Julianna Barwick: SXSW 2010

While the city of Brooklyn noisily ebbs and flows with its mass amounts of everyday people, one Brooklynite woman writes their soundtrack. In 2007, after self-releasing her 24-minute debut, ‘Sanguine,’ Julianna Barwick was inundated with what was to her a surprise influx of fans. In 2009, she released her second album, ‘Florine,’ on the label Florid. While Barwick’s words are sparse, her voice is plentiful, ranging from melancholy to excited as her vocal loops create church-like hymns that resound in cathedrals. The church imagery doesn’t stop there. Spinner recently spoke with Barwick and learned of her church upbringing, as well as her SXSW plans as a first-timer.

Describe your sound in your own words.

If I had to describe it to someone who’s never heard it before, it’s mostly vocal with lots of layers, harmonies and sort of choral arrangements. I guess leaning to the experimental side with the non-use of language. It usually goes from sort of somber and melancholy layered choral vocal sounds to more upbeat, almost tribal sounds sometimes. It reminds some people of hymns, some of African tribal stuff. For some it’s kind of cinematic, visual music and somewhat transportive. I hear “ethereal” a lot. It starts out all improv, and it’s all visceral and all from the heart.

How did you get your musical start?

I’ve always been singing. I did opera chorus after high school, various talent shows, but I didn’t actually start — other than church singing — what I’m doing now until after high school, I guess. I tinkered around in high school and started taking classes. I think I borrowed a friend’s cassette tape and had a guitar and started playing around and recording stuff. I moved to New York in 2001 and got an electric guitar and bought my own cassette tape four-track and messed around with that. Then, in 2005, a friend loaned me a guitar pedal that had a loop feature. In late 2006, I got a Loop Station, and I could run multiple loops at the same time. That’s how my brain works — it’s technical, and I’d be on the spot, and I love tweaking it to make it sound super choir-y. I love layers of vocals with loads of effects.

What are your musical influences?

Church is a huge one. Not only did I go 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. 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.

Were you expecting the swell of fans after ‘Sanguine,’ and how did that affect the process leading to ‘Florine’?

I was not expecting it at all, but it definitely gave me an extra motivation to keep going, you know? I love to do it. I get really super-uplifting notes of encouragement, which are always nice to read. I’m really happy that some people have been into it. I wasn’t freaked out or intimidated by the swell. The first album was so lo-fi, you know? By the time it was time for me to put out something new I’d been playing with that 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.

What is your biggest vice?

Eating too much cheese, probably. I don’t really have any vices or anything. I try to be healthy and positive. I feel pretty good about everything. I feel like I don’t have any bad habits. If anything, I’ll read about people who stay at home and work really hard on their stuff, but I’m easily swayed by social engagements. I work pretty hard at what I do, but I wish I would stay in more, work more like that and be more focused on my music.

Originally posted at  Spinner on March 9th, 2010.

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