Taking long walks through a forest trail or alongside the canal. Watching episodes of “Planet Earth” with the volume muted. Wandering through a modern art museum. Yoga.
Discuss Julianna Barwick with a Julianna Barwick fan and you’re likely to discover a new way – no, the way – to enjoy her music. Trust them. You have to try it.
Barwick’s music has a way of making the mundane feel otherworldly. For someone ambling through nature, each beam of sunlight breaks through leaves and branches with a purpose, the illuminated specks of dust and earth dancing in slow motion. Or something like that.
This sort of soundtracking is perhaps more readily associated with the grandiose work of swollen post-rock bands: Godspeed You! Black Emperor, Explosions in the Sky, Mogwai. But Barwick has more or less conjured this majesty on her own for the past decade. Her primary instrument is just a voice, emitting ethereal and wordless melody, looped over and over again with a Boss RC-50. And she’s created and captured this sound by herself, in her own apartment.
The break in this pattern comes with Nepenthe. Released by Dead Oceans last summer, the record is the first that Barwick recorded in a proper studio – and not just any studio, but Sigur Rós’ Sundlaugin Studio in Reykjavik, Iceland. Assisting her was that band’s main collaborator Alex Somers, who helped incorporate contributions from the string quartet Amiina and members of Múm and even Barwick’s mother. But despite the changed surroundings, Nepenthe achieves what Barwick’s music has always done best: manage to be both awe-inspiringly grand and still deeply personal.
This spring she takes the record on the road – by herself, once again. In DC and New York, she’ll play in places of worship. “There’s something about being in a beautiful place that feels a lot more reverent and special than your average small rock club,” she told BYT a few weeks ago, at home in Brooklyn. “It’s a completely different thing. It affects the performance in that way, for sure.”
After almost half a year of touring, you’d like not to do anything for a while, which I got to do for a tiny bit, but I have a bunch of projects that I’m working on. I’ve been in the studio a bunch of days. It’s been a very, very busy month. I have a show this weekend in Indianapolis with a choir and yMusic. There are just different things that I’m preparing. It’s pretty busy, actually.
What projects are keeping you busy?
I’m working on some pieces with the Brooklyn Youth Chorus – that’s going to happen this summer. I’m working on a reinterpretation of a Bach piece for a Red Hot project. I’m changing my touring set-up a little bit, so there’s that. There’s a bunch of different things that require a lot of time in the studio.
How are you changing your set-up?
I had a bandmate last fall, and I’m going to be touring solo this spring- again. I’ll be incorporating some new machines and instruments.
How do you like life in Brooklyn?
I love it. I’ve lived here almost thirteen years. I moved here when I finished college and have lived here ever since. It’s my favorite place.
You don’t go into the studio with any material in hand, but do you generally have ideas about the kind of record that you want to make?
Not really. It kind of just happens as I go along. A mood develops, because the record is written in real time. Just being in Iceland and being far away from home and the wonder of being in a place that I was always really curious about definitely affected the record – 100%. But I’m completely neutral going in about how the record is going to sound.
That’s what I like about making music the way that I’ve ended up making it. Even with the very first record, I would just sit down and start singing and looping, and could never ever guess in a million year what it would sound like when it was finished. It’s the same with every record since – I don’t have a plan or an intention even. I just let the mood of the place and what’s happening with me day-to-day inform the record.
Did you feel pressure or discomfort going into a more formal studio situation with Alex [Somers]?
I’m extremely easygoing, if you can be extremely easygoing. I felt pretty comfortable. Alex and I just had such a super easy, positive, nearly carefree outlook on making the record. I was more excited to get into a real studio with the girls that sang on the record and Amiina. It was a total dream come true – to be there for that and be like, “Wow, they’re playing on my record? That’s so crazy.”
From the first moment of flying over there, it was less about trepidation and anxiety, and more about telling myself to enjoy every minute, because I knew that it was a really special thing that was about to happen.
I went twice. The record took about eight weeks to make – maybe a little less – all the way from creating to recording to mixing. It went pretty fast.
Had you been to Iceland before?
No, I hadn’t. I’d always been curious about it. I knew musicians from Iceland and I liked them. I had researched Iceland a little, but there’s nothing like being there and exploring it. It is singular in its beauty and terrain. It doesn’t look like any other place. It has crazy lava rock rocks. We went to the Blue Lagoon, which was like something out of a movie. Everything felt like something out of someone’s imagination – like out of a book, but it was real.
Where do your song titles come from?
Sometimes I’ll have a little phrase or word that’s always in my brain. Like, “Adventurer of the Family” was one that I always had thought of – I don’t why. And then when I was naming my songs, I just thought, “This song is it.”
Naming songs is always the very last thing that I do. My process for that is usually that I write down words or phrases that I like in places or looking around online. I just listen to the song once it’s finished and think, “What does this sound like to me?” and try to find the appropriate word or phrase for it. But, yeah, it’s always the very last part of the process.
When did you first comes across “nepenthe?”
I had never heard the word before, and then I saw it on, like, a nerdy word blog. There are a bunch of different definition and meanings for “nepenthe,” but the one that I came across was “a potion used by the ancients to induce forgetfulness of something sorrowful or painful.”
I just liked everything about it. I liked the word. I liked that there were Ns in it. I like the idea of drinking something to make sorrow disappear. It just clicked. That’s the way things kind of work with me in, general. Everything – making music, naming things, the art work – just pops into my brain, and I don’t bellyache over anything too long. It kind of happens magically for some reason.
What music have you been spending time with lately?
I’ve been listening to a lot of the new Beyonce – let’s face it. I’m a soundtrack freak and I just recently got the “Moonrise Kingdom” soundtrack. And I just saw “Her”, so I’m probably getting that soundtrack pretty soon.
I’ve been listening some Blue Hawaii – I’ve actually been listening to a lot of that.
I am fortunate that I have my labelmate Mark McGuire’s record – which is coming out next month – ahead of the curve, and it’s glorious. I’ve been listening to a little bit of everything.
What about soundtracks speaks to you?
As cheesy as it sounds, I connect with the emotive, wordless quality of the music. I mean, not all of it’s wordless, but often times it is. With Wes Anderson soundtracks, they’re all over the place so you get a little bit of everything, but it still manages to you to you a place in your brain. I’ve always loved that. I’ve been listening to the “Empire of the Sun” soundtrack since I saw it in the theater when I was kid. I just love associating something with music in my head.
Have you ever done any soundtrack work?
I haven’t! I’m honestly kind of surprised that it hasn’t happened yet, but I feel like it will. I want it to.