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The Rumpus Interview with Julianna Barwick

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With her haunting voice looped in a wordless glossolalia over pianos, keyboards, and other instruments, Julianna Barwick makes music like no other artist working today. She’s as winning as she is distinctive, judging by the rave reviews she received for her 2011 Asthmatic Kitty debut The Magic Place—not to mention her two prior albums, Sanguine and Florine. In addition to building up a host of good press, Barwick’s charming music has earned her invitations to perform at Connecticut landmark The Glass House and at the Guggenheim, where she accompanied a sculpture exhibit.

No stranger to collaboration, she has remixed the likes of Radiohead, contributed backing vocals to Sharon van Etten tracks, and released an album with Helado Negro (aka Roberto Carlos Lange) as Ombre.

Fall of 2013 will find her releasing a new full-length record, this one recorded in Iceland. We spoke together about the release of her two-track EP Pacing.

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The Rumpus: I’ve been listening to your new EP a lot. I just put it on and realize I’ve listened to it seven times! Where did you record that?

Julianna Barwick: I recorded that in the practice space ’cause there was a piano. I actually just got my own practice space. This was a borrowed one during the cold months of last year, sitting around with more piano-driven stuff.

Rumpus: Where do the titles come from on this EP?

Barwick: Actually, “Call” has been a song I’ve had for many years. I used to perform it, and it’s one of the first things I made with my loop station. I think I built it up on a keyboard first with very little vocals. So it was a song that was always in my head, but I played it on the piano, and it sounded different and way more beautiful than the keyboard arrangement. I always remembered that song and wanted to kind of flesh it out in a different way.

“Pacing” is a new one, and when I make a song, it usually exists for a while before I name it. I usually just listen to it a lot and see what it feels like. And that seems to fit.

Rumpus: How did you come to make vocal music without lyrics?

Barwick: I think it was just kind of happenstance. I didn’t mean to do that, not intentionally. When I first started playing around with my voice, I had a guitar pedal that would loop. But you could only loop one thing. With the thing I use now, the RC-50, you can have three different ones going at the same time—a lot more dynamic. I just started making sounds. Instead of saying something on the spot, I would just sing, kind of like I’ve always done. I’ve done it my whole life. My mom does it too, humming, singing.

So I just started making music that way. My first album is pretty much all those loops I made when I first started playing around with it. It’s completely wordless. I just liked the way it felt. It was fun to sing that way, and I’m also really nervous and shy about committing to lyrics, so the two go hand in hand. I really appreciate when people are great songwriters, because I feel like that’s something I would struggle with, writing song-songs and committing to something so concrete.

Rumpus: If you look at Meredith Monk or Elizabeth Fraser or Lisa Gerrard, they’re all still really expressive without words. I don’t think it’s a necessity.

Barwick: With soundtracks or Sigur Ros, it’s either wordless or I have no idea what they’re saying, but that emotion comes across regardless. I like that idea.

Rumpus: How much of your music is improvised and how much is planned?

Barwick: I don’t ever go into recording and think, I’m gonna do this and it’s gonna sound like this. A hundred percent of the music I’ve made has started out with jamming, basically. Plugging my stuff in, singing what comes to the top of my head, and then building on that. Later, I’ll get nerdy about it and do things: fading in and out, putting instruments on top. I can’t think of an exception, unless it’s a remix, and I’ve only done two of those. It starts with me playing around and then piecing it together later.

Rumpus: I watched the video of your Glass House performance. I don’t even know the Glass House, so can you talk about that performance?

Barwick: I’d never been there before. I was really excited to be asked to do it. I know that no music had ever been performed in the space there before—ever. The space is so beautiful and so special and so unique. I just felt flattered and honored to play in there. It made me a little nervous, which I usually don’t get nervous. The setting was really inspiring. It made me think about the importance of environment. It’s just visually stunning, and it felt great to be in that space. Just an extremely unique performing experience for me.

Rumpus: You’ve also performed at the Guggenheim, accompanying a sculpture exhibit. Did you feel that the sculpture was an influence on what you were performing?

Barwick: I got to walk around the Guggenheim before I played it. There was an amazing Francesca Woodman exhibit there also. I’d never seen her work before, somehow, even though I did photography in school. I can definitely say that the Guggenheim and the Glass House were similar. They made me feel reverent. Such a great thing to be in a historical place and playing there! Visually, both places are stunning. Normally, when I’m performing, I kind of hide behind my hair and do my own thing, but both of those places, I kept reminding myself to look around and take it in, because both of them are extraordinary places to play.

Rumpus: Do you think you’ll do another Ombre record?

Barwick: I could see that happening. Roberto and I are really good friends, and we liked doing that record, and he liked hanging out with me. I wouldn’t be suprised if we did something in the next year or two. I’d say there’s about a 65% chance there will be another Ombre record. This was the first time I made a record with someone, collaborated with someone several times a week for a long time. Roberto was the perfect person for me to do that with. We’re both easygoing. Roberto was the perfect introduction to collaboration.

Rumpus: Switching subjects, what are some of your non-musical obsessions?

Barwick: I would definitely say the top three that spring to mind are traveling, photography and the visual arts, and food. I love all of those things, and that’s why in late 2007, I had probably maybe played five shows ever and went over to Lisbon and lived there for a few weeks, just flying by the seat of my pants. [I] lived there and played a few shows and did some radio. I thought, If I did this for real for real, I would get to travel and try new foods and meet these people and see all this beauty and take these pictures. That’s when it sealed the deal for me. I thought, If I can make this happen, I’ll be the happiest person ever. It’s true. All of those things are my favorite in the world. I think if I had one wish—I’ve thought about this—I’d be able to speak every language and go everywhere and try every food. I’m super happy that music is letting me do those things.

Rumpus: What projects do you have coming up?

Barwick: I have a new record coming out probably end of August, early September. Full-length. I recorded it in Iceland last year. It was just beyond an amazing experience and I’m super, super excited about it. I can’t wait to see it make its debut. I’m still working on [the title]. With The Magic Place, everything came so easy. I did the art and the design by myself, and the titles came super-easy. I don’t know what it is about this record. I just want it to be absolutely perfect, so it’s taking me a lot longer to decide on this one.


Erin Lyndal Martin is the assistant music editor for The Rumpus. She is also an associate interviews editor for PopMatters, and she runs the music journalism site Euterpe's Notebook in addition to also contributing to The Quietus. Her poetry, fiction, creative nonfiction and critical prose have also appeared widely. She can be followed on Twitter at @erinlyndal. More from this author →