What began in the name of fun for Brooklyn native, Julianna Barwick, has now been successfully transformed into a flourishing music career. Her loop-based compositions replicate the soaring textures of a large choral group using only her voice, a loop station and some occasional instrumentation. With her debut album The Magic Place, ranking on numerous 'Best Of' 2011 lists, Barwick will be gracing the stages at Sugar Mountain Festival this January. Still in New York, she talks to me about her unique musical style, her love for the loop station and her upcoming shows in Australia.
“For the longest time I was playing guitar and making melodies on the spot, but it was cheesy and wasn’t my thing,” explains Barwick. “When I discovered the looping thing it was surprising and really fun. It’s more about making sounds, not lyrics. I find it so much fun to create in that way.”
Barwick confesses she was one of those annoying kids who sang all the time as a child, and though she pursued other interests, music was something she always came back to. “I started taking voice lessons and was in the choir while in elementary school,” Barwick says. “I took a year off after high school, where I was working and in an upper chorus. I actually went to college for photography, but music was always just something that I liked to do on my own.”
Finding her love for the loop station was somewhat accidental. “One of my best friends showed me it. We were hanging out at his house and he told me check it out,” she explains. “He had this guitar peddle and you could hold it down and it would loop what you recorded. Once you took your foot off, that was it, you couldn’t change it. I began recording it onto a four track cassette tape.”
Her debut album The Magic Place is a nine-piece full-length album of magic and solace, bursting joy and healing tones. Free of the constraints of narrative and traceable language, Barwick begins most tracks with a single phrase or refrain, using the loop station to build the song into a swirling mass of sublime, ethereal, pastoral folk music, with heavenly harmonies and weaving sonic architecture. What’s most unique about this approach to musical construction is that it’s next to impossible to repeat it exactly the same way again. While most musicians would flee from something less 'safe', it was this improvisational component that attracted Julianna to her style of electronic music.
“[I enjoy it] because I always start out and I don’t know how it is going to turn out. The element of surprise really works. For me, making stuff like that, I can never really plan anything too far ahead,” she explain., “I have to do my best when it comes to live performances. I really like performing and recording alone, so I love a challenge. I start with one vocal line and build all loops from one vocal. It’s different every single time. It can never be exactly the same, which keeps my brain happy. I like that it’s unique each time even if it doesn’t radically deviate from one show to the next.”
The Magic Place is Barwick's debut album and has evolved from what she describes as her previous bedroom recordings. “Sanguine was super simple,” Barwick explains. “The machine I was using allowed me to make songs with one loop. For Florine, I used a hands-on loop station that I plugged into a computer. That gave me three loops to work with and I playing around with fading loops. The Magic Place, however, was recorded in a rehearsal stage because I needed a place that was sound proof. It also had a piano so I was able to add a little more. I think that the next record will be a progression from that. There’s something I love about that cyclical pattern and the adding on and adding on. I like to keep adding things.”
Her music has been likened to the most successful New Age musician, Enya, along with Harold Budd and Brian Eno’s ambient works. She says, however, that if she were to collaborate with anyone it would either be Panda Bear, Björk or a “sound scoring type person”.
When describing what she would like people to take from her music Barwick's response is as unique as her music. “I would really like people to feel like what they are listening to is something completely new to them, in every way. I want it to be something that they can’t say sounds like anything else they’ve heard before. I’d want them to feel and think about things.”
With no celebrity ambitions, Barwick says she is content doing what she does now. “It has become what I want to do,” she says. “I want to have a family and do this. I can’t imagine anything better than that.”
Sugar Mountain Festival gives reason for Julianna to visit Australia for the first time. “I am so excited. My older sister is coming with me and we’re both just beside ourselves,” she says. “I am looking forward to seeing John Maus. I’ve never seen him perform live. I’m also excited to see my friends, Prince Rama. They did a remix for me this year and I’m looking forward to see them down there."
BY TAMARA VOGL
JULIANNA BARWICK will perform at the Sugar Mountain Festival taking place at The Forum on Saturday January 14, and a headline show at The Toff In Town on Wednesday January 18. The Magic Place is out through Mistletone.