American Beauty: Julianna Barwick Interviewed

On her new album ‘Nepenthe’ and more…
Julianna Barwick by Shawn Brackbill

The music of Julianna Barwick has always been mesmerising, a slowly shifting shimmer of undulating melodies and indiscernible, layered vocals. It’s an angelic sound, one that immediately sets the day in a brighter light, pushing troubles aside. It’s intoxicating, enveloping… Look, it’s just really good, yeah?

As the New York-based musician releases her third LP, ‘Nepenthe’ (reviewed), Clash called her up to see how working beside Alex Somers – of Jónsi & Alex – in Iceland helped to shape the record’s bigger sound, and to find out what set her on the path towards making such wonderful music.

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‘Nepenthe’ trailer – featuring the song ‘Forever’

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So let’s talk about ‘Nepenthe’. I think it’s a clear progression for you, and our review says that, too. But it’s also very ‘you’ in the sense that you can draw a line back to your last album, ‘The Magic Place’ – this new album is not so different that fans will feel alienated by it. So I suppose the question is: how did you balance moving forward with retaining elements of what came before?

Well, the making of ‘Nepenthe’ was completely different to ‘The Magic Place’, emotionally. And I didn’t do it alone – I was in a different place, away from home. So that’s a factor. But the core creation of the music, that process was the same – it was still coming from the same place, and all of the songs are still built in the same way.

I went to Alex’s, but I’d have an hour by myself every day, before we’d get started. And I’d use that time on the piano, or come up with other stuff on my own, and then we’d work on tracks from there. So it was kind of the same way as before, but then Alex and I would work together on finishing things up. I guess that’s the main difference.

So what did you take with you to Iceland, in terms of ideas, or sketches for songs?

I didn’t have anything with me when I went there. Everything was made there. I had nothing prepared ahead of time, before going to Iceland. The one exception is the song ‘One Half’, as that used to be a different song, one that I’ve played live over the years. I wanted its melody, and wanted to turn it into a ‘real’ song. So that was the only aspect that was pre-existing before I went over there. And that was just the skeleton – what the song became is totally different from what I used to play.

But I can’t really write music in any other way. I guess I could try, but it’s really hard for me. I like to just make it in the moment – and in doing that, the music is definitely influenced by being in Iceland, and with the people who were there. Amiina, who played strings on the record, we didn’t tell them how to play, we just let them feel it. They just ‘jammed’ over it, so to speak.

So collaborating, how easy did that come to you? As your first two albums were made just by you, in relative isolation…

I think there was some trepidation, when I first started. When I initially began talking with Alex, I did wonder what it’d be like. I’d never had anyone else there, watching me, or asking me to change anything. But after talking to Alex for a little over a year, before I went to Iceland, I was sure that he’d be great, and instead of feeling nervous when I was going there, I was really excited. I was thinking that this was a completely amazing and special opportunity for me. I can always go make and make more albums on my own, in that way. And I’d want to do that, too. I love making music on my own. But now I know I can do it both ways, and that’s one of many things about this experience that’s been really valuable.

So you’re not feeling greedy now? You’re not drawing up a long list of artists you’d like to work with in the future?

Well, yeah! That too. Y’know, working with Alex and the others showed me that I can give up some of that control, of overseeing every single little thing. I can relinquish that, and collaborate. Now I’m into it, yeah!

You started recording ‘Nepenthe’ in Iceland, in February. But now it’s released in the heat of August. Is that a contrast, a relationship, that you enjoy – that the record was recorded in the cold, but issued when the sun is at its warmest?

It was really cold and grey for those weeks in February – and then I was back there again in April and May. It was really difficult to have grey day after grey day. And even when the sun was out, it never seemed bright – and that’s because it never really got dark at night, either. So, that was happening, and very disorientating. That played its part on the emotions of the record, and so too did being apart from loved ones, you know, things like that. I think that can definitely be heard on the record. But the idea of spinning that and releasing in the summertime is kind of awesome. It’s not stuck in its place, at when it was made. The idea is that the album can come out as almost the antithesis of that approach.

I understand that a particular Icelandic band left quite an impression on you some years ago, a band that just might have some connection to Alex?

Oh, absolutely! I really love Sigur Rós, and when I saw them play in 2002, in New York, I guess I’d never had a concert experience like it. I was totally blown away. The feeling of that concert stuck with me for days, and it was also a new feeling.

And has anyone ever spoken to you, about your music, and how is has a comparable effect on them?

Sometimes, I think I’ve had a little bit of that, and it’s always totally amazing. But I’ve never had anyone tell me that my music has stuck with them for days. I don’t know… People have said some really great things after shows, and I feel really lucky because I nearly always have a great time playing live. People always seem to have fun, and respond really nicely.

With this record, as there’s a bit more going on, I think I’m going to tour with some other musicians – previously I’ve always played alone. So, I might be travelling with someone! I’m so used to doing everything on my own, so that’ll be all new to me. I mean, I love touring by myself. In terms of feeling a sense of accomplishment, getting a train to a show on time, across a bunch of different countries, all by yourself, that’s great. But I’m excited to see what it’s like to tour with someone. I do really feel that this record needs that extra someone.

I had a conversation recently with F*ck Buttons, and they felt unsure, uncomfortable, with being called ‘musicians’. I wonder, given the way you make music and how you’ve been described in the press previously, if you view yourself as a musician, or perhaps something else? A ‘sound artist’, or whatever?

Oh, I think of myself as a musician, and I don’t feel too fancy about it. I guess I love music, and I love singing, and I always have. I’ve always got the most joy out of life through listening to and making music. And when I discovered this looping and layering, which I’m addicted to, it was just a joy. I love the way it sounds. It’s pure joy for me. So I don’t think of myself as anything other than a musician, making the music that I like to make.

You mentioned ‘One Half’ earlier, and that’s a song that really strips your voice of the effects that are usually present. What was it like hearing that back: you, without the usual layers?

It was really striking. It was like, “Did I really do this?” It was so different. I wondered if it was really me. But it just fit with the song. It still strikes me every time I hear it, because I don’t really have any other really clear moments, when one lone melody line comes through as tangible English. But hopefully it’ll make my father happy. He’s been begging me for a song with words, so that’s for him.

You’ve mentioned the influence of Sigur Rós, but I wonder if you had an experience before that, one that set you properly on the path to loving this sort of experimental, I suppose, music?

There is a record that instantly springs to mind. When I was 13 or 14, I was living in Tulsa, and I went to the mall. In a record store there was a CD, and the cover really struck me – and that CD was Björk’s ‘Debut’. I didn’t know who she was, but this photo of her had me wondering, “What the hell is this?” I was listening to bands like Pearl Jam at the time. But I just bought this CD. I put it on and… wow. It launched a complete and utter obsession with her, that lasted for many years. ‘Debut’ was like this alien thing, something I’d never heard before. So I think that was huge, to me. Super huge. And I just listened to her, constantly, for many years.

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Julianna Barwick, ‘One Half’, from ‘Nepenthe’

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‘Nepenthe’ is released via Dead Oceans on August 19th, and is reviewed here

Find Julianna Barwick online here.

Photo: Shawn Brackbill

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