Interview – Julianna Barwick
-by Ria Nevada
Julianna Barwick has been writing effective ambient compositions from her bedroom studio for six years. But her most recent release Nepenthe has her treading on foreign waters.
I caught up with Barwick on the phone between stops of her current North American tour. Crossing the beautiful mountain ranges of Colorado put the avant-garde musician in a cheerful and pensive frame of mind. The rock faces and shoddy reception had us playing a game of phone tag, but the easygoing artist wasn’t fazed by the interruptions.
Our conversation had her ruminating about her songwriting methods, her experience recording with Sigur Ros’ Alex Somers in Iceland, and the challenge of taking her very personal electronic opuses and performing them in vast spaces. It is clear that her experimental sound is an extension of her warm, adventurous spirit – don’t be surprised if this traveler trades in the streets of Brooklyn for Shibuya in the next few years.
Ria Nevada: I was just watching your video for “The Harbinger” and was really intrigued by the fluid, floating images and references to an out-of-body experience. Are these predominant themes in the latest record Nepenthe?
Julianna Barwick: Well, that was kind of an idea I’d had for a music video for many, many years. It was kind of like this, being in a pool, sort of ghostly situation that’s sort of unclear. Derrick [Belcham, video director] and I, we were working together on the treatment, I mentioned that idea and then we kind of went from there. But I don’t really know! I don’t know how I connect it with the album as far as floating and water. But it was a pre-existing idea.
RN: Kevin Shields of My Bloody Valentine once said how he never envisioned his songs being heard through headphones; they are meant to be heard live and unfiltered. When you’re creating your music, what sort of atmosphere do you imagine it being heard in?
JB: Some place cozy. I do a lot of recording on my headphones, but I don’t think of it as headphones music. Some place cozy with a nice, full sound system – that’s kind of my first thought.
RN: Are there any artists or specific records that you listen to where you feel like you couldn’t listen to them in a group of people? Like it’s music that should be heard in isolation?
JB: Yeah actually! I have artists that I prefer to listen to on my own. Probably Julia Holter?
RN: I think I asked that last question because I find that listening to Nepenthe and 2011’s The Magic Place, there’s something so personal and pensive about your music, that as even a listener, there’s a balance of tension and release that feels strange to experience in public. Do you ever have to blur out the crowd when you’re performing to tap into this private, solemn space?
JB: Yeah it is kind of interesting. I mean I create the stuff that is super personal. I’m usually alone, you know, jamming, just singing something off the top of my head. And it’s very personal and very emotional and in the moment. So to backtrack, rewind and dissect how it is I’m going to get to that place, like create things live? I just have to do my best you know? Try to get there! I feel like not every show I’m able to tap into that, some shows I tap into it more than others. It just depends on so many things when I play live. There are so many factors that affect how you’re going to feel and how much you can connect with your music when you perform it live.
RN: I remember seeing Sigur Ros last year at a festival in Melbourne and a crowd of thousands were just rendered silent by their enveloping sound. And you actually worked with Alex Somers of Sigur Ros on Nepenthe. But how do you feel performing in an outdoor, festival atmosphere? Does that pose more of a challenge?
JB: My first one was. My first outdoor festival was Pitchfork a couple years ago and I only recently started using monitors. For the last six years I didn’t use monitors and it dawned on me right before I played that outdoor festival, like whoah, I’m not gonna have a room to listen to, how’s this gonna go? But it totally went fine, and I had a really, really great time. I’ve played a bunch of shows outdoors now, a bunch with Sigur Ros. I wouldn’t say that environment doesn’t totally change the mood of the set, but at the same time I think I can tap into the music wherever I am, and it’s pretty fun to play outside.
RN: I was wondering what were some traits or strengths of Alex Somers that you were hoping would impact your record?
JB: I wasn’t. His stuff has been all over the place – like the projects he’s been a part of have been all pretty different. All he’s produced has been pretty different so I wasn’t really thinking about how he was going to change the texture of the music or anything. I basically just really liked him and really trusted him to be my first partnering half in a sense for a solo record.
RN: Are there any Icelandic cultural references that seeped into the record?
JB: Absolutely. I mean it definitely was the antithesis of recording in my bedroom in Brooklyn. It was just so incredibly beautiful and awe-inspiring and it definitely seeps into the music for sure.
RN: What was the most memorable moment of your stay there?
JB: I insisted on walking home by myself from a party one night and I insisted that I knew how to get back to my apartment even though I didn’t. And I got super lost and I ended up just kind of like walking towards the ocean. I ended up walking along the ocean in the middle of the night and it was like glowing and it felt like something out of a movie. It didn’t even seem real. It was totally stunning – that was a breathtaking moment.
RN: Do you see yourself living and creating music in Brooklyn in the long term or are there any other regions that you think would be more conducive for the personal and artistic direction you’re heading towards?
JB: Oh I have no idea what’s next but I love traveling! Traveling is like my favourite thing in the world so I don’t know what’s next. I really don’t. I’ve never been to Japan so I’d really like to go there. So maybe that!
RN: I just read that you released The Magic Place with Asthmatic Kitty Records. Coincidentally we have this section on our site, Bands With Cats. Are you a cat person yourself?
JB: No. I am not. Not at all, sorry! I’m a super dog person. I love dogs. Not into cats.
RN: Well, if we ever branch off into a Bands with Dogs section, we’ll give you a call.
JB: OK! I’m really hoping to fulfill my dream of getting a dog in the next year or two. So, keep me in mind!