Julianna Barwick’s music runs with the rhythms of nature and the human body.
You can imagine how music like this could be tough to describe. There’s warmth, joy, and a general feeling of self-awareness that comes with her music: you know that you’re alive when you hear it. It can calm, function as white noise, bring on tears. Yet whenever her music takes the listener, you’re never that far away from the most basic element of Barwick’s sound: human breath.
Nepenthe, Barwick’s latest, is full of changes both large and subtle. The biggest, of course, is that it’s work whose origins lie in collaboration. Neither The Magic Place, Barwick’s debut full-length that rocked the indie world as hard as a album focused on repetition and breath can, or any of the other works she’s made, like Sanguine, feature anybody else. Now she’s worked with Sigur Ros collaborator Alex Somers. The two come from very similar places sonically, but when you travel to Iceland to take what’s in your head and and mold with it someone else, it can be a leap of faith.
Not that Barwick’s music is about faith, religion, or anything like that. Get people talking about the majesty of human breath and words like ‘prayer’ and ‘new age’ start to creep around the corner. Starting her Nepenthe tour by playing a series of churches hasn’t exactly helped matters. Barwick is neutral on the metaphysical, when talking to her it became apparent that she doesn’t imbue her music with any special spiritual notions, it’s simply one of the ways she sees the world around her.
Barwick is affable, our discussion was punctuated with laughter. She’s quick with a joke, which is saying something considering she’d just spent a brutally hot Brooklyn summer day fielding press interviews. We started talking nearly the moment after her last interview had ended ...
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Where am I talking to you from right now?
I’m in South Slope in Brooklyn right now. Only here for a few days, then it’s couch-surfer career lady for a while.
At least you get a nice day of scorching Brooklyn summer heat before you go.
I know! I am not into it. The whole time we were in Europe—we just did a two week tour in Europe, I just got back Sunday night—we had perfect weather every single day there. Every single day was 73 degrees, clear and sunny. We went to a bunch of different countries, it was totally weird.
Even in England?
Yeah! It was crazy. Everyone in England was like, “We don’t have anything to complain about, the weather’s nice!” [laughs]
You played a church there, right?
I played at St. Giles in the Fields, which was ridiculously—just thinking about it right now, I can’t believe it actually happened. It was so amazing.
And I saw you a little before that, when you played a church in Manhattan.
You were at the show?
Reeeaaaaallly. That show was a freaking miracle, we had one day to rehearse before that show, it was incredible. Something magical happened that night. It was such a blast. I had just never been on stage with that many people before! Everyone there was someone really special to me, it was a lot of fun.
And the whole Nepenthe experience has been very collective, hasn’t it?
Yeah. You know, I got an email from Alex [Somers, producer], saying he wanted together and we decided to make my next record together. He was listening, criticizing, and working with me every step of the way, which is the complete opposite of what I’m used to. It was totally different. Everything was totally different about this record—I wasn’t in Brooklyn, I was in Iceland which was crazy. I had someone’s ears and eyes on me, wasn’t used to that. And had all these label people play on it, so it was basically the antithesis of any other process I’ve used before.
Iceland’s so known for it’s nature, it’s beauty. I was wondering, did you ever notice any similarities between there and Louisiana and Missouri, and all those places you grew up in in the South?
No, not at all. They don’t seem similar to me at all. They seem pretty much opposite, actually. In Louisiana, everything is lush, hot, warm, and golden all the time, and there’s kudzu growing everywhere, covering everything. There’s not a whole lot of green in Iceland, like there aren’t too many trees. You see a lot of rocks, black sand, and moss-covered lava rocks in the mountains. In the South, everything is totally overgrown with greenness, and it’s hot all the time. They seem almost polar opposites.
It was just a completely new experience in every way, never known anything like that.
Was it fun jumping into it?
Absolutely! I had no inhibitions. And we had been in talks for over a year before I ever made it over there. He came to New York a couple times and we got to hang out a couple times. I just couldn’t wait to get started and see how it went. It was everything I wanted it to be and more. All the unknowns were discoveries.
There were talks about the album for over a year before it started getting made?
It’s been done for over a year! I got the initial email from Alex in 2011, and we talked all year. I made to Iceland February of last year for the first session, then went back April and May. The record was basically finished last summer, we just took our time finding a label home for it.
I’ve noticed in past interviews, you’ve talked a lot about how improvised your music is. Do you notice a difference between recording for an album and playing live?
Oh yeah. It’s completely different. When I record, I’m making it up as I go. I have no idea what it’s going to sound like at the end, nothing is planned. But when I perform I’m having to create these songs live, and it’s really different. With the tour that just started, I had to listen to the album that has all this gear and was mapping out how I’d listen to and play it live. And getting people to agree to tour with me, and there are all these guitar samples and stuff ... it is fun and spontaneous, but recreating it live feels a little more like homework.
One thing I’ve wondered, ever since I heard The Magic Place: how important for you is track listing?
Definitely listing and titling the songs is the very last thing I do. But it’s definitely important. I guess they’re equally important, but that’s the last thing I do, naming and sequencing.
Do you ever think about how listeners experience your music? What the average listening situation is?
I don’t know! I guess for a lot of people, streaming it when it went online. Hopefully with headphones, maybe not. I don’t get too involved with that way of thinking. I don’t think about the listener experience when I’m making the music. Music is so spontaneous, personal, emotional, there’s really no intention. I wouldn’t say I’m thinking about anything when I’m making my music. Definitely not meditating or creating all the music around some kind of cheesy concept. [laughs]
People are very quick to associate your music with spirituality and that doesn’t seem to be what you’re going for.
I understand how it could come off that way, it’s not unlike hymns. There’s a certain emotional quality that is not unlike spiritual music. But for me, it’s just all life experience and emotion.
Do you think repetition is important in music?
No. I enjoy it, but I also really enjoy music that doesn’t repeat. I think with the looping stuff that I fell in love with, it’s cyclical. And for me, I can really get lost in that. I really love that it when nothing has any sort of literal meaning, and it’s all about feeling. So that’s what that means to me. With my loops, I can get lost in that. And I think the listener might too.
I read you’re a fan of Drake. Is that true?
Oh yeah. Yeah! I have a Drake/Rihanna playlist on my iTunes that I play during night time. That’s all I can say about that.
What is your favorite Drake track?
I like “Unforgettable”, and also love the one with Nicki Minaj, “Make Me Proud”. I love it. I love Rihanna too, can’t get enough of it. It’s probably pretty annoying to most of the people are that are close to me, but I can’t help myself.
Feel no shame. They are great.
I’ve always loved pop music. Whitney, Debbie Gibson. And I still love pop music. I’m obsessed with HAIM right now. Can they please come out with that new album already?
I think it’s coming out soon.
Yeah, I pre-ordered it!