Julianna Barwick: Interview
“I like not knowing how something’s going to sound until I get into it. I like the mystery.”
It feels almost a shame to type out this interview with Julianna Barwick, because once you hear her voice in spoken conversation, she comes off as remarkably delightful. Perhaps that is surprising for an artist known for serious, precious, celestial pieces of lush vocal loops and wall-of-sound reverb, but the Southern-raised Barwick (she was born in Louisiana but grew up mostly in Missouri), with her slight twang and fleeting flashes of polite drawl, sounds like a refreshingly positive, encouragingly laid-back artist who’s just happy her work is getting attention.
Barwick’s new album, Nepenthe, comes out August 20 on Dead Oceans. As opposed to her 2011 breakout The Magic Place and the majority of her previous work, Barwick abandons her solitary bedroom recording setup for an Icelandic recording studio with producer Alex Somers. For the first time, as well, Barwick enlisted musician friends to guest on the record. She even recruited her mother to sing.
TMT recently spoke with Barwick by phone about these recent developments in her writing and recording processes, and how she’s still taking (and enjoying) her ever-increasing tour schedule, one show at a time.
Nepenthe is getting a lot of attention leading up to its release. What are you doing to prepare for the album dropping?
Having interview days like today […] lots of touring scheduling. [I’m] currently nailing down what will be the live show.
I understand you create the majority of your sounds with a Boss RC-50 loop station. Are you going to be using that equipment live?
I’m going to use that. I’ll be using more samples and possibly keys. And possibly another person. I know it’s here at the last minute, but I think that’s probably going to happen.
Interesting. Are you adding another musician because you simply mechanically need someone else to play or trigger all the various parts in the new songs, or are you making a switch from performing and touring alone?
Well, I love to play alone, I love to tour alone, I like to do lots of things alone. But with the making of Nepenthe, a lot of other people were involved. Consequently, the record has a lot more going on. It’s got girls singing on it, my mom singing on it, Robbie [Róbert Sturla Reynisson] from múm did guitar, the Amiina girls did strings… there’s just a lot more happening on this record because so many other people were involved. The Magic Place I did 100 percent alone.
I just feel like I’m going to need an extra hand on this tour. I’m working that out currently. It looks good.
As a kid I loved finding little spots where I could sing and have my voice echo and be super reverb-y. I just loved that! It was one of my favorite things to do as a little kid, and it totally still is.
Was it at all a struggle, on this new album, letting another producer offer input, since the production of most of your other work has been such a personal endeavor?
It wasn’t, because I had a lot of time to prepare myself for that environment. Alex [Somers] and I were emailing and talking […] he came to visit me in New York a couple times for over a year before I went over [to Iceland]. At that point I was super-ready to try it out. I’m not committed to making my music hermit-style for the rest of my life. I love doing it that way, but here was this opportunity I’d have been be really stupid to pass up.
I’m really glad I did it […] I don’t know if it’s just because Alex is so great or what, but it went really well.
I understand that most of your pieces come out of pure improvisation, looping your voice and other sounds meticulously with the Boss RC-50 until it amasses into a whole. It sounds like an organic way to work.
Yeah, I hadn’t written any of the songs [on Nepenthe] until I got to Iceland. They were all born out of the process of recording on the spot, right then. I don’t think I could make music any other way. It suits me… I like how spontaneous it feels. I’m not someone who can spend days, weeks, months, even years pouring over something, like some people can. I think it would be very difficult for me to make a record that way. I like not knowing how something’s going to sound until I get into it. I like the mystery.
In every video I’ve seen of you playing live, you’re focused solely on one piece of equipment: the Boss RC-50 looper. Do you think you find new levels of creativity by just getting to know one machine really well?
Totally. At this point, I feel that machine is like a part of me. I can and I do use it with my eyes closed. It’s definitely become ingrained. In fact, I used it for a couple years, then got the [Roland SP-404] sampler, and I thought, “I can do most of what I’m doing with all my effects pedals and my RC-50 with [the 404]!” But it was too late; I was already completely tied to the RC-50.
I mean, I do use the 404 for samples, but I’m still using the ol’ trusty RC-50 [for most things]. I’m comfortable with it. I love recording with it and performing with it. It’s definitely my dream machine.
I understand you invited your mother to sing on this new record? Is she a fan of your stuff?
Oh yeah, my parents are my biggest fans. They’re super proud, cute parents. They were both totally into it. My parents helped me every step of the way with [my music]. I feel really, really lucky to have had that. They helped me go to London and Lisbon, when I did that first tour I ever did — if you can call it that, it was just a handful of shows — in late 2007. I had played maybe four or five shows in New York and had a MySpace and that was it. And they were totally supportive of me going there and playing shows by myself. That’s pretty cool to have parents like that. I feel really lucky.
What was her reaction to you asking her to sing on Nepenthe?
She’s just the sweetest lady ever. She was like, “Oh really? That’d be so great”! [Laughs]
I also took her to Iceland last February, so we got to have that experience. I was able to take my dad with me to France and Portugal. I took my sister to Australia. So, to me, this was the perfect opportunity for me to do something special with my mom. I love hearing her voice on the record, it just puts it over the top. As if the record wasn’t already special enough to me, to have my mom’s voice on there, is kinda ridiculous.
So I understand you grew up in Missouri?
Yeah. I was born in Louisiana, which I think everyone knows by now [laughs]. Every time something’s written about me now it’s always “Louisiana-born Julianna Barwick.”
I lived there until I was about five. My whole family’s from Louisiana. Then we moved to Missouri — I was there from like five to 13. That’s where we had the farm… well the land, I should say… it wasn’t really a farm.
That’s interesting. I grew up in the South as well, and I think the culture there can be influential. Were you inspired by any of the choral or gospel sounds you may have heard growing up?
Completely. I went to church like three times a week. I was never in a church choir, but we always sang together as a congregation, a capella, in these super reverberant rooms. I did that up until I was 19 or whatever. I’d be completely lying if I said that didn’t have an effect on the music I’m making now and what I like to listen to. It definitely informed the reasons I make the music I do.
Well, I love to play alone, I love to tour alone, I like to do lots of things alone.
Yeah, I was a church kid growing up too. I think for church kids, if we don’t get anything else out of our time sitting in pews, we at least develop a lasting love of reverb.
Oh yeah. I think it just went from there: my mom sang with a group sometimes […] just to see her sing […] As a kid I loved finding little spots where I could sing and have my voice echo and be super reverb-y. I just loved that! It was one of my favorite things to do as a little kid, and it totally still is.
Maybe growing up in the South kind of gave me a relaxed, easy way of doing things in life, which I still totally have. All this [recognition] is sort of a surprise to me. I love making music, but it was never a strong ambition of mine, like, “This has to get done!” It’s just been pretty natural and easy-breezy.
I feel like I’ve heard more and more about you ever since the release of The Magic Place. How has this growing profile affected your life? Do you still have to keep a day job?
Especially since The Magic Place, which was two years ago, it’s gotten to where I can’t have a day job. There’s just too much stuff going on: too many tours, too many projects. I think I can finally say I’m a musician for real for real. That certainly happened. It’s what I do. I feel incredibly lucky that it’s even [happening]. It’s a total dream come true.
That little Lisbon-London tour I did [back in 2007] was really the kick-start of it. I was totally new to it, I was alone, and experiencing [touring for the first time]. I thought, “If I can make this happen, and this be what I do in life, that will be the best thing that ever happens.”
Do you find touring alone really adventurous or a little scary or both?
Oh, it’s total adventure — total fun. I’ve played a few shows with people and traveled from one city to the next with them, but I’ve done a lot of shows by myself. If you can go to a different country and play a show every day, it feels pretty bad-ass after a while. You feel like you’ve really accomplished something: “Wow, I got from this country to that country to that country all by myself! Yay”! [laughs]
I think about me going [overseas for the 2007 tour]. This is totally pre-label, pre-manager, pre-everything! I guess I had one record — Sanguine — out by then. I think about going over there and not having a tour book and just doing stuff through MySpace […] it just seems surreal that I did that in the first place. But it was just so much fun. I love it, because I’m doing it [sing-song] all the time now. And this tour for the fall is looking pretty heavy-duty.
Have you reached the point where you feel burned-out at all?
Not at all. I’m still a baby when it comes to touring. [I remember hearing] Beach House saying, .”.. we played 400 shows by then, so we really knew what we were doing,” and that was like years ago. I was just like, “Whaaaaat?” I definitely haven’t played that many shows. And a band like Sigur Rós are on tour for a year. Really, that’s insane. I think the most I’ve ever been out on a tour is like three-and-a-half weeks. I still feel nowhere near burned out. This is just the beginning.