Henry James once wrote: “It is art that makes life, makes interest, makes importance… and I know of no substitute whatever for the force and beauty of its process.”
Julianna Barwick’s art is equal parts force and beauty. Her music finds its motor in significant events in her own life, but they are abstracted into a sense of sonic wonderment, a radiance that you could say is her signature sound. That radiance has been taken to new zeniths with Nepenthe, her third full-length album, which was recorded in Reykjavík, Iceland, in the dark cold days of February.
In ancient Greek literature, nepenthe was a magic drug of forgetfulness used to wipe out grief and sorrow. The title suggested itself to Julianna, who experienced a death in her own family in the middle of making the record, but it also refers to the music consoling her during the isolation she was going through – on her own, in a foreign country, with a terrible internet connection – during the sessions. Nepenthe’s heady potion is about moving forward, finding a way through difficult times – of retaining a feeling of hope.
“Everything I was making was visceral – the record represents some serious emotional stuff,” she confirms, while at the same time she raves with enormous positivity about the unique recording environment. Alex Somers (musician/producer of Sigur Rós, Jónsi, Jónsi & Alex) invited her to Iceland in the first place. For Julianna, who was blown away at a Sigur Rós show in 2002, it was a dream come true. “That was the fastest email I ever wrote: ‘Yes!’ Who would say no to that?” Somers produced and engineered the record and brought in local Icelandic musicians who turned out to make crucial contributions: string ensemble Amiina, guitarist Róbert Sturla Reynisson from Múm, and a choir of teenage girls.
Having all these folks around marked a big and daunting new step in Julianna’s musical evolution. Most of her previous work had been recorded alone in her bedroom. “There had never been any eyes or ears on the process,” she says. “Now I go to Iceland and was with Alex every day. To go from being a hermit music maker to this was a great experience.” Completing the picture, and turning it into a family snapshot, Julianna invited her mother – formerly a member of a traveling vocal group – to sing on the album too.
The biggest influence on Nepenthe, though, was the unfamiliar surroundings of Iceland itself, with its vibrant music scene and stunningly alien landscapes with their lingering magic. “I had never had anyone play on any record before, so this was a 180 turn,” she explains. “I also was inspired just by being there, and the gorgeousness of that place. Your eyes can’t believe what they’re seeing. I walked home one night and got totally lost in Reykjavík. I ended up walking alongside the ocean – and it was glowing blue. It looked like it had a lamp underneath it. This is a completely different experience than recording myself in my Brooklyn bedroom.”
Although Julianna is currently based in Brooklyn, she mostly grew up in Missouri and Oklahoma. A taste of her childhood idyll fed into her last album, 2011’s The Magic Place, which was named for a tree in whose branches she spent many delightful days. Though she denies it, the track “Adventurer of the Family” could well be applied to herself, as in 2001 she relocated to New York City to study for a degree in photography. “Coming from Oklahoma to the city, and seeing art in galleries and concerts, being surrounded by people who are passionate about the thing they do, and making it happen was inspiring – my mind was blown.”
From an early age Julianna was exposed to the a cappella choral singing of local churches, but she feels drawn to any music that has an inner reverberation. “I can’t sing on a dry mic,” she insists, “I might as well have no clothes on. “My whole life I’ve always loved the sound of my voice in a parking garage or a stairwell, when that reverb happens.” After high school she joined an operatic chorus and dabbled with the piano, clarinet and guitar, and eventually bought her first electric guitar, complete with loop pedal, in New York, which is really when it all started. She self-released her debut album, Sanguine, in 2005: a confident foray into improvised wordless vocal montage and mouth percussion. By the time her Florine EP appeared four years later, she had fully integrated a loop station into her methods, along with synthesizers and repetitive figures. While making The Magic Place in 2010, she decamped to a soundproofed empty rehearsal space where she could enjoy uninterrupted spells of experimentation with a piano and her increasingly elaborate halo-choirs.
Julianna’s compositions emerge out of a highly individual way of improvising with her loop station, her voice and various instruments. Like a potter raising a vase from a slowly turning wheel, she grows her melodies by layering and sculpting voice and instrument samples until she has achieved a rich harmonic vessel. “There’s a total ease I feel when I’m making music,” she says. “I never want it to be too left-brained. With photography I was always trying to make a perfect portrait. That’s a whole other way of thinking from the way I make music.”
Nepenthe is intimate without being introspective. Instead it’s a radiant array of light-dappled choral works, drawing a powerful sense of hope from the depths of despair. The extra musicians have rounded out her sound, emphasizing the yearning mood, the reaching towards the light. Check the teenage choir’s ecstatic crooning on “Forever,” or Amiina’s shimmering sound clouds on the glorious second track, “The Harbinger.” “Offing” and “One Half” are the perfect showcase for her seamlessly layered vocals, which circulate and settle upon one another like sheets of gauze on the breeze.
Far from the secondhand emotions and digital dabblings of so many other artists, Julianna Barwick’s music is the real deal: a life-affirming work of importance, interest… and sheer beauty.