Nov. 27 2013 02:38 PM

Vocalist creates expansive pieces with only her voice


In the first 90 seconds of “One Half,” the third song on Julianna Barwick’s new album, Nepenthe, something unexpected emerges from her familiar, reverberant haze: actual, discernible English words.

“I guess I was asleep that night,” she sings over and over as the song crests. “Was waiting for….”

The song recedes, just in time to not only preserve the narrative suspense, but also save Barwick from having to fill in more of the story.

Over a half-dozen years and two previous, home-recorded albums, the Brooklyn, N.Y.-based Barwick famously built her tunes out of looped and layered vocals and little else, eschewing language and its traditional role in storytelling. So, the lyrics on “One Half” inevitably spur the question: Is Barwick interested in writing more songs with words?

She answers definitively—for now, at least. 

“I don’t want to do that. That seems painful to me,” she says in an interview from Tulsa, Okla., where she’s visiting family before heading west on a tour that will bring her to San Diego’s Luce Loft, the East Village event space, on Saturday, Nov. 30.

“It just doesn’t come naturally to me,” she says. “It would feel like homework.”

With Nepenthe and 2011’s wordless masterpiece The Magic Place, Barwick—who grew up singing in church in the Midwest—has put forth some of the most emotionally affecting (and critically acclaimed) music of the past few years. Her sound is hauntingly beautiful, and her style impeccable. Barwick has been described as a one-woman choir of angels by the likes of The Village Voice and Utne Reader. Undeniably, her methods have worked thus far.

“It’s been pretty hectic, organizing concerts and getting music to choirs in Poland and Portugal,” she says. “But it’s… a total dream come true.”

Of course, sometimes a wrinkle in the routine is too inviting to pass up. Enter Alex Somers, an American producer based in Iceland, best known for his work with postrock heavyweights Sigur Rós. After hearing Barwick’s music through his brother, Somers emailed her out of the blue to gauge her interest in working together.

“I didn’t even think twice about that one. I just answered it,” Barwick says. “Like, ‘Yes, totally. When? Anytime.’” 

That was a couple of years ago. In February, she traveled to Iceland with an open mind, ready to soak in the country’s cold, dark landscape.

“The idea of going to this place,” Barwick says, “that is completely singular and totally stunningly beautiful was really exciting, because, of course, you’re influenced by your environment.”

Evidence of that is all over Nepenthe, on which icy melodies and sheets of harmony move at an unhurried pace that befits the overcast skies of winter near the Arctic Circle. (The visuals that returned home with Barwick, courtesy of filmmaker Derrick Belcham, are a perfect complement to the Nepenthe sound—equal parts strikingly gorgeous and shiver-inducing.)

Somers’ influence can be heard on the album, as well, from the triumphant coda of “The Harbinger” to the submerged piano that kicks off “Forever” or the Sigur Róslike whale-song effects in “Pyrrhic.” Working in the famed Sundlaugin studio—which Sigur Rós converted from an old swimming pool several years ago—the collaboration between Somers and Barwick is a thread that runs throughout the gentle crescendos of Nepenthe.

It was a welcome change after years of solitary soundscaping sessions, Barwick says.

“If I want to make a hermit-style record, I can. Any time I want to. And I… almost certainly will,” she says. “I was just really excited about having the opportunity… to go to Iceland and to have eyes and ears [in the studio] that aren’t mine. Alex and I talked for a year before I even went over there, so we hatched a bunch of ideas, [and] I was really ready and pumped to go over there and start working.”

Barwick is fully aware of the contrast between her past recording experiences and the Nepenthe process, which also included contributions from the contemporary classical string ensemble Amiina, Múm guitarist Róbert Sturla Reynisson and a choir of teenage girls. But once she was in studio and creating music, she slipped easily into her unique, sometimes insular style of composition.

That place—open-ended though it may be—is comfortable for Barwick.

“That’s one thing I love about the… spontaneous looping stuff: There’s no way to predict it or plan it or compose it ahead of time,” she says. “The first time I made a thing, I was, like, ‘I love the way this sounds, and it’s so much fun to make, and I don’t have to painstakingly think something through ahead of time. I can just do it and it’s super fast and fun.’ I just loved everything about it.”

Her on-the-spot sound creations also coexist nicely with her goal of avoiding lyrics forever.

Forever—right, Julianna? “Not yet, or maybe ever,” she says. “I’m not saying never. I’m just not interested.”

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