Secret Thirteen Interview - Julianna Barwick


Crafting the Symphonies of Forgetfulness - the interview with Julianna Barwick

There are some artists, who might be called masters of escapism providing us with ethereal sound shelters of overwhelming beauty and bringing somewhere far off the noisy urban soundtracks. Julianna Barwick is definitely one of them. With her voice (that easily could stand next to Lisa Gerrard or Elizabeth Fraser) as the primary structural element she transports listener to her own emotional universe of sonic purity, brings him/her to the magic place. Julianna's compositions require deep immersion and might a very introverted experience, yet they are very homely, open and welcoming for everyone to relate to.

No wonder her new album is called "Nepenthe", a drug for curing sorrow. Her sound definitely possesses some therapeutic magic induced oneself with harmony and relief. Thus, Secret Thirteen journal is really happy to have her presence in the interview column. Just a few days until her performance in Krakow's Unsound Festival Julianna tells us about her remarkable recording experience in Iceland, the shift in style in her recent album, the very personal nature of her music and the connection with it.


As far as we know, "Nepenthe" was recorded in Iceland. Why did you choose that particular country? How being in this detached island influenced you as a person and as an artist?

I was actually invited to record with Alex (visual designer of Sigur Ros, producer, collaborator of Jonsi Birgisson in Jonsi and Alex project) and he lives in Iceland, so that's kinda how that started out. I got my first e-mail from Alex two and a half years ago, so we talked about doing this for the whole year, before I went over there, so that was the plan for him to be the producer on my next record and to do it in Iceland. That's what we planned on doing. That's how I ended up over there.

So, what kind of influence it had on you? Did you like it? Was that an inspiring experience?

Absolutely. I mean, it was totally incredible. I didn't really know what to expect. Of course, I have seen pictures and everything and had known about Iceland for many many years and have been admirer of many musicians from Iceland since high school or whatever. So, I have always been intrigued by Iceland, so that alone, just going there was exciting and then actually I have never worked with anyone on one of my own records before and always done everything by myself from the beginning to end, so that was a completely new experience. So everything was totally brand new, just the opposite of everything that I was used to - completely different place, completely different way of making an album. You know, it just really turned everything that I am used to on its head.

"Nepenthe" is the title of your new album. As far as we know it means a medicine for sorrow, "a drug of forgetfulness" in ancient Greek. Do you think that your music has such powers? Do you believe in healing, therapeutic powers of music and art in general? Do you have it in mind when you create?

I don't think I intentionally think about healing power of music while I am making it, but for me personally it definitely is cathartic to make music and that's healing. So, I don't think it is something that I intentionally do, but that's kind of the way it ends up being for myself, because I make all of my music just sort of on the spot and so there is a lot of feeling there, but in general I find that the most therapeutic thing for me to do is to listen to music. When I am feeling sad or feeling happy or anything music is the super super huge important part of my life, so I understand the power of that.

So, is it why you called the album this way? Because you believe in the general healing power of music? Or is there some different story behind the title?

Well, I found the word "nepenthe" online and it means a bunch of different things, it has a bunch of different definitions, but the one that I found was the one about it being a potion used by the ancients to induce forgetfulness of something sorrowful or painful. And I just loved that idea, I love the word, I thought that was a beautiful word and I really liked the definition, I loved the idea of that of like some sort of magic drink, that makes you forget something painful. I just really liked the idea of that and there were certainly painful aspects personally for me during the making of the record, so it just seemed perfect for me in that way, sort of like the work involved with making the record was a nepenthe to all the things that were difficult during the making of it. But it wasn't as literal as I am making it sound either. It's just kind of one part of it. And I definitely don't want to come across, that my recording experience in Iceland was a bummer or anything like that. I had some personal difficulties happening, but that was absolutely wonderful too and just an exhilarating experience. But I just really like the word "nepenthe", I thought it was really cool, really liked the definition.

And generally, talking about the music you make, the art you create, what things inspire you to start writing a song, start experimenting, improvising? What do you find most inspiring in life, art?

Like you just said, the music that I make is really spontaneous. I did this in Iceland too, I mean, none of the music was written beforehand. So everything was made while I was there. I would kind of plug everything in and just start singing and recording. Everything just starts off with me just singing and looping and nothing is written beforehand. And I would just have to say, however I am feeling, whatever I am experiencing particularly in my personal relationships and things like that. You know, personal things, that are going on in my life are what's going to come through in the music, because, you know, I am singing and it's coming from my voice, it's like coming from my body. You know how you can just hear if someone is really really happy here. You can here it in their voice, that they are really really sad as well. I mean most of my music is vocal music or at least it starts out that way and I am doing it in the moment, so I feel like it's super personal, the way I create music. It's just super visceral and I think a lot of it comes from how I am feeling about, what's going on in my life and with the people I love and things like that.

What music or artists from past or present you most enjoy at the moment?

I would have to say I love Bill Callahan, John Williams and all of his soundtrack work, I love Rihanna, I love Drake, I love Whitney Houston, I love Joanna Newsom. I am obsessed with Haim right now. It's like a sickness, I can't stop listening to their music. They don't even have a full album out yet, so it's kind of driving me crazy. I've been listening to a lot of that. I love all kinds of different music I love old Motown, I love r'n'b. I am all over the place. I love soundtrack music, I love choral music. It's pretty all over the place.

Apart from music, what other types of arts most inspire you?

That's pretty random. I randomly just absolutely love an exhibit or a movie. I never really know ahead of time. I saw Mike Kelley exhibit in Paris last month. That was incredible. Loved that, that was great. I love so many different artists and so many different movies that it would take me a really long time to list them all.

Maybe there are some who makes most influence to your own art?

I really don't feel that my music is inspired by paintings, movies or anything like that.

So your music is free from direct influences and comes completely from your own?

Yes. Totally.

And what was your first encounter with music? How did you understand that you want to be a musician and you want to express yourself in exactly that way?

Well, I've always been musical person. Always singing, always in choirs my whole life, taking voice lessons, playing around on the piano, playing around on the guitar. I've got a little 4 track in my early twenties and played around with that. I've just always got the most joy out of life from music and making music and singing. I just never knew how to kinda focus it. And then when I started making all the looping stuff, I just really fell in love with that creative process and started putting stuff online, started playing a few shows. I played some shows in London and Lisbon in late 2007 and that was very brand new experience for me. I only played a few shows in New York before that, so during that tour I just absolutely fell in love with the idea of being a musician, making music and touring and meeting new people and going to new places. I just absolutely fell in love with that idea and tried to make that a reality in my life ever since then.

Your music is very calm and introvert, but at the same time very expressive. Do you find it difficult to channel those emotions live on stage? Because, as you said, it seems very personal. Do you find it difficult to communicate with the listener?

No, not really. I mean it is sort of like coming from a different place and every time I perform the songs it's like a little bit different for me. But definitely creating the songs is completely different from performing the songs, because when I am creating then I never know what they gonna sound like in the end. When I perform them, I know exactly what I wanna do and I've done it before, but I don't have any difficulties tapping into the emotional vein of whatever song it is. It just hits home every time. And I feel like I am able to communicate the feeling of the music to the listeners in that way.

The sound of yours seems very detached from this fast paced modern world, which is really chaotic, loud and full of noise. How do you see the present world around you? Does it disturb you or inspire you? What is your connection with it? Do you try to understand it, escape it or detach yourself from it? How do you manage to escape this world?

It's an interesting question. I mean, that's kind of the magic of music and making art. You can create your own dream world, a little bit of escape. You can create your own little existence. And that's what happens naturally, when I create stuff. It's transportive and it just sort of happens on its own. And I know a lot of musicians say that too. You just kind of get lost like when people are playing on stage, they get lost in the music. I think that happens to a lot of people either while they are creating or performing it or just listening to it. And that's one of the coolest things about music, that it can really transport you from one place to another.

So basically, the world you create is separate from the surrounding present world?

Kind of, yeah. I mean it's not super intentional, it's not like when I wanna make music I am thinking "Oh, I gotta escape from this situation". It's more about the joy of making music for me. But it just happens on its own. You just get lost in it and time disappears and you just in another existence for a little bit. At least I am, because I am not really looking at the clock or composing stuff on pen and paper. I just close my eyes and singing.

So when you make your music, you completely immerse in the separate world?

Not completely. But it's different than going grocery shopping, for instance. You know what I mean? Yeah, I would say that it's transporting in a way. Especially because I'm just singing whatever comes off the top of my head. It's not like I'm concentrating too hard, it's not like homework. It's just really fun and free and it does kind of take me to another place once I get into the groove of it.

Going back to "Nepenthe". When we listened to the album we noticed that there much more instruments than on the previous records. Why the album is more instrumental based and sometimes even having some more traditional and less abstract songwriting? Is it due to more producers and musicians involved?

Well, that came with the territory of involving Alex as the producer partly. We talked for so long, what we would want to do with this album and we both agreed that it's so cool to have Amiina play strings, it would be so cool to have some teens or kids singing on the album. And we just had these ideas and then, of course, while we were there, Alex had the idea to have Robert from mum playing. I wanted my mum's vocals to be on the record, so we went all out with this one. We just went into completely different direction from "The Magic Place".

Considering the future albums, are you going to pursue this further?

Well, form here on out I have no idea what's next. I think one of the coolest things about doing this record in Iceland was finding out what it's like to make a record with so many people. It's certainly the antithesis of making a record in your bedroom. But I really really enjoy both ways of making music. So, I don't know what will be next, but I can definitely see myself making a record in my bedroom and I can see myself collaborating with someone in the future, I can see working with a different producer. I mean, I am kind of open to it all at this point now when I know what it's like.

What are your future plans in general at the moment?

Well, right now I am kind of taking it easy so to speak. I will start touring and it will last all of the entire Fall, so I am getting myself ready for the shows right now.

More about Julianna Barwick: website - facebook - twitter

About Author

Paulius Ilevicius is a Secret Thirteen journalist, editor and occasional DJ focusing on more dreamy and melancholic soundscapes. Born in post-industrial town of Pavevezys, currently he lives and works in Vilnius, Lithuania.

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