cloudbank”) to the staggeringly — and we could not mean that more — beautiful, Reich-ian stalactites of “Anjos.” It’s hard to believe it’s the work of one person.
I visited Julianna at her Brooklyn apartment a few weeks ago, and we spent several hours talking about her life and her music. The entire conversation can be read at 17 Dots (and we encourage everyone to do so — she’s a great talker). The original plan had been to film her make up and perform a song in her home to give people a sense of how this music comes about. But genius that I am, the batteries in my camera were dead. She performed anyway, and as I sat there in her kitchen, two little amplifiers gushing sounds like hydrants, what should have been an awkward situation was instead almost transcendent. I cannot thank her enough for her kindness and generosity.
Below are a few selections from our chat.
I totally fell in love with the looping stuff because it was all these different things that I like. It satisfied the immediacy, it sounds cool, and also the layered vocals are something I like so much. I love choirs, especially boy choirs, and the church that I grew up with was a capella, everybody sang and there were no instruments. So there were some beautiful, amazing songs where people are doing different parts and the men are doing something different from the women and there’s all these harmonies and clapping. That is pretty much where my love of that sound comes from… That got planted firmly in my brain.
Not long after I graduated college I started making [Sanguine]. I was already playing some student shows and stuff. It was messing around a little bit, like playing the electric guitar and putting a ton of reverb on my voice and just kind of standing up there and making up stuff. Like not even singing in English, just making up stuff as I went.
Sometimes I would have things I would work out on the guitar, and then I would always just make everything up. I borrowed a little guitar pedal that was literally this big [makes a small gesture] and white. I don’t remember where it is, but you had to hold it down to make the loop, and you let go, and you just kind of … you know? [Laughs] A couple of times I would let go too soon, and it would just be over. I just started recording all those things into the four-track, and that’s when it eventually became Sanguine.
What was prompting you to just make things up versus structuring something or writing something down beforehand?
In general that’s the way I like to work. If I draw something, I just want to do something and not come back to it over and over and over again. And also the looping thing just sort of lent itself to that. No, I guess I always sort of did that.
What’s funny is that you said you don’t like to come back to it over and over and refine it, but I feel like that’s almost exactly what your music is.
It never starts out that way, though. I’ve never really thought about this before. I don’t know. I think one of the things I can say about that, even when I was playing guitar and singing and so on was just the sound of it, how it sounded was more important to me than planning it out and making it perfect and writing the perfect lyrics. I’ve tried to write lyrics before and I can never commit to them, and it’s kind of a struggle for me. But that’s the thing about it, and I’m like, “Oh, my God, I love the way my voice sounds through this pedal or whatever. I love this pedal on the electric guitar. It sounds so good.” And I would just play, and no one really could tell what I was singing about anyway. It was heavily drenched.
That first time, though, the first time you performed at the open mic thing or some house party or some little event on campus, you had an idea of what you were going to do, clearly. I mean, you didn’t walk in like, “I got my guitar, I got a suitcase full of ideas. Let’s see what’s gonna happen.” I mean, there was some amount of plotting or planning, right?
Actually, the first time, yes, because I had never done that before. We had a Wednesday music night thing. And I did plan. I planned that one out, but pretty much after that one time, I would just do pretty stuff and make it up.
It’s really interesting. I don’t feel like I’ve ever talked to anyone who has approached things that way. I feel like people do that when they become bored of what they are, you know? You have to get rid of this rational part of your brain and go where nothing is plotted, and just what happens, happens, work with this. It’s not exactly improv, because I know you have a structure.
What — this will be a weird thing for me to say — what I keep thinking is that, to me, the idea of just, of just insisting of making things up, it almost becomes a comfort thing and a wall between you and the audience. Versus if a part doesn’t go right, it’s okay because you’re just making it up. And it becomes a means of…
Being a wuss?
No, not being a wuss. I think it’s a thing you take confidence in. To where there’s a certain level of… I don’t know.
I think I totally get what you’re saying because that’s kind of how….I never really got nervous, and I still don’t, because I think part of that is just something that’s innate, but part of it’s just like, I was in every talent show growing up. I was in the high school choirs, I took voice. I had to do recitals, I did an opera-chorus thing, and I wasn’t like a crazy child performer or anything like that, but I would sing for people regularly, so I think that was not a big deal, and I think my approach, like I said, to playing was kind of like, “If I don’t plan it, nothing’s going to go wrong.” That is true, totally. I just messed around.
Usually it’s just blissing out and making something that sounds pretty and just enjoying the sound of it. I really think that’s what it’s about. I talked a few times about the way I love to sing in church and that sound. I’m just in love with that. It’s just fun to sing like that. I don’t take myself too seriously. It’s fun for me; I love to do it.
I don’t want to sound flippant or anything. It really is just like, it feels good to just sing and make something. Part of what the whole looping thing is, is that when I plug everything in, which I never practice, but if I plug everything in, I just make something up. It’s just fun for me. It’s good for my brain to not know what it’s going to sound like at the end.