Julianna Barwick talks about her album ‘Nepenthe’

Julianna – thanks for taking the time out to talk to us. First off, congratulations on the new album – you must be pretty proud of it. Have you been surprised by the reaction it has received as it has been pretty much universally acclaimed?

I’ve been really happy with it – it seems like it’s been going over really well. I am really proud of it and it was a lot of fun to make. So I am glad people like it, yeah.

You recorded Nepenthe in Iceland with Alex Somers of Riceboy Sleeps – how did that come about? Did you approach him or was it the other way around?
Actually I got an email from Alex’s manager in January 2011 and it just said that Alex and Jonsi were fans of my music and they were wondering if I was interested in doing some kind of project with them. Of course that was a really exciting email to get so I said absolutely and Alex and I started talking –we talked all year and he came to New York a couple of times and we hung out and we dreamt up what we were going to do when I was over there in Iceland. I made it over in Feb 2012 to start recording it so that’s really how it all happened.

Had you a definite idea before you started working with him as to what you hoped he would bring to the project?
I really didn’t know. I had heard the music he had been involved in making, a few things that he had recorded but I really didn’t know how it was going to go just based on never having worked with anyone else on a solo record before.
So it was a big step to hand over the reins as such?
It was a huge step – I mean it was definitely going a full 180 for me and the way I was used to doing things completely by myself, usually in my bedroom with no one giving any kind of input whatsoever. Not only was Alex producing, but I was in Iceland and we had additional singers, string players and a guitarist and everyone was lending their own talents in their own intuitive way and we didn’t really tell people what to play. And all the music was created during the session in Iceland so it was a completely different way of making a record for me.Nepenthe -Julianna Barwick

Was there ever a point in the recording where you worried that the finished album might end up sounding too much like a Sigur Ros/Riceboy Sleeps offshoot project?  I know Jonsi guested on the album and you had Amiina and Mum on there also…
I thought that was a possibility. And a few times I told Alex ‘yeah that sounds super Sigur Ros-y we can’t do that!’ It did happen a few times but I wasn’t super worried or anything. It’s just the way that Alex makes and records music but we talked through the whole thing so I knew it would be fine.

A lot of artists who have worked there have cited the beauty of the place as a major influence on their music. Did you find it an inspirational environment to work in and do you think that seeped into your music in any way? Do you think the influence of a place can be overstated at times?

100%. I’d never been to Iceland before – everything I had ever made had been made in Brooklyn and Iceland is very different to Brooklyn. It is so overwhelmingly beautiful and unique – there is really nowhere else on earth that looks anything like it. It was extremely inspiring because I could just walk down to the water from the place where I was staying or take a car to go to the National Park to see the Blue Lagoon…..It’s just a wonderland…..I was totally stunned by the beauty of it – I am a pretty visual person as far as inspiring things go so it was really important to me and I tried to take full advantage of that every single day that I was there – it was such a treat to be there.

There is one song on your record – ‘One Half’ – that features perhaps your most naked and unadorned vocal performance yet…it comes almost as a shock to hear the lyrics so clearly and to hear your voice in that way…while it obviously stands out as one of the most beautiful songs on the album, did you fret at all about putting this more conventionally structured song on the album?
I was a little hesitant to do it as it is a total diversion to everything on my other solo records and it’s the one exception to what I said earlier about everything being made in Iceland. That is a song I have had for a number of years and I used to perform it totally different to the way it is performed now. I always wanted to make it a real recording, a real song, something that actually existed. Those lyrics were ones I made up on the spot when I wrote the song several years ago and I showed them to Alex and said I really want this to be on the record. I thought about changing the lyrics because they don’t really mean anything and I thought if I am going to have actual intelligible lyrics on this record then maybe it should be something really meaningful but then I just decided to keep it as it was because I liked that they are kind of dreamy and strange. I’ve been having a lot of fun performing that in cities where we have been able to have a little choir and I am really glad that Alex and I decided to put it on the record.

Your 2011 album The Magic Place was really when people started to sit up and take notice of your work. You create such a unique sound with the layered vocals and minimal instrumentation. Where does that come from? What music did you listen to growing up?
Growing up I sang in choirs, just from the time I was a little kid – I went to church every week and sang as part of a congregation, usually acapella in these big reverberant spaces so from the time I was born I was hearing all that. I was in choirs my whole life so I was always listening to and performing choral music. I always loved the sound of hearing people singing together in big open spaces so that has definitely informed the sound of my music.

It is very hard to pinpoint influences but at times your music is somewhat reminiscent of some of the 4AD bands of the 80s – bands like the Cocteau Twins, Dead Can Dance, This Mortal Coil. Have you listened to much of that stuff?

I don’t really think too much about being influenced by existing bands. Everything I make is innate and immediate. I am familiar with the Cocteau Twins but not a whole lot with the other bands you mention. It happens very often that people compare me to 4AD bands or Brian Eno and I definitely like that music but I only really started getting into it recently.

Up until recently, you have performed live pretty much on your own with just loops & backing tapes. The new album has a lot more going on in terms of instrumentation – piano, strings, ambient sounds. Are you bringing additional musicians on the road to try to recreate that in a live setting?

Well I have acquired my first ever bandmate! He is an old friend of mine and he has been with me since August. When I was planning the upcoming tour I just thought there is no way I can pull this off on my own and luckily my friend Scott was interested in helping me and it has been great. In a few cities we have had small choirs and string players but for most of the shows it has been just me and Scott.

Do you enjoy playing live or are you more at home in the studio?
I like both of them. I almost never get nervous playing live and I really enjoy touring. I was hooked when I toured first in 2007 and I love travelling, meeting people, playing shows but I also love recording by myself and now with other people.

So what’s next for you? Have you even begun to think of a new album and how do you envisage it taking shape?
I have no idea but I am totally open to going back to doing something with Alex again, or doing something collaborative with someone else or just going back to making another bedroom recording on my own. I am really open to anything really.

Any plans for shows in Ireland in the near future?

Not at the moment but I would love to go there – I played the Unitarian Church on the Magic Place tour and I really love Ireland so hopefully I will get back there real soon.
Thank you so much Julianna – good luck with the tour, it has been an absolute pleasure.

Thank you so much!