The universe is making music all the time

Chosen One: Julianna Barwick

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Interview with Julianna Barwick.

“I remember being like, a really tiny kid, sitting by the window and singing, and making up stuff, and making myself feel all emotional, you know. It’s just like, it’s always been that way. We always had a piano at home and then I was in choirs at school my whole life, basically. I just love music, I love making music.”

—Julianna Barwick

Words: Mark Carry, Illustration: Craig Carry


The unique and formidable artist, Julianna Barwick, is one of those special souls capable of conjuring up vast oceans of emotion through the art of music, by her distinct blend of life-affirming choral-based symphonies. The American artist – born in Louisianna, and raised in Missouri – has been responsible for some of the most captivating and illuminating music to have graced the earth’s stratosphere. Released in 2011, ‘The Magic Place’ has become one of my most cherished records, where an infinite array of hope and solace ascends into the slipstream of your mind. The eagerly awaited follow-up, ‘Nepenthe’ has been released into the world, merely a few days ago, and already, the album’s vital importance and momentous beauty is markedly apparent, like that of a cloudless sky or a crystal lake. As with all great art, the work bears the artist’s name, and Barwick’s latest opus, ‘Nepenthe’ represents yet another stirring voyage where both space and time stand still.

‘Nepenthe’ was recorded in Reykjavík, Iceland during the cold, dark days of February. In huge contrast to Barwick’s usual recording patterns – looping her voice and instruments alone in her Brooklyn bedroom apartment – the American artist was joined by producer Alex Somers (musician/producer of Sigur Rós, Jónsi, Jónsi & Alex), and some highly gifted local Icelandic musicians (string ensemble Amiina, guitarist Róbert Sturla Reynisson from múm, and a choir of teenage girls), brought in by Somers. A dream collaboration was born, where Barwick would compose and perform her transcendent music there on the spot – spontaneous and direct from the heart – and similarly, the cast of musicians would make their own interpretations of Barwick’s shape-shifting creations. In the words of Barwick: “I had never had anyone play on any record before, so this was a 180 turn.” The inspiration of Iceland – a place long adored by Barwick having been obsessed with Icelandic music for over two decades (the majority of her lifetime), from being blown away by Sigur Rós at a show in 2002 and much earlier, the first time listening to Björk’s debut album, having made the giant discovery in an Oklahoma mall. “I also was inspired just by being there, and the gorgeousness of that place. Your eyes can’t believe what they’re seeing. I walked home one night and got totally lost in Reykjavík. I ended up walking alongside the ocean – and it was glowing blue. It looked like it had a lamp underneath it. This is a completely different experience than recording myself in my Brooklyn bedroom.” Just like the artist’s reaction of disbelief to the gorgeous landscape that surrounded her, I’m utterly dumbfounded by the divine tapestries of windswept beauty that are distilled on ‘Nepenthe’, where the power and glory of music flows seamlessly into your heart and mind.

The album-title ‘Nepenthe’ is derived from Greek literature, which was a magic drug of forgetfulness used to wipe out grief and sorrow. The title had particular resonance for Barwick, who experienced a death in her own family in the middle of making the record. Furthermore, I feel the title serves the perfect embodiment of Julianna Barwick’s music, whose songs possess the ability to move you in such a deep and profound way. The healing power inherent in ‘Nepenthe’ – and indeed her previous albums – makes ‘Nepenthe’ an enriching experience. The work of art is both distinctive and immersive, where each sonic creation expresses deep emotion, that forms a curve of the horizon. Every aspect of Barwick’s music is heightened on ‘Nepenthe’, as the illuminating voice and heavenly instrumentation of piano, guitar, and strings are utilized on a grander scale. The result is nothing short of immaculate. The following quote from Claude Debussy resonates powerfully for Barwick’s music, and best describes her stunning artistic achievement, on this, her latest masterpiece:

“To music only is it given to capture all the poetry of night & day & of the earth & of the heavens, to reconstruct the atmosphere, then record the rhythm of the heartbeats.”

—Claude Debussy

Lead single ‘One Half’ is the exception, in that it is the only song on the new record that wasn’t created in Iceland. The song was in the composer’s head for many years, having been in the periphery, not quite yet in existence. The final entity blossomed into an enthralling modern-classical lament built around a repeating lyrical phrase that Barwick would keep with her: “I guess I was/asleep at night/I was waiting for”. The piece builds and builds, as Barwick’s mesmerizing vocals enters a gorgeous sense of oblivion. The delicate strings and notes of piano provides the ideal backdrop for Barwick’s soothing soprano. Album opener ‘Offing’ has the radiant dappling of a choral refrain, looped over a pristine cinematic landscape. The opening notes of Barwick’s voice takes me immediately back to the predecessor, ‘The Magic Place’, as the celestial harmonies bring forth a meditative mood, like watching a slow sun rise and catching the first glimpses of sunlight.

‘The Harbinger’ is the album’s centerpiece that erupts into a momentous climax. The song shares the glacial sonic terrain of Sigur Rós, and particularly the band’s untitled () album from 2002. Across almost six minutes, the piece captures mood perfectly, as pain and despair is dispelled into the soundscapes, yet the instrumentation of looped voice and piano provides the counterpoint of hope and survival. The wide dynamic range evokes such emotive feeling – whereby a cathartic process is ventured down – creating a world of force and beauty. The soaring emotion towards the song’s close is taken to new summits, where the music’s force moves like tectonic plates clashing against one another, deep beneath the ground. ‘Look Into Your Own Mind’ is an ambient gem filled with fragile strings and infinitely beautiful interwoven layers of Barwick’s joyous choral harmonies. The notes swell like the sound of the sea, as a stunning ebb and flow of looped vocals arrive on the shore.

‘Pyrrhic’ distills the Icelandic landscape into one glorious, sweeping movement. The sense of wonderment is etched across the composition’s sonic canvas. Brooding strings breathe powerfully beneath the ocean-floor of Barwick’s majestic harmonies. The large, expansive sound is clearly evident, as the sprawling arrangements – bearing the hallmarks of all great Icelandic music – diffuses into a realm of heavenly creation. ‘Forever’ is another milestone in ‘Nepenthe’. A teenage girl choir joins Barwick here, resulting in a crescendo of towering emotion. The piece begins with ambient flourishes of piano, recalling the likes of Virgina Astley. ‘Forever’ feels a like a dream upon waking. The clouds of sound cast shimmering light onto the land and sea below. Music as cathartic as this, undeniably has the power to heal, and to ultimately wipe out life’s grief and sorrow.

The central and awe-inspiring creative process of Barwick’s looped vocal harmonies lies at the heart of her artistic works. Nepenthe is no exception, despite the addition of the likes of Alex Somers, múm’s Róbert Sturla Reynisson and Amiina, who effortlessly complement new rays of light to Barwick’s array of light-dappled choral patterns. This beautifully natural, and spontaneous collaboration is a joy to witness as the sonic creations of ‘Nepenthe’ unfold before your very ears. As with all of Barwick’s works, a sheer joy of making music radiates from the enthralling soundscapes. Having been in church choirs her whole life, the vital importance of music, and devotion to her art, is the foundation of any work that bears the name of Julianna Barwick. As the voice is looped through delay-effect pedals – recorded in the heart of the moment – a wholly life-affirming sound is conjured up that forms ripples in the sea. This has been the case ever since hearing the opening notes of ‘Envelop’ from ‘The Magic Place’, a sense of enlightenment and enrapture is never far away.

‘Adventures Of The Family’ contains the prominent presence of piano and harmony, that coalesce together forming one organic whole. Barwick’s own mother – who would sing to her from a very young age – guests on ‘Nepenthe’. A beautiful and fitting testament to the special journey that this latest chapter of Barwick sends you on. The choral bliss of ‘Crystal Lake’ and ‘Waving To You’ are the final two songs on ‘Nepenthe’. The gradual ebb and flow of ‘Waving To You’ feels just that, a gentle and meaningful embrace of a close friend. ‘Nepenthe’, a voyage born from grievance and despair, is the life-affirming journey to the center of the heart.


“Nepenthe” is out now on Dead Oceans.



Interview with Julianna Barwick.

Congratulations on the new album. It’s really amazing.

Thank you so much. It was fun to make.


I was a huge fan of your last album, ‘The Magic Place’ and on this album, all the songs are in full-bloom, where everything is on a grander scale and every aspect is heightened. I’d love for you Julianna, to talk about ‘Nepenthe’?

Well, I’ve been talking to Alex Somers, who produced it, for like a year. I went over to Iceland two different times in 2012. We didn’t come prepared with any music and made the music all there in the moment. It was my first time working with someone on one of my own records. The other records were made all by myself.
It was the first time having someone watching and listening and suggesting things and all of that, and I wasn’t exactly sure how that was going to feel. But it worked perfectly with Alex. We just had a great time. Most of the time, we were recording in his own home studio, but we did to get to spend a couple of days in Sunway studio which is like a dream studio. It was glorious and it was my first time in Iceland too. Of course I have been always intrigued by Icelandic music, like everyone else is. It was amazing and it was just a great experience.


It’s amazing that the songs were born when you were out there in Iceland. I suppose it was a nice change for you to go from your bedroom environment, where you make your music normally, to a bigger setting with Alex Somers, someone you must have been a big fan of anyway, with Sigur Rós and all that?

Yeah, me and Alex and all of that stuff. I mean every association with this project was also very exciting. I was obsessed with Björk for many years, and then I was obsessed with Sigur Rós, so I’ve been really interested and excited in all things Icelandic music for twenty-something years now [laughs]. I remember buying – I never heard of Björk and I was in Oklahoma and just went to the mall and saw her album debut – this cd in a music store. I was like I have no idea what this is but this cover is crazy, the one where she has her eyes in front of her face, and I was like: “what is this?” I was thirteen years old. I took it home and I was like, “this is amazing!” I mean it’s a million different things. I already had a soft spot in my heart for Icelandic musicians for a long time. It’s all a dream come true, who wouldn’t want to do that?


Even as well Julianna, it’s lovely to see the different musicians who are featured on the album. On paper it’s amazing in itself. Listening to the album, it works so well, it all blends in so beautifully – like the strings from amiina – you hear all the different elements and it’s just a wonderful sound.

I think it worked perfectly because I mean they’re obviously super-pro, amiina and Robbie from múm who plays guitar on the record. They can obviously play on anyone’s record no matter how that person works. But the way I make music and the way they make music is really kind of spontaneous, you know and it works from the heart, at the risk of sounding totally cheesy. We didn’t have parts written for amiina, I mean the girls just came into the studio and they would sit up by the console and they would listen, and start jamming it all and we would record. It was, you know, their interpretation of everything as well, I wasn’t telling them what to do. So, I mean it was really more special. And then Alex was like, I have a friend named Robbie who we should have him come in to do some stuff on his guitar, and I was like, sure. I didn’t know what that meant, I was imagining like, guitar solos. But of course he came in and he had thousands of sounds that he had made himself, so there are all these sounds on the record that he made, same thing, but worked by making some stuff on the spot, that are like shimmery, sounds that are like human breathing and beats and stuff that you’d never know was a guitar. And that’s what he did, and he did it on the spot too. It was just like a really cool process. I feel like we all made it together, even more, because everyone played what they wanted to play.


That sounds lovely. Like your previous albums, it really has such a special feeling to it. The first song I heard off the new album was the single, ‘One Half’ and that’s amazing. I love how your words are like a haiku, the way it repeats over and over. I’d love to hear if the words themselves were in your head, you know, before the music was made?

Well, that’s actually the one exception for all of I what I just said of everything being made in Iceland. That was like the one song I sort of had in my head for years and I used to perform it, but of course it sounded totally different. It’s a song that would always pop into my head and I was like, I want to make that something for real for real, after five years of it hanging around in the periphery. I’d always said the same words and you know, I don’t often do that. I guess this time when I was making that song, however long ago that was, these were the words that just kind of, popped into my head. The lyrics don’t take much precedent over the sound of the music, which is what occurs to me first. The lyrics aren’t my forte, I guess you could say.


The song that is my favourite at the moment is ‘The Harbinger’.

That’s my favourite.


It’s just amazing you know, the dynamic range, and how it builds and the emotion, it really soars. It’s really amazing listening to it.

Oh, thanks. I love that one. That one had some sort of magic of how it came together that I couldn’t even begin to try to explain, you know. It’s all the weird parts from different stuff. I love that one.


I’d love to hear Julianna about your growing up with music? It’s just listening to your albums, I don’t know how on earth you make the music. It just sounds so other-worldly, you know, your harmonies, the vocals. Music must have been very important for you at a young age?

Absolutely. It always has been for my entire life, and it’s always been something that I love to do. Just absolute joy singing and making stuff up. I remember being like, a really tiny kid, sitting by the window and singing, and making up stuff, and making myself feel all emotional, you know. It’s just like, it’s always been that way. We always had a piano at home and then I was in choirs at school my whole life, basically. I just love music, I love making music. Yeah, I tinkered around with playing guitar with effects pedals and it had a little 4-track and I messed around with that stuff a lot. But it wasn’t until I started looping and layering my voice and making stuff up on the spot, that it just clicked. It was like, this is just so much fun, I love this. So, I love doing it and it’s never like tedious thing, more like a spontaneous, in the moment, really kind of fast thing that happens. That’s why I never did music composition you know, singing in college. I did photography in college. I just didn’t want any part of my love of music to be weighted down by it being a drag to have to compose something or whatever, do you know what I mean. So, yeah it’s wonderful and it’s my favourite thing.


As you say Julianna, the moment it clicked, and the looping and things. I wonder were there artists when you started creating music in this kind of way that inspired you to make your own music?

Not really. When I started doing this stuff, I didn’t know any kind of music like the music I was making. I think back in 2005 when I started doing this, I was probably listening to a lot of Sufjan Stevens and a lot of Joanna Newsom, just you know, stuff that doesn’t sound anything like mine. I can’t really explain it. My friend was like, “Hey Jules, check this out” and voiced myself a couple of times, you know being funny. “Can I borrow that?” I started messing around with it and made my first record, ‘Sanguine’. It just came out of me, naturally. Despite my upbringing and singing in classes and singing in Church and all of that, singing, singing all the time, and my love of sort of sweeping sounds, emotional vibes. I really don’t think there is like, I want to make music like that or where I got that, it just came out of nowhere.


It’s very true, I mean obviously even just to describe your music, it’s not like there is any obvious reference points, really. It’s very much your own distinct sound, which is obviously a big compliment because listening to any of your songs just bears your name in a lovely way, like any other good artist.

Yeah that’s the main thing. I’m really happy to hear that’s true. I think that’s what I enjoy most about the artists that I love the most is that, you know they’re so unique and formidable, so that’s the music that I find myself drawn to, is the stuff that sounds good and new. The risk is not to sound like anything, the person is making this out of their own brain, obviously, and that’s what’s exciting to me.


I love, Julianna, the title of the album. I wouldn’t have known, but I read that it was in Greek literature, ‘nepenthe’ was a magic drug to wipe out grief and sorrow. Even that in itself is a fitting title for your music because the songs themselves have that kind of, power to really do that. So, in a way, the title is a nice embodiment of the music, really.

Well, thank you. I feel like it’s the same for me to make it. I mean it’s definitely cathartic to make music, especially in the moment. So when you’re making up something on the spot, and you’re making it with your voice, there’s no way that you’re able, of how you’re feeling or your emotional state kind of, comes through. So it’s cathartic for me as well.


Is Greek literature something you have an interest in?

Well, not at all, to be honest. I just found the word on a nerdy word blog, you know. It really looks cool too. The definition that it had on the blog was: “a potion used in ancient times to erase grief and sorrow” and I thought that was so cool. I love that and you know, there definitely were some moments in the making of the record, you know, just feelings. I was over there for a really long time. Outside of working with Alex, I felt lonely at times, you know it was dark and dreary on some days and had some different things personally going on, you know. Once I read that definition I just felt like it was a perfect fit. I just liked the idea of it, just drink up some liquid and your sadness goes away.


It reminds me too of the film, ‘Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind’, you know that concept of erasing your memory.

Yeah, that’s one of my favourite movies. My top 3, one of my favourites. So maybe that’s one reason why it appealed to me. I love that movie, that movie is so great.


One other thing Julianna, I’m just interested on your previous album, ‘The Magic Place’, it fascinates me how it’s a DIY/bedroom – this sound by yourself – I would love to gain an insight into this sort of world of yours where you’re making your music? It’s amazing how you do it, to loop all these different harmonies and loop it all together.

Well, yeah I don’t know. Like I said, it started really simply, like stuff on the first record was a bit popsical. So, I think I remember I had a mic and you know, a delay guitar pedal, into another pedal that had a loop feature and then record it into a 4-track cassette tape track machine. There were no computers involved at all. It was all like, machines and pedals and stuff. It was like a really personal thing that was really fun to do and that was all, and it never really changed.
Before the second ‘Florine’ EP thing I made, I got the RC-50 loop station where you can set a time and you can double-experiment and configure, and I started making it that way. Most of ‘Sanguine’ and ‘Florine’ and probably most of ‘The Magic Place’ was specifically a bedroom recording so it had its own pedals, and of course mostly everything was made up on the spot, and then pieced together later, and layers added later. So, it’s really fun to make it. It’s what I like to do.


It’s obvious for me as a listener, you know, that it’s this joy of playing that really comes off the recordings and as you listen to the music, you really feel that – this love of music – that really shines off the album itself.

Well, thanks and it’s totally true. That kind of runs in my family, on my mom’s side. My mom was always singing too, when I was growing up. She has a beautiful voice and that’s why I had her sing on the record, and she’s on there.


Oh, she’s on there, wow, that’s lovely.

Yeah, it’s pretty cool.


You’re currently residing in Brooklyn. It must be a nice base for you to be making music?

Absolutely, there’s so much happening there, it’s motivating, definitely.


Well, congratulations again Julianna on the new album. I can’t think of good enough words to describe how amazing it is.

Well, thank you. I really can’t wait to release it into the world.




‘Nepenthe’ is out now on Dead Oceans.



Written by admin

August 20, 2013 at 10:04 am

2 Responses

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  1. “Brooding strings breathe powerfully beneath the ocean-floor of Bariwck’s majestic harmonies”…now that’s writing! Excellent, comprehensive review & interview. Well done all around.

    Stationary Travels

    August 20, 2013 at 10:50 am

  2. […] Poster for Julianna Barwick’s 2013 Dead Oceans album ‘Nepenthe’, to accompany an interview with Fractured Air. […]

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