Julianna Barwick’s voice has taken her all over the world. Looped and layered to ecstatic heights, the Brooklyn singer/songwriter continues to utilize her vocals in a more experimentally dedicated way than anyone else currently making music in the borough. Her serene, transporting music has lead to opening spots across Europe for bold-faced names like Panda Bear and The Dirty Projectors, as well as gigs at most of New York City’s best-known venues. Not bad for a performer working only with a microphone and a couple pieces of gear small enough to be safely stowed away in a Honda Accord’s glove-box.
In a momentary lull from a near-constant cycle of recording and touring, we chatted with Barwick via e-mail about her (BNM'd) new record, The Magic Place (out this week on Asthmatic Kitty) and the continued evolution of her singular live show.
The L Magazine: In your recording process, how many revisions does a song typically go through? Do you find yourself becoming really protective of certain bits, searching for just the right accompaniment, or is it more just letting songs mutate on the fly?
Julianna Barwick: I don't think I go through many revisions at all—I usually have one bit that I work on top of, build and build until I think it's where it needs to be. I think it's true that I am “protective” in a way with certain sections, kind of love them, and work from there. That being said, the work that I do from there is intuitive, and whatever I come up with usually sticks the first time. I follow my gut on everything until the song is done.
The L: Though you diverged from it a bit on The Magic Place, is your primary focus in recoding still working with loops? Do you anticipate moving away from that?
JB: I did move a bit away from that on this record, I did some straight-ahead singing, like on “Bob in Your Gait,” the vocals aren't looped at all, just harmonies. Also on “Flown,” each section is looped, but the voices are in unison. So there was a bit of a diversion! I think that on the next record there will be more experimenting with everything—so I anticipate that I will be doing some different things vocally. I still love the sound of layered vocals on top of each other.
The L: I was curious about the song titles on the record, since these songs seem like they could be a little tricky to name. What does something like “Cloak” or “Vow” mean to you in relation to the song?
JB: I usually name the songs at the end. Most of the time I will listen, and think about how it makes me feel, and come up with the appropriate word or phrase. Like with “Cloak,” it kind of gave me a dark feeling, and cloak is the first word that sprang to mind. With “Vow,” I'm repeating the same phrase over and over, “I will be here,” so it seemed like a promise to me, hence “Vow.” Sometimes I will just start singing a phrase out of nowhere when I'm recording and it sticks, and that becomes the title. Other times it's the mood or feeling of the song.
The L: I know you play guitar, and there are more prominent strings, piano, and other instrumental accents on the new record. How many instruments do you play? Are there any you’re dying to learn?
JB: I dabble with guitar, piano, clarinet, and percussion. I don't really know how to play, I just play by ear mostly. I would love to know how to play cello, or violin. But most of all I would love to know how to play a piano very well. I think that would be the best thing ever.
The L: Do you plan to incorporate more instrumentation into your live performances? Is that tricky, as a solo artist performing as you do?
JB: For now I have stored some piano sounds into my sampler, until I can cart around a piano! I am really used to traveling with my teeny little gear bag and it would be hard to add a ton of stuff, especially when touring. I would love to try and incorporate real instruments at some point in time.
The L: I saw that you collaborated with drummer Ikue Mori from the first generation No Wave band DNA near the end of last year. That seems like a really interesting juxtapostion.
JB: That was a wonderful collaboration for the FRKWYS series through the RVNG label—we improvised 8 different times, each time was about 10 minutes long. It was one of the best things I've ever been a part of. Ikue is so awesome, she is such an innovative performer who has been doing amazing stuff for many years, and it was an honor to be able to make music with her, truly exhilarating. The record should be coming out soon on RVNG of the works we recorded.
The L: How do you think about rhythm and percussion in your music when you're handling it yourself? “Flown” and “Prizewinning” from the new record, for instance, seem focused on that aspect more than anything you’ve done yet.
JB: Sometimes I'll do little beats with my mouth when I'm recording, like in the past with songs like “Choose,” from the Florine EP. With “Prizewinning,” I was using an actual music space to record this album and there were all these fun things laying around to try, and I ended up playing around with a high hat and a snare, and it stuck. Kind of like with everything I do—I just try things and sometimes fall in love with them and keep them.
The L: Live, at a recent Mercury Lounge show I attended, I noticed that you were building more rhythmic sounds and phrases into songs, and using more vocal loops that weren’t elongated melodic swells in a really appealing way. Is this a move towards more recognizable pop structures?
JB: I think lately I have been trying to recreate the songs from The Magic Place live, and since there's a bit more going on in the songs, I try to help that come across live. I'm not intentionally trying to move towards more pop-y stuff but with each record it seems like a little more is happening in the songs, as I learn and have more access to instruments.
The L: I understand that your shows aren’t entirely improvised anymore, but to what degree are the different loops and vocal lines choreographed and timed out? Or do you just know where you want to go, and feel out how long to take getting there?
JB: Hmm, I would say they are timed out for the most part. I am building up every section, one by one, from scratch live so I kind of have to know ahead of time how to do it or it might take forever! I want to do a good performance, and since the songs have a certain lineage, I try and think ahead of time what it will take to get it to how it (almost) sounds on the record.
The L: Since you have to gradually build up to these big swells of melody in a live show, as opposed to a record where you can start right in with a bigger sound, does it ever feel like you are giving away the trick to have to build it in front of an audience in a step-by-step?
JB: I think it's just the only way I can do it! I have to start with one vocal line, and build on top just like I do when I record. I don't want to have tons of prerecorded stuff. I want to build it up as much as I can by myself when I perform.
The L: You’ve gotten the chance to play support shows for a lot of bands with fairly big fan bases. How have they typically responded to your performance, which is not exactly a typical rock/pop show?
JB: I’ve been really lucky. I've played with VERY different musicians/bands and things have always gone relatively well, good responses, so that's good. I know I'm not making music for everyone so it's always nice when I get some positive feelings after a show.
The L: What’s your ideal venue? What’s kind of setting do you imagine your music would be best for?
JB: I would love to play in a cavernous, old, auditorium-type place. I would love for the music to just ring and ring. I think that would be the best setting of all. Or outside, in a forest or something, echoing.