BY MARY LYNN DOMINGUEZ Julianna Barwick’s music is reminiscent of her childhood, which was spent singing in and listening to Louisiana church choirs. These days, she recreates a similar sound using a synthesizer and vocal loops to create massive choirs of her voice. The result is a grand, ethereal sound with an obvious tinge of isolation. Most of her songs begin with a single vocal loop, setting the foundation for layers of lyrics intentionally concealed by waves of synthesized instrumentation. Her music vibes like a sonic dissection of natural environments, whether that’s magnifying the hum of the wind in a dense forest, or the moments that sunlight peaks through while passing under branches of tall trees. Barwick’s fourth and latest album, Will, covers sonic territory that will be familiar to longtime fans. Newcomers Will find themselves unwittingly hypnotized. In advance of her show at PhilaMOCA tonight, we talked about Myspace being a gateway to her career in music, the four drastically different locations Will was created, her lost potential as the star of an iconic viral video and whether she’d rather sing to an audience of humans or mountains.
PHAWKER: First off, you moved from Louisiana, where you had a background in Church choir. But you didn’t start to pursue music seriously until after moving to New York for school. As far as I know, that wasn’t for music education?
JULIANNA BARWICK: Correct.
PHAWKER: Is there a moment you can recall when you began pursuing music as a career?
JULIANNA BARWICK: Not until I started making stuff in my bedroom in like 2005 or so. I put it up on Myspace, and then had CDs made.
PHAWKER: What was your following like on Myspace?
JULIANNA BARWICK: I barely remember, it was pretty chill as far as I can remember. I started to get little positive messages from people. I was asked to do my first outside-New-York tour ever through Myspace. It was actually very, very futile.
PHAWKER: Considering it’s the most dead social media network now, I wouldn’t have expected it.
JULIANNA BARWICK: Right, but this was eleven years ago, before Facebook. It was really cool, but it wasn’t until I started getting nice feedback from people and people started asking me to play shows that I was like, “Oh, this could be kind of cool. I think it might be fun to try to do.” That was the beginning, and it’s been going ever since.
PHAWKER: I read that you started going to school for darkroom photography. Did you ever see that degree through?
JULIANNA BARWICK: I got my degree in darkroom, in studio art. My focus was darkroom photography.
PHAWKER: Were you ever balancing both for a while?
JULIANNA BARWICK: I graduated before I started making the music that would end up being kind of like, you know, the vocal-based stuff. I started doing that like right after I graduated. After I graduated, I worked at a photo studio for a while doing shoots and post-production and things like that. I had some musical stuff at home like electric guitars and pedals, but I didn’t really take it seriously at all. I was kind of just messing around. It wasn’t until I started messing around with loops that I got really excited about making music.
PHAWKER: Will is your fourth full-length album. Do you remember any specific goals that you set out to accomplish with this album that you didn’t think you could do with previous records?
JULIANNA BARWICK: I know I was going back to doing things on my own, so I wanted to see what that was like again. It had been a while, you know? I recorded The Magic Place on my own in 2010. Nepenthe formed in 2012, so it had been a while since I had made something. I wasn’t really sure what I was gonna do. The more I thought about it, the more I thought, “This is an opportunity for me to do some things that have been on my wish list that I hadn’t made happen yet. Those things were like, having a male voice on the record, having some cello on the record, and having drums. It was a good opportunity to make all of those fun things come true.
PHAWKER: How did you get an affinity for those things? Like, the cello? What drew you to incorporating that sound?
JULIANNA BARWICK: I’ve always loved the cello. Cello and piano tie for my favorite instruments. It was just something I’d thought about forever. Last year I played a show in the Netherlands with this dude named Martin. I just asked him if he could record some stuff for the record and he did. We just played another couple of shows together. We’re musical friends now.
PHAWKER: Cool. This album was recorded in at least four separate locations, including Upstate New York, Asheville, Lisbon and Brooklyn. Could you talk about the impact of each place on you, and the new album if it is incorporated.
JULIANNA BARWICK: Sure. The first place was upstate New York, and I was all by myself in my friend’s upstate house. I was all by myself and freezing, freezing cold. Very different from what I’m used to. I think it definitely had an impact on the way things sounded. And then the second spot was Asheville, North Carolina. I recorded at the Moog Sound Lab. I had already met those guys when I was on tour a couple of times, and they were at this festival called FORM Acrosanti. They had a Sound Lab set up there, and I was already friends with them. They asked me to do a demo on this new thing that wasn’t even out yet, the Mother-32. I did that, and they gave me one! I ended up making a bunch of stuff on that that ended up being on the record. In Asheville, I was re-recording the things that I was coming up with on the spot at Acrosanti.
PHAWKER: Those are already kind of polar opposites, being all isolated and cold in New York, I’m Willing to bet Asheville had super beautiful weather, and you were with all of these people…
JULIANNA BARWICK: Oh, yeah. It was like freezing, freezing cold Februrary, Upstate New York, and then sometime in July in Asheville. It was very warm. The last stop before I just pieced everything together in Brooklyn was Lisbon, which is like my favorite city. It means a ton to me. It’s like the first place that asked me to play outside of New York. Like I said, through this Myspace dude Sergio, who’s like still one of my best friends. He had me come over in 2007, and I’ve worked with him ever since. I’m super in love with the city.
PHAWKER: What do you like most about it?
JULIANNA BARWICK: I like the warmth of Lisbon. It’s an absolutely stunning city. Everyone is unbelievably down-to-earth and warm and amazing. There’s so much heart there, it’s unbelievable. And it’s just a stunningly gorgeous city on the water. The city is covered in these little white marble blocks that sort of glow white in the daytime. At nighttime, they have this beautiful yellowish glow because of the lamps. It’s just a stunning place. It’s really magical.
PHAWKER: I wish I could go, I haven’t been. Generally, could you tell me what your songwriting process is like? Sometimes I feel like when I’m listening to your songs, I get kind of hypnotized and I can’t really tell where I am or what my name is anymore. I’m wondering how you know that a song is complete to you?
JULIANNA BARWICK: It’s kind of a hard and easy question to answer. It’s just like, you kind of know. You’ve taken this away, you’ve added things. You’ve taken things away again, and then finally it just feels right. There’s no explaining that away. You just know when it feels good and you can’t take or add anything else.
PHAWKER: What kind of ideas do you start with?
JULIANNA BARWICK: With most of my records oftentimes it starts with a vocal loop. Playing around with vocal loops, and adding things on top of that. With this record there’s a lot of playing around with piano, and that becoming something. It just depends on what I start tinkering with first.
PHAWKER: I read about a couple of times where you said that you have brought yourself to tears just singing. Is there any specific moment you recall being so moved by the sound of your own music?
JULIANNA BARWICK: [Laughs] It’s not usually when I’m recording. It’s like when I’m out in nature singing. I don’t know. I don’t know if I can come to a specific time. Just some kind of beautiful sounding environment. I sing a little bit and start to feel it.
PHAWKER: I thought it was kind of bizarre so I wanted to ask. I imagined you walkingaround singing something and just bursting into tears.
JULIANNA BARWICK: HA! No, it doesn’t happen a ton. It happened a lot when I was a kid, to be honest. I would sing, and I would get very emotional.
JULIANNA BARWICK: Yeah, that would be a cool video.
PHAWKER: Who are your dream collaborators? What has been your most unexpected collaboration?
JULIANNA BARWICK: I would love to collaborate with John Wililams, who’s a composer. Another dreamy one would be Bjork. Another super-dreamy one would be Panda Bear.
PHAWKER: Oh my god, I looooove Panda Bear.
JULIANNA BARWICK: Yeah. He’s my all-time favorite I think. That’s who I can come up with right now on the top of my head. Ones from the past that surprised me was the collaboration with Ikue Mori. That was really out of left-field, literally. I wasn’t expecting that. She’s a total legend. I actually learned a lot just by researching her, and then being able to make a record with her. She’s a lot of peoples’ idol. It’s crazy. I honestly didn’t even know who she was until I was asked to do that project. It was just like, that lady is like, so cool and I am so honored to be working with her. Crazy.
PHAWKER: Who is your preferred audience: mountains or humans?
JULIANNA BARWICK: Humans.
PHAWKER: Aw, man.
JULIANNA BARWICK: I know. I’d love to give a Bjork answer, but I gotta be real. I like the energy of singing with people in the room.