A Unique Voice Among Millions: Julianna Barwick

A UNIQUE VOICE AMONG MILLIONS: JULIANNA BARWICK | by Jenn Metzler

While the typically noisy and constantly shifting New York City is putting its nose the the grindstone, the hushed vocal layers created by Julianna Barwick creep out joyously, forming a sort of soundtrack to life. This somewhat newly formed Brooklynite via Midwest woman has been able to forge a path completely her own, all while producing some of the best new music available. Julianna Barwick is a singular act who performs delicate and otherworldly hymns as layers of her own vocal work swirl high and low to create beautiful, transportive compositions. Barwick has always been singing in one fashion or another, but what she’s creating now using loops, pedals, and her own voice, is perhaps the most striking of all.

While you don’t have a connection to the city of St. Louis, you have a Missouri and “Midwest” connection. Could you delve into that a bit?

I grew up in Springfield, Missouri, and my time in Springfield was extremely important to me. I lived and grew up on a farm and it [Missouri] made a huge impression on me for life. I went to Oklahoma when I was 13. I went to school in Tulsa.

What aided you in making your decision to move to New York City? What were some factors that went into the move?

Well, I moved here [to NYC] when I was 21. When I was at school in Tulsa I’d had two of my friends move to NYC a year before I did. I visited them and loved it there. I got was bored and restless in Tulsa, so I just made the move. I finished school in New York. It’s funny because I came across a weird journal entry from my high school English class and it asked, ‘Where would you move to and why?’ And I had written about how I’d go to New York City because you could have all the art and music you wanted. I just thought to myself, “Wow, I didn’t know I thought that way in high school!” It’s funny. I just wanted to do all kinds of art stuff when I got here and just enjoy the city. I’ve been here over nine years now. It’s also nice to be surrounded constantly by people who make their own stuff happen. One of my past boyfriends from here was an artist and that’s how he made his living; art was just what he did. He was the first person in my life that was like that, that was doing something they enjoyed and doing it own their own. That blew my mind. I didn’t know that it was possible to go out and do your own thing and that inspired me and showed me that you can do what you want here. New York is an exciting place to be and there are great, fun people all around.

You recently performed for the first time at SXSW. What were some pros and cons of being a first time performer there?

I think that the thing that sticks out, as a pro or positive, is getting to see lots of people play that I was curious about or liked already. Like, I played a showcase with Washed Out and was curious about him. The first showcase that I saw there were some more artists I was curious about. The next showcase had a bunch of people that I wanted to see, like Zola Jesus. So that was the best thing about it, seeing great bands. Well, that and hanging out with the Asthmatic Kitty crew before I got signed with them. That was cool hanging with them on a nice little vacation.

“I didn’t know that it was possible to go out and do your own thing and that inspired me and showed me that you can do what you want here. New York is an exciting place to be and there are great, fun people all around.”

So, you’re signed now?! That’s great! What was the process of getting signed like for you?

I signed with Asthmatic Kitty right after SXSW, after hanging out with the manager down there. He saw my first set and we sat and talked about everything. Not too long after that I signed. It all happened within a few weeks. But, SXSW was nice. I got to be in more sunshine, which is always nice. As far as cons go, I wouldn’t say that I’m not a big fan of festivals necessarily, but I think for me it was just overwhelming. The nature of a festival in general is kind of overwhelming and really intense. To just be out and about and hearing six or seven bands all at once and, like, four DJ’s is overwhelming. You know, just a bit too intense for me. The last show I played [at SXSW], there literally was a heavy metal band playing right behind me, over a tarp. I was playing in the back of the bar and there was a loud punk band playing also. I could’ve thrown a tennis ball at the punk band, that’s how close they were to me. It’s hard to do my thing – the quiet, singular person with single vocal layers. It just wasn’t totally my thing, but I still had fun doing it and a lot of cool things happened from it. It was crazy.

Do you think a different festival or maybe a different venue at some festivals would work better for you?

My first inclination would be to say no, I wouldn’t want to do it again. However, I heard that some showcases are set in a church and secluded and away from all of the hubbub, so yeah, I’d play in something like that. I’m sure I’ll end up doing something like that, though.

Photo by Giulia Mazza

Last we spoke, you were not expecting the swell of fans after your release of Sanguine and again after Florine. Now that you have SXSW under your belt, have you been surprised by fan or media response?

I’m sure SXSW helped me get signed. The manager had never seen me play before and he saw me play and hung out with me. I’ve noticed an increase in record sales and I’ve had a few people ask me about collaborations and have had more interviews. I don’t really know how to quantify it all, but there has been an increase in stuff in general. Now I’m working with a label and press people and a booking agent, which is all kind of crazy. It’s a bit different than it was a year ago. It’s awesome to have people who are excited about helping you do things – it’s a good feeling.

Sounds like Asthmatic Kitty allows you a lot of freedom.

It’s unbelievable. 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. I’m actually doing that right now, working in a recording space and recording two records now that should be done by September at the latest.

Two records at once? Both your own?

I’m recording my own personal record for Asthmatic Kitty and I’m also recording a record with Roberto Carlos Lange on Asthmatic Kitty and we’re making a record together.

Is it strange or different for you, working with someone else?

It’s just not even comparable to what I did at home in my bedroom when I did my own recording, but we’re just starting out.  I love Roberto, he’s so awesome. We’re great friends and it’s all kind of based on a trip we took together on tour as part of an Asthmatic Kitty tour for 10-11 days, along with an artist showing his films every night. It was awesome and we all got along famously. His record is kind of like reflecting on that tour and us getting to know each other and the music we talked about and listened to on the road, as well as our own music.

What’s next in line, after the record?

Well, the recording process is going to take a while. It takes time to get the record down and issuing on vinyl takes longer, it can take months. I’m hoping to finish up the record by September and because it takes some time to get everything out the door it will hopefully be a November or January release. But I’d tour with any Asthmatic Kitty peeps, especially with Roberto, again.

Have you found it easier to stay in and hone your craft more since SXSW or has the increase in interviews and such made it harder?

I don’t think much has changed at all until this week. I just spent my second day going to the place where I’m recording this summer and it’s a whole new thing. I’m not working very much, which actually means I’m not working at all for the next month and a half, so this is a whole new world for me. No day job, just doing my music and recording. I now have a recording space and I’ll be going there everyday, or close to that, for the next few months. That’s a huge difference. I used to record everything at home in my bedroom, so I would just hope and pray that the people upstairs don’t jump up and down and my cat doesn’t jump up on everything. But with the recording studio it’s a whole new world. I’m really excited about it; excited to see how having studio space and time changes the way I do things. It should help me be more productive, as that’s the focus. It’s great, because in the studio there’s a million things I can tinker with.

It sounds like everything is working to your advantage, then.

I feel like this year has been cosmic. Everything has lined up in this crazy, awesome way, and it’s all worked out amazingly.

Julianna BarwickPhoto by Giulia Mazza

Many bands are using visual technologies and somewhat adapting their audio into visual features. Is that something that interests you, or something you could see yourself doing?

Completely. I’ve had a video that I’ve used several times for the past year or so (since around November) that a friend made. I’ve had mixed responses to it; some thought it went really well with the music and said it was nice to look at something beautiful while I play – I mean, I just stand there, there’s not multiple people or things to look at. I thought about video a lot, especially after I saw Panda Bear play on his Person Pitch tour and they’ve got it all figured out. You know, one person making all the music and all these incredible films to go with it made for an awesome experience. I’d love to have something work out the way they had it, but I want a video that really goes with the set. However, I’ve had people say I don’t need the video. I think if it were the perfect thing playing behind me, with my music, I’d do it more. For me it’s like watching shows, it can either be completely unnecessary or totally integrated with the whole experience and I’d like to have that. By the time I put the album out and go on tour, I should have that figured out.

What are some of your favorite cities to visit on tour, or some cities that you’ve noticed have distinguishable music scenes?

I was working for a photographer when I went to London and Lisbon and played a bunch of shows; I had never traveled with my music. Being in Lisbon for a few days and meeting people that are now friends for life was great. It was an awesome city and I had an amazing time. That trip was the best by far, and Lisbon is my best experience so far. They have a great music scene. I have a friend who books shows in Lisbon and is constantly bringing great music over there. Other cities that I’ve loved include San Francisco and Portland, Oregon a lot. Those are the two cities that stand out the most. I just did Montreal and Toronto and was rushed and so busy that I didn’t get to see a lot or explore much.

As a member of MOTH, I’m interested in hearing artists’ favorite types of music, including guilty pleasures. Do you have any musical guilty pleasures?

I definitely have guilty pleasures, but I’m not ashamed of any of them. I love old r&b, and even some current stuff. Mariah,  Boyz 2 Men, Rihanna, Stevie Wonder, Smokey Robinson… I love that shit, I love it all. I can really dig on some of the Top 40 stuff, or boy band stuff like some N’Sync. I love super cheesy pop and r&b of all kinds, but that’s about it.

No early 90’s alt-rock for you, huh?

None of that super cerebral, unlistenable stuff, no.

What are you listening to as of late?

I just bought the newest Beach House record and have been listening to that alot. I’ve been listening to lots of girl bands from the 60’s, like The Ronettes and The Shangri Las; I dig those bands. How could I forget?! I’ve been listening to the new Joanna Newsom record almost exclusively since March. One of the biggest reasons I’ve been listening to that record for so long is because she hasn’t had anything new in a while and this is over two hours of music. It’s funny, I even talked to a friend and we were both like, “I don’t want to listen to anything else”. It’s that good. Grouper, I’ve been listening to that a lot, especially the Roy Montgomery split she did. Roberto’s record is definitely summer-y, people want to check that out; it’s a great, happy summer record.

Originally posted at MOTH: Music of the Hour in 2010.

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