Singing in Stairwells: An Interview with Julianna Barwick
Fresh off of her critically-acclaimed new EP, Julianna Barwick discusses how her album was informed by church choirs, Panda Bear, and the joys of sheep herding.
If there is one thing you should know about Julianna Barwick, it is this: she loves the human voice -- with loads and loads of reverb. Notice how, for example, her critically-acclaimed new EP, Florine, was composed almost entirely with her own vocals, a method with few precedents beyond Björk's Medulla and, well, choirs. Not surprisingly, both are hugely influential on Barwick.
Ms. Barwick's rather unique music is informed by an equally unique life. Her fondest memories include summer camp in Louisiana, living on a sheep farm in Missouri and endless hours spent apart of church choirs (her father was a youth minister for much of her life). The two constants in her life have been the outdoors and singing. Naturally, "spiritual" and "elemental" are the two adjectives that are frequently associated with her music.
I spoke with Julianna about her plans for the future, what influences her creative decisions, and an unabashed love for all things Panda Bear ...
I'm curious how your upbringing and your childhood has influenced your music?
I could go on and on about that one. Louisiana, definitely. I lived [in Louisiana] for the first five years of my life. It was so beautiful and I spent every summer at a camp. I have really nice memories of pine trees and lots of singing too. In Missouri, I lived on a sheep farm. Well, we had a few sheep -- it wasn't really a sheep farm. It was just a small little herd of sheep. There was a lot of outdoors time growing up.
I loved your remix of Radiohead's "Reckoner". Have you thought about doing any other remixes? Have you been approached by other artists?
I have been approached by some other people. I've done a few others. I did one for Jack Peñate. He's on XL and it kinda worked the same way [as the Radiohead remix]. I was asked by XL to do the Radiohead remix. XL asked a few people like me, Diplo, and some others to do [remixes] to kinda kickstart the [Reckoner] remix project. Then all the public remixes happened. Then, they asked me to do another remix for Jack Peñate. I've gotten a couple of other inquiries, but I've just been holding off on the remix stuff because I was concentrating on Florine this year and I really need to do some of my own recording. So, I'm just holding off -- I don't want to become a "remix queen" or anything like that.
[Laughs.] I feel like your music lends itself to collaboration in a way. Looking forward, do you ever see yourself collaborating with other musicians or even just bringing other people into the fold on your records?
Yeah, I do. I really love to work independently pretty much all the time, but I'm definitely more open to that idea than I was before. I think that little one-off things or maybe eventually an album could come out. I don't want to be in a band, but I would do collaborations. Things that don't last very long -- one-offs. I would be up for that.
You have a unique approach to composing your songs. Could you describe how you go about putting a song together?
I've been doing everything the same way for a while. I'm just using what I perform with -- that loop station, the RC 50. I usually just plug everything in -- my effects pedal into the loop station. I'll just do a little melody and try things out. I'll maybe even try different effects on the effects pedal and just be like [sings a melody] and start looping it. Then, keep going with it and going with it and going with it. It always starts that way. It's always improv. I don't ever sit around and come up with a melody on a bus ever or anything like that. Certainly, lyrics aren't really happening at this point either. It's all improv -- I just sit on my bed and plug everything in exactly the same way I do when I perform. I store the .wav files and then import the wav files into my computer and then up them into GarageBand. That's basically how I made Florine.
On Florine, there's a little bit of piano and synthesizer. Do you have any desire to use other instruments on future recordings?
Totally, totally. The way I start all the songs is kind of singing like that. The one song with all the piano ["Anjos"] was created/recorded with my loop station. I have my childhood piano at my house. So, I recorded that, stored it, imported that loop and put it on top. I worked on it in GarageBand. What I'm adding in GarageBand that's not in the loop might be like a few little melodies -- like vocals or built-in synths which you hear on Florine a few times.
I have to admit that I have not seen you live yet -- despite the numerous opportunities living in New York. Part of the reason is because your music feels so private and meditative to me -- do you ever worry about connecting with people live and turning your music into a communal thing?
I'm not improvising live anymore. For instance, "Sunlight, Heaven", I came up with on the spot and then put those pieces together and then I had to figure out how to do it live. I practiced it. It started out off the top of my head and then I had to figure how to recreate what I've recorded live.
Your music seems so personal to me that I wonder if it is hard for you to get on stage and perform, but it sounds like probably not?
Definitely not. I have a strange case of hero stage fright. That's probably from a childhood full of talent shows and things like that -- being in front of people. It's really nice. I really like to perform. It's a good feeling.
Do you have any influences - musical or non-musical - that might surprise people?
I feel like I keep harping on this point, but I went to church like three times a week growing up and we would sing all the time. It was acapella. There were no instruments or anything. People, harmonies, rounds, and clapping for percussion. That's been ingrained since birth. That's part of what I respond to. I was in choir and an opera class in my teens. I've just always really loved the sound of the human voice. Actually, with reverb -- loads and loads of reverb.
Oh yeah. Me too.
Like singing in a parking garage or a bathroom or an auditorium or stairwells. There was a stairwell in my college and I would walk down every night from the 11th floor all the way down singing because it sounded so good. So, that choir stuff and singing in places like that. My love of boy choirs, in particular. My parents took us to see Empire of the Sun in the theaters and there's lots of boy choir in that. I loved that. I fell completely in love with one of the songs on that soundtrack. The one at the very beginning of the movie. As far as like well-known people, Björk is huge for me. I was listening to Amy Grant and Pearl Jam and then I picked up Debut based on the cover in the mall in Tulsa, Oklahoma and thought "What is this?!" I took it home and listened to it and that was such a big deal. I've loved her ever since. I really think Panda Bear can do no wrong. I love his voice. I loved it when he was the drummer. Like the drummer drummer.
Yeah, totally. I kinda miss him doing that. Don't you?
Yeah, I totally do. He was such a good drummer and so fun to watch. He's just kind of an amazing dude. I love his solo voice, straight-up. The tone of his voice is so beautiful. Then, he can rock out on the drums. I think he's one of the best drummers I've ever seen. He can just do it all. Of course, Person Pitch is a perfect record.
As far as people that are making stuff right now, he's my favorite. Straight-up, my favorite.
He's definitely up there for me too. I first heard your music a few years back on the Má Fama sessions [a radio show based in Lisbon, Portugal where Panda Bear lives], and I remember your session aired around the same time as Panda Bear's. Was that a coincidence or is there a connection?
It is kind of linked in a way because I'm a huge fan. [Panda Bear] seems to be a really private person. I don't see millions of interviews with him around all the time. I feel like Panda Bear information is pretty sought after. Anyways, I found [the Má Fama] interview and found that Má Fama had a MySpace page and added Má Fama as a friend. Then the guy wrote me saying "I really like your music. Would you ever consider coming to Lisbon to do a session?" And I was like "Yeah!" So, that was at the beginning of 2007, and we made plans for me to come there at the end of the year 2007. So, I was there and did that session and, magically, at the last minute, opened up for the Dirty Projectors in London. That trip was kind of amazing.
That is pretty amazing.
Panda Bear lives there and I think Sergio -- the Má Fama guy who is now one of my dear friends -- asked [Panda Bear] to do it and he did it. So, there is kind of a Panda Bear connection there. That's how I found out about [Má Fama].
Do you have any plans for a full-length anytime soon?
Yeah, I think this year. I'm starting to put some stuff together and want that to happen this year for sure.
Are you going to continue self-releasing your music or have you been talking to any labels?
Nothing official. So, the plan right now is to keep self-releasing until something awesome comes along.
I'm kinda surprised something hasn't, to be honest. So, best of luck to you with that. My last question for you: Since you're relatively new to the New York music scene, how do you find being apart of it? Do you feel content here?
I feel so happy. I feel like I'm in the right place. Coming from Tulsa, Oklahoma, this is like way different. I feel like I've gotten really lucky with the people I've been able to play with and the places I've been able to play. I'm super happy.