This past August, Brooklyn-based artist Julianna Barwick released her third studio album, Nepenthe. Barwick, a singer-songwriter by trade, has a very unique style to her music; it’s sometimes haunting, sometimes hymnal, but always magical. Her tracks primarily consist of her looping vocals continuously, layering her rich voice over and over until she has produced songs that have been called ‘ambient sound paintings.’ Critics heap praise upon her work, with Pitchfork giving her two studio albums, The Magic Place andNepenthe, a rating of 8.5 each, and Ray Finlayson of BeatsPerMinute writes that Barwick “makes a brave step forward to expand her palette without drifting too aimlessly into distraction.”
The album, released on August 20 by Dead Records, is her first solo album that brought in artists like Sigúr Ros’ Alex Somers and the string group Amiina. While most of her previous material was recorded in Brooklyn, Barwick traveled to Somer’s studio in Reykjavik, Iceland. She even brought her mother with her to record vocals together.
Now that Barwick is back in the states on tour, we got the chance to talk to her about the new album, what it’s like to perform her songs, and how a fabricated story has made the rounds of the internet.
Blast: Do you mind telling me a little bit about your influences for your latest album?
JB: I think just being in Iceland and having a completely new experience influenced it, and the environment. All the solo records I’ve made before Nepenthe were made in essentially my bedroom in Brooklyn, so it’s a completely new experience. I think that was the biggest experience, generally speaking I make music very spontaneously and it just kind of comes from how I’m feeling that day and it’s all off the top of my head so I feel like I don’t really meditate on anything or have any specific influences when I make it, it just comes out naturally. So I’m never thinking like, I want this to sound like this. It’s more off the cuff kind of thing. But being in Iceland was definitely, it sort of turned my world upside down, it was just incredible. And the relationships I made with the people I worked on the record with, it was a completely new and exciting experience.
Blast: Now that you’ve gotten a chance to work with other artists on your own solo album, do you have a list of artists you’d like to work with in the future?
Julianna Barwick: There are a bunch of people I’d love to do something with. I don’t know about on a solo record, but I don’t know I haven’t no idea what the future brings. There are a bunch of people that I would love to do something with like number one, John Williams, the composer. I’d love to do something like that and movie scoring is something I would absolutely love to do. You know there are a lot of people who are sort of more contemporary.
Blast: Because your songs are so spontaneous when you create them, what is it like to rehearse and perform them?
JB: It’s kind of like dissecting and then mapping them out, that’s what I had to do for this tour. I had to listen and figure out how I was going to recreate it live, step by step. I literally had like several pieces of paper with everysong just mapping out exactly what I had to do, and I had to just practice the songs. Because it’s just kind of a backwards way of doing things and that’s the way I create music. So I had to learn my own songs in a way to be able to perform them live.
Blast: Speaking of performing, what kind of equipment do you use performing versus when you’re recording?
JB: They’re kind of one and the same. I’ve been using my RC-50 loop station to make most of my music since like 2006. On my first record, I didn’t have the RC-50 yet, but everything since then I’ve used my loop station a lot to create and perform. I have a mic, and it goes into an fx pedal, you know, to get the reverb, a loop station, and I’m playing keys now on this tour. So handling vocals, and looping and keys and then my bandmate Scott is playing guitar with a ton of crazy effects and samples. That’s how we’re performing now, but when I record it’s me just sitting down with the effects pedal and the loop station.
Blast: Jumping off of there, let’s talk a little bit about the track ‘One Half.’ You had written the lyrics before hand, and usually you write these more spontaneous songs. Can you tell me what it was like writing that down and producing something that was unlike the work you had traditionally done?
JB: With One Half it was a song that I came up—but same kind of idea, on the spot—several years before, probably going back to 2006 or something like that. I performed it a bunch of times but I’d never recorded it. When I first made it, I just sang those lyrics, they were the first things to come off the top of my head. So it was basically a song that was preexisting because all the other songs on Nepenthe were written right there in Iceland, I didn’t make them ahead of time. But with One Half it’s always just kind of been hanging around but I’d never recorded it, so I decided that I wanted to record it and make it a real song, that existed. I just decided to keep the lyrics that I’d come up with several years before. I didn’t really want to change it too much.
JB: Asthmatic Kitty was a one record deal, and we decided to release this record and the next few records on Dead Oceans.
Blast: In another interview you had mentioned that you had gotten your start listening to your voice echo in an old tree trunk on the farm you grew up on.
JB: That is a total fabrication. I have absolutely no idea where that came from. [Laughing] I never said that!
Blast: Really? I think it’s like, Pitchfork that has you talking about that!
JB: I know! You know what, I think I should tweet something about that or something because that, I have absolutely no idea where that came from, and I never corrected it because I was just like ‘oh, that’s funny.’
Blast: It is a cute story.
JB: For the record, I didn’t go around singing into tree trunks when I was a kid. But I lived as a kid—and still, I love—to find places like stairwells, parking garages, giant auditoriums where I can sing and it’s all reverb-y and echo-y. I loved that; I still love that. But basically, if you sing into a tree trunk, it’s gonna be a dead sound back at you.
Blast: Well in that case, what would you say is your favorite sound you ever got from a location?
JB: There was an auditorium in a church where I grew up [in Missouri] that was like gargantuan. And it was fun to sing in there, it was like an extremely long reverb and I just loved that sound.
Blast: If you weren’t doing music, what do you think you’d be doing?
JB: Well, I was a photography major, so I’d say photography for sure cause I love it.
Julianna will be performing across the mid-West and West coast for the remainder of the year, and hopes to tour on the east coast beginning in February. Tour dates can be found on her website, JuliannaBarwick.com. Her album Nepenthe can be ordered from iTunes, Amazon, or from Amoeba Music.