Everyday Magic: On Julianna Barwick and The Magic Place
Julianna Barwick was supposed to start singing in fifteen minutes, and she and I were eating burritos as fast as we could. It felt slightly strange to do something as mundanely physical as eating a burrito with someone I had known only as a recorded voice, or a congeries of voices, that emanated a bodiless presence quickly describable as angelic. I confess I had unconsciously imagined that she would come swirling out of a softly backlit fog. In reality, she was tall in height but down-to-earth in affect; dressed all in dark, unflashy clothing and wearing a dark toboggan—an incongruously no-nonsense vessel for The Voice.
I showed up at the Local 506 in Chapel Hill around eight on January 12, but the band Barwick was opening for, the Ghost of a Saber Tooth Tiger, was still sound-checking, in what was apparently a nightly 90-minute trial by fire. Barwick hadn’t gotten to do hers yet. “It’ll take me five minutes,” she said apologetically. To save time, I went to retrieve some dinner for us at a nearby restaurant. We ate at the table beside the bar, in the orange-colored near-darkness of the Local 506, as the club steadily filled up around us. With so little time to spare, I didn’t bother turning on my tape recorder, and we just chatted between big bites. I got to know the 31-year-old Brooklynite who creates such vastly unknowable expanses of vocalization on her albums.
The last time Barwick played in Chapel Hill—less than a year ago—she was opening for the well-loved ambient/quasi-classical musician Eluvium at a larger venue, the Cat’s Cradle. Inexplicably, only seven people showed up. (Mea culpa—I was out of town.) This time, she’d sold out a smaller venue with a less reputable headliner—less reputable, at least, in the field of ambient-inclined indie-pop that is Barwick’s baliwick; more reputable if you put a lot of stock in lineage. (The Ghost of a Saber Tooth Tiger features John Lennon’s son, Sean, and a model named Charlotte Kemp Muhl. Their politely psychedelic pop made me feel a little forlorn. They had nice horn parts though.) At dinner, I mentioned to Barwick that she had done well in competing for spectators with the Walkmen, who were performing simultaneously at the Cradle. She wasn’t immediately familiar with them. “I’m not that into bands,” she said—not meaning that she doesn’t like any bands, but that she doesn’t follow them in the manner of sports teams.
Even more to the point, she has little interest in working with a band, and her unusual and specific style of music-making, which can seem theoretically minded, is simply explainable: She can do it all by herself. Barwick told me that she has always loved to sing harmonies, and has a habit of improvising them around her friends’ everyday speech, occasionally to the point of their chagrin. But trying to create and perform, she said, is already so complicated that she can’t fathom bringing other people into the process.
She took the stage at the 506, with The Ghost of a Saber Tooth Tiger’s instruments bristling all around her. She stood in the corner before a small table with a few linked consoles on it, lights blinking upward. Then she lifted a microphone and began to sing, her long brown hair streaming over her pale face and down one dark shoulder; her body curved into a long S-shape. A single, wordless phrase got caught in her Loopstation—the cornerstone of her aesthetic—and began to cycle periodically, like an a capella version of Brian Eno’s seminal ambient album Music for Airports. She just stood there, either considering or transfixed, as the phrase repeated.
Gradually, in real time, she began to add careful layers of harmony, shifting the timbre of her voice—now a naturalistic croon, now a softly screeching falsetto. The vocal loops piled up and begat a towering structure, shot through here and there with synthesizer samples. Barwick’s recorded music, which sounds so spontaneous and ephemeral, was recreated with pinpoint accuracy. It was like watching wisps of cloud assemble themselves into a cathedral. Chunks of perceptible vocabulary bobbed up and submerged again in a mass of vaporous cries. One person with a microphone multiplied into a celestial chorus, filling the Local 506 with a stillness so immense and enveloping it felt sort of holy—a very public, demonstrative, and all-inclusive kind of prayer.
Julianna Barwick grew up in Tulsa, Oklahoma, where her love of harmony found expression in her family church’s choir. She moved to New York in 2001 and is now a committed Brooklynite. She studied photography at Hunter College in Manhattan and has worked as a nanny, but right now, she’s day-job-less, as she’s so busy opening shows for the likes of Sean Lennon and Sharon Van Etten on short but regular jags of travel. She obviously revels in her singing voice, but her regular speech is plain and chatty. She told me that she came to her musical style providentially.
An old friend from Tulsa, a musician named Bryan Siegfried Doring who moved to NYC around the same time she did, can fairly be called her enabler. First, he turned her onto the looping function in a guitar pedal, which represented the first opportunity she saw to get away from rock bands and more traditional singer/songwriter styles. Later, he showed her the sampler and Loopstation she uses now, essentially handing her the keys to her kingdom. “I only realized after you and I talked,” Barwick told me when I reached her by phone a couple days after the show, “how much a part of this whole thing Bryan has been.”
This “whole thing” refers to Barwick’s slightly surprising status as a blogosphere buzz-band, sparked by her debut Sanguine, and fanned into a flame by last year’s Florine, which earned rapturous praise across the Internet. (It was picked up by the eMusic Select series, and I gave it a rather glowing review in Pitchfork.) Listening to those records, it’s easy to imagine the exploratory beginnings of Barwick’s style, and to marvel that it shaped up into something coherent, composed, and sellable. I told her that I had a very specific idea of how her process worked that I wanted to run by her, even though it was almost certain to be wrong, as such romanticized notions tend to be. I imagined that she simply sat down with the Loopstation and improvised words and melodies, amassing a bank of sounds that could later be mixed with light rhythm tracks, pianos, and synthesizers in a more traditional compositional process.
In fact, this is pretty much exactly how it works, according to Barwick. She isn’t an eyes-on-the-prize young musician; she’s a 31-year-old who likes to sing and avails herself of whatever is handy. For her, the serendipitous process of making the music is the crucial thing; it’s a life-practice that happens to result in sonic artifacts so un-ideologically beautiful that they can speak to almost anybody, regardless of their prior experience with abstract music. Your body recognizes her benevolent voice softly piling up on itself as a good sound; a healthful and salving one. Barwick sees her albums as documents of steady development. Sanguine focused almost exclusively on the voice and on the looping aesthetic she had recently discovered. Florine picked up where Sanguine left off and added minimal, tentative instrumentation to the mix. (Barwick is a big dabbler, playing a bit of piano and guitar without really specializing in either.)
Her latest album, The Magic Place—out now on Sufjan Stevens’ Asthmatic Kitty label—ups the ante again, with more lyrical definition and more robust instrumentation. I asked Barwick why she used more instrumentation this time—was it a ploy for a more accessible sound? She told me that this was the first time she had recourse to an actual studio, and she availed herself of the piano and other instruments there. That’s the main reason the instrumentation is more prominent on The Magic Place—it was serendipitously available, just like the Loopstation and sampler. With the momentum built up behind it and the slightly less esoteric feel occasioned by the enhanced instrumentation, it’s almost certain to be her biggest album yet.
The album opens out onto immediately familiar territory for Barwick fans with the aptly named “Envelop.” In her naturalistic voice, she intones a single phrase—it sounds like “Oh-la”—as high, shimmering harmonies that resemble a singing saw coalesce around it. This goes on for some time. Formless cries swell up in counterpoint to the main theme. By the time the track comes to a close, a low distorted rumble and rills of feedback have emerged, like cracks spreading through a massive structure whose own weight threatens to rend it apart; a sensation that plays strangely and compellingly against the music’s feeling of gaseous lightness.
This formula undergirds the entire album, though to call it a formula makes it sound more predictable than it is—it’s more of a reliable superstructure into which Barwick can fit all kinds of surprises and new twists on her aesthetic. Quite often in the past, her music has contained little to no discernible language—the feel and texture of the voice is what captivated your attention, with solitary words slipping through the haze here and there. Barwick told me that she still feels wary of putting too much literal emphasis on her lyrics, but The Magic Place shows signs that she is no longer as averse to literality as she once was. On “Keep Up the Good Work,” a mantra-like phrase slips between layers of caterwauling and warbling. But it’s so buried you have to listen really hard to understand any of it. You can tell she’s saying something, and that it’s probably something important, but you can’t quite make it out, as in a dream.
The instrumentation blends perfectly with Barwick’s voice because she avoids too much playing, focusing instead on timbre and tone. When a synthesizer cranks up on the back end of the title track, or a piano starts trickling through “Cloak,” we barely notice at first—the hypnotic effects of The Voice have taken hold, and sound is sound. (The same can’t be said of “Prizewinning,” whose emphatic percussion feels entirely novel in Barwick’s world, where beats are usually implied via deep revolutions of loops rather than overt drum tracks.) Used unsparingly, the instrumentation could have sapped what has been so special and pure about Barwick’s style. But with its judicious and sensitive employment on The Magic Place, it simply enhances the almost cripplingly entrancing vocal sound that Barwick fans have quickly come to cherish.
I asked her what was next. Would she now need to put together a band to tour? How might her steady progression manifest on the next album? She doesn’t know. She’s pretty sure she doesn’t want to put a band together, and that she wants to keep singing with the Loopstation, but beyond that, all is in the air. She’ll do what she feels like doing, without much regard for expectations. The market has one definition of what progress means, and it can lead musicians to paint themselves into corners. Personal growth through art is another matter entirely, the course of which can often run entirely counter to the demands of the market. Julianna Barwick is the rare musician for whom, so far, both paths have aligned. But I guess that’s par for the course for someone for whom the sublime and the serendipitous seem to turn up as easily as pennies in the street, when one happens to be looking for them.