Julianna Barwick Talks Taking The Soundscape Mantle From Sigur Ros.
I'm catching Julianna Barwick as she's driving on the road towards Indianapolis and right into the teeth of yet another Polar Vortex storm.
Barwick's got a lot on her mind these days as she's touring in support of her gorgeous Nepenthe LP — her second, which earned its release last August on Dead Oceans. The weather? It's not so bad. For the most part, she can deal with it. Nepenthe, after all, was recorded in Iceland.
But that isn't to say that she hasn't had her fair share of winter troubles this season. This current tour, which finds Barwick hitting City Tavern this Sunday night, is in part a make-up session after her slated Dallas performance at the Sons of Hermann Hall bowling alley this past fall was snowed out.
In advance of this new gig, I spoke with Barwick about her time spent in Iceland, her affection for dreamy soundscapes and the kinship she's formed with the likeminded musicians involved in Sigur Ros.
The music you were putting out until the recent release of Napenthe was very much a personal endeavor. Can you describe path that led from you experimenting with looping your voice at home to releasing music on the web and then on to recording with Alex Somers in Iceland at the Sigur Ros studio?
It's been a very natural progression. When I discovered how to loop my voice on a friend's borrowed delay pedal, I thought this was something that was a super fast and fun way to make music. After a while, I just decided to put it out there. Ever since, it's just been a string of interesting opportunities set up by friendly, total strangers. My first tour in 2007 was set up through someone that heard me on MySpace and took the time to make some bookings for me and take me to radio stations. Each step along the way has been a fortunate little ride.
You use piano as your musical foundation. Does the music start with some piano as structure to layer vocals on? Or is it the opposite?
The latter, absolutely. Every song starts with vocal improvisational loops, and everything else comes later.
It seems that maybe more than most, you are inheriting the mantle of the Sigur Ros and the “Hopelandic” language. Do you try and convey a specific emotional message in an arrangement, or are you more focused on musical cohesion with emotion as a side effect?
I'm never trying to manipulate emotions out of people. Everything starts out as improv — and there is not a lot of forethought regarding how a song will make people feel. The songs have a life of their own, and evolve completely organically.
In a way, the way you make music by looping your voice reminds me of a Jackson Pollock drip painting: You layer and layer until you end up with something complete. Does the process ever announce itself to you as being complete?
It does. I crop a bit here and layer more there and, all the sudden, it just feels like it is supposed to be — with nothing to be added and nothing to be taken away.
It seems a natural fit for you to be working in Iceland to make your music. I've always thought of Iceland as little musical village — a place where, if someone is creating some music and a contribution by someone from Mum or Amiina makes sense, you just casually call and then it happens.
Totally! Alex [from Riceboy Sleeps, as well as Jonsi's significant other] had some of my music passed to him and called me up to see if I'd be interested in doing something. Alex has been living in Iceland for a decade and knows all of these people really well, and everyone loves him. So, of course, if he calls, anyone will show up. But what I could see is everyone is generous with their time and don't take things too seriously and do things for the love of doing it. Like, we didn't write the parts for Amiina at all. They just came in and listened a bit and added what they did. Same with Robbie [Reynisson of Mum]. He just came in with a guitar and all of his crazy pedals and started making some serious magic with no guidance. So it was very harmonious for me, no pun intended.
After recording, you went back to New York and Alex mixed it?
No, actually. He mixed it while I was there. He wanted me there while he did it. He would mix during the day and have me come in and listen and respond. Same with sequencing the songs on the album. We just bounced things off each other, both knowing that “Offing” was the obvious opener. And we just figured out what made sense from there. So the whole thing was done there, together.
You live in Brooklyn. Did you move to Brooklyn in pursuit of a musical career, or did you move to Brooklyn and the music just happened to blossom?
One of my best friends was living there and jokingly said back in 2000, “My roommate's moving out. You should move in with me, haha!” And I said OK. I was living in Oklahoma and finishing school, getting a degree in photography and making casual music with friends. I saved up for a few months and just did it. I was working in a photography studio and was just tinkering with music for fun until I borrowed that guitar pedal. And that started everything.
You've been in Brooklyn a good while now, and these days its common to hear artists dissing New York because its so expensive and so forth. What's your thought on that?
I'm in love with New York. I find it to be the most motivating place in the world. There's an energy happening in New York that is about getting things done and making stuff happen. I find it totally motivating to be living in a place that is chock full of people doing their best to make or do whatever they are doing. I don't see how you can live in New York and not be inspired and driven to do your best.
Cover photo by Shawn Brackbill. Julianna Barwick performs Sunday, February 23.