ABOVE: JULIANNA BARWICK. PHOTO BY JEFF HENRIKSON
Until recently, Julianna Barwick’s music was made up almost entirely of Julianna Barwick herself. By looping and layering her voice, the Brooklyn-based artist creates compositions that shift and shimmer in a sea of harmonies.
For her new album Nepenthe, however, Barwick has emerged from the bedroom. Instead of the hyper-intimate pieces found on her first records, Barwick traveled to Reykjavík to collaborate with producer Alex Somers, best known for his work with Jónsi and Sigur Rós. Bringing on local Icelandic musicians—including members of múm and Amiina—the two created an album even more lush and layered than Barwick’s previous work.
While her voice (or voices) are still looped to wonderful effect, she’s now accompanied by a whole cast of players and collaborators, including a teen choir. Listening to the result, one might imagine they’re hearing the aural equivalent of the gorgeous landscape where the album was put to tape.
Interview caught up with Barwick back in Greenpoint, Brooklyn’s WNYC Transmitter Park (a location more pleasant than it sounds, but a far cry from Iceland), to chat about the new LP. Over the course of our conversation, we touched on the natural beauty of Iceland, the double meaning of Nepenthe, and the death in Barwick’s family that colored her album’s sound. Also below, we have the premiere of “One Half”—a rare chance to hear a clear lyrical refrain amongst Barwick’s hypnagogic vocals. Take a listen below.
NATHAN REESE: How did you decide to go to Iceland?
JULIANNA BARWICK: I got an email from Alex’s manager in January 2011 that was just like “Alex loves your stuff, would you want to maybe do something?” We started talking, Alex and I, and decided to do the next record. He came to New York a couple times the next year. I met with him, really liked him, and we made plans for me to go to Iceland and record. Initially it was supposed to be December 2011 but it got bumped to spring of last year.
REESE: Recording in a traditional studio with a producer must have been a big change for you.
BARWICK: With The Magic Place and the record before that, it was just me, 100 percent. No one else played on the record; no one produced it. With this one, it was a producer, a different country, a bunch of people playing on it, Alex and I bouncing ideas off each other in the middle of the process. It was the complete opposite of the way I’m used to working, but it was really great. I think that’s mostly because Alex is so great. We got along really well and just worked.
REESE: Did knowing other people were going to be playing your music change how you composed it?
BARWICK: There was no real writing, I would say. Everything was made over there. It was all on the spot. We came up with the whole record in the moment. For instance, we had Robbie from múm come and do some guitar stuff on a few songs, and he did the same thing—he just listened and made it up as he went. He just did his thing, and the guitar that is on the record really, really changed the sound of the songs. They just would not be the same without his contributions. The same with the Amiina girls who did strings. We just had a really long day in the studio planned. They just played off the top of their heads, too. It was really kind of amazing for it to come together that way. It was fun and exciting.
REESE: Had you ever been to Iceland before?
REESE: It seems to me that the sound of the bands the come out of Iceland tend to embody the natural beauty of the country. Do you think the landscape had much of an effect on the record?
BARWICK: Absolutely. Totally. It’s not like any other place that I’ve been to. There’s just one stunning sight after the next. It’s just such a beautiful country; you can’t help but be inspired by that kind of beauty, especially if you’ve never seen anything like it before.
REESE: Can you tell me a little bit about “One Half”?
BARWICK: It’s interesting, because “One Half” is actually the one exception to the rule. Most of the record was made up on the spot, except for that one. That’s actually one that’s been around for a long time—I used to perform that one. Although, of course, it sounds completely different. I remember making that song years ago and those lyrics just popped out, there’s no huge story. Those are just the words that seem to fit the music.
REESE: Given that your lyrics aren’t generally discernable, how much thought goes into that aspect?
BARWICK: I don’t think about lyrics. When I recorded [as] OMBRE with Roberto [Lange] I had to sit down and write lyrics, and it was really foreign to me. If there are lyrics in my songs, they come out when I’m singing it and stick. If they’re super lame, I might change them a little to something that I can commit to. I just have a hard time coming up with stuff to commit to.
REESE: Can you tell me a little bit about the album’s title? My understanding is that it’s a mythical ancient drug to deal with sorrow.
BARWICK: Yeah, it’s a bunch of different things. When I found it the definition that was attached to it was “A potion used by the ancients to induce forgetfulness of something powerful or painful.” And I just loved everything about that, I thought it was so cool. Kind of like Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind, having something that can take away something painful or sorrowful. I thought the word was so beautiful. The process and the experience there in Iceland was at times super euphoric and amazing and uplifting, but there were lonely times and heavy times. It just clicked when I saw it… but they’re also carnivorous plants, also known as “monkey cups,” that grow in South America. Did you know that?
REESE: I did not know that.
BARWICK: They’re plants that have bulbs that fill with liquid. Birds and bugs and shit fall in and the plant eats them.
REESE: Wow. I’ve definitely seen those on nature shows, but I didn’t make the connection.
REESE: I don’t know if you want to talk about this, but there was also a death in your family during the recording process.
BARWICK: It was, you know, totally crazy. I brought my mom with me. I had two different sessions and I wanted her to sing on the record, and just wanted her to come with me, also. Her mother, my grandmother, passed away. She was my last living grandparent. Our trip was cut short and we had to rush back. It just seemed like an unbelievable “really, universe?” moment. That definitely plays into some of the songs.
REESE: Do you see the music as an escape for those feelings?
BARWICK: I like to think of the music as a document of what was happening. I was making it while I was there, so everything I was feeling was coming out in the music. But I like the idea of Nepenthe. Maybe the album as a whole can kind of act as that.
NEPENTHE COMES OUT AUGUST 20 VIA DEAD OCEANS. JULIANNA BARWICK WILL ALSO PLAY A SPECIAL RECORD RELEASE SHOW AT JUDSON MEMORIAL CHURCH AUDITORIUM IN NEW YORK ON AUGUST 20. FOR MORE ON THE ARTIST, VISIT HER WEBSITE.