One to Watch: Julianna Barwick
It’s not like Julianna Barwick needs to wrestle with lyrics. While other artists may have a hard time coming up with the right words to fit the mood of a song, her intensely beautiful music conveys deep meaning and emotions without the use of definable lyrics. Where conventional lyrical structure is absent, Barwick’s whimsical, otherworldly singing and haunting vocal loops speak in volumes.
Barwick credits much of her inspiration to her religious upbringing and singing in church without the use of musical instruments. Church was Barwick’s musical revelation. “Not only did I go [to church] three times a week, but we also had tapes of the music. My mom was in a Christian traveling vocal group, and they would perform and do a cappella.” Simplistic instrumentation is also partial to her influences. Barwick adds, “My church was a no-instrument situation. Percussion was performed by clapping. All the songs were singing as a congregation, half of the worship service, all a cappella. I did lots of singing in groups and choirs growing up, hearing parts and rounds, and different parts coming in and out.” On her two albums, Sanguine and Florine, Barwick does play guitar and employs the use of vocal looping software to create her eerie, yet simple and uplifting tunes.
Sanguine, the debut, is steeped in guitar-laden vocal bursts and layers, featuring many songs clocking in at just two minutes each. The songs may be short in duration, but Barwick makes it up to the listener by piquing her curiosity from one song to the next, and extending a dreamlike feel throughout. This powerful debut, recorded mostly in impromptu fragments, was followed up late in 2009 by Florine.
The sound between the two albums is similar: lush, enchanting layers, few decipherable words/lyrics, and uplifting chords evoking memories of Cocteau Twins. Barwick digs deeper on Florine, examining every musical layer with exacting clarity. When asked about the swell of fans between records and the difference between the recordings, Barwick said, “I was not expecting it at all, but it definitely gave me extra motivation keep going, you know? I love to do it. The first album was so lo-fi. By the time it was time for me to put out something new, I’d been playing with Loop Station for a long time and using a computer to change things up. I felt like it was a natural progression from the first record.”
After her stunning performance last year at South by Southwest, Barwick was signed to Sufjan Stevens’ label, Asthmatic Kitty, and has been recording and touring nonstop. Asthmatic Kitty has been doing its best to ensure Barwick has as much freedom as possible during the recording process. “It’s unbelievable,” she says. “I’ve talked to other labels before Asthmatic Kitty, and the whole thing is so artist friendly with them, it’s insane. They have given me zero parameters and just let me go do what I want.”
Asthmatic Kitty is set to release Barwick’s much-anticipated The Magic Place in late February. Currently, Barwick is headlining a tour with Ghost of the Saber Tooth Tiger (featuring Sean Lennon); the latter half of the tour will find her opening for Sharon Von Etten. The title track, “The Magic Place,” is available for download now on Asthmatic Kitty’s website.