A Microinterview with Julianna Barwick
This issue features a microinterview with Julianna Barwick, conducted by David Givens. Barwick is a musician based in Brooklyn, whose music has been described as “transfixing to the point of debilitation” by the New York Times. Using her voice as raw material, she loops her own singing to create immersive sound environments that evoke everything from Gregorian chants to Christian Fennesz. Her discography includes a self-released debut, Sanguine, from 2007, and the EP Florine, which was given an honorable mention in Pitchfork’s 2009 Album of the Year list. Her most recent release is the critically acclaimed full-length recording The Magic Place.
THE BELIEVER: So you’re the younger sister?
JULIANNA BARWICK: Yep. Typically behaved as one, too, I guess.
BLVR: How so? Spoiled? Not expected to do much?
JB: Oh, no. Just the dreamer, making funnies, not taking things too seriously. I was climbing to the tops of magnolia trees and singing to myself.
BLVR: Is that still true of you—being a dreamer?
JB: Completely. But I can get stuff done.
BLVR: You seem to have a real work ethic.
JB: Yeah. My head is in the clouds most of the time, so I’m glad I have the tendency to work. I feel badly when I haven’t gotten anything accomplished in a day.
BLVR: Did your family move around a lot when you were a kid?
JB: Yes, it started in Louisiana. I lived there till I was five, then my dad took a job in a church in Springfield, Missouri, and we lived there till I was thirteen. We lived on a farm and had sheep and stuff like that. He was a youth minister for twenty, twenty-five years, basically worked around the clock. Then, when I was thirteen, my dad went to med school. He went to med school at forty-something!
BLVR: That’s amazing!
JB: Now that I’m in my very early thirties [laughter], I tell this story to everyone. He wasn’t that much older than me… and to be going to school full-time, and moving, and doing that with a family, and having sheep, and a full time job? It makes me appreciate how easy my life is. So if I ever feel like complaining, I’m like, What? And then it also makes me feel like one can do anything, you know?
BLVR: So he did it?
JB: Oh yeah. He’s a small-town doc in Oklahoma.
THE BELIEVER: You did Sanguine, your first record, then Florine. Did your working method change between the two?
JULIANNA BARWICK: Yep. It was really different. The first record I made with the guitar pedal. I would have to hold it down, and the loop would only last as long as I was holding it.
BLVR: You didn’t use a loop station for the first record?
JB: No, no. I sang with a crappy mic, into a crappy guitar delay-pedal, into another guitar pedal that looped. Then I put that into my Fostex 4-track cassette machine, and that’s how I made the first record. Those little bits of guitar that you can hear on some of
the songs were played directly into the 4-track. When I brought it in to Paul Gold to get mastered, he kinda gave me a quizzical look. I was like, Uh, has anybody ever brought you a 4-track tape machine before? He was, like, Um, well, no, but there’s a first time for everything…. And I just thought, OK, I’m learning.
BLVR: When you bought the loop station, was it because somebody said, You know, Julianna, there are easier ways to do this…?
JB: Actually, I had a Mac that I bought from a friend, and it had a copy of Logic [professional music-production software] on it. It made my head spin all the way around my body just trying to figure it out. I was like, Screw this, man! If I can punch a button and
it records, that’ll work! So I bought a loop station. What you create is stored on the machine, so when I made Florine, I just hooked it up to my computer, dragged over the .wav files, and put them into GarageBand.
BLVR: So all of this was happening at your house? In your bedroom?
JB: Exactly. On my bed.
BLVR: That’s remarkable! I could certainly imagine it was made in a more formal setting.
JB: No, it was all in my bedroom.
BLVR: With your most recent record, you moved into the studio. Do you think you’ll return to the bedroom?
JB: To practice, but not to record. I had to spend so much time taking out the bad stuff—helicopters going over, people walking upstairs—it got annoying. Soundproofed is way better.
THE BELIEVER: Were there things you heard and liked growing up that made you want to create music in the way you’re creating it?
JULIANNA BARWICK: There are so many things. Going to church three times a week, plus weekends and summers, ’cause my dad worked for the church. We would always sing a cappella, and instead of instruments we would clap or sing rhythmic rounds, that kind of thing.
BLVR: What else?
JB: I went to see Empire of the Sun in 1987. It was filled with boys’ choir music, and I fell in love with it, and I have been going to see boy choirs ever since then. The first vinyl records that I bought with my own money around the same time—from Kmart—
were Whitney Houston and Lionel Richie, Dancing on the Ceiling. So I always loved pop music.
BLVR: But pop music didn’t make you want to be a pop singer or play in a band?
JB: Neither of those ever appealed to me on any level. You don’t know how many times my sister has tried to get me to do American Idol, but now I’m too old, so I can use that excuse.
BLVR: She wants you to do your thing on American Idol?
JB: She wants… I can kind of… I can sing just like Whitney Houston sometimes. I love R&B.
BLVR: But your Whitney-love never translated into a desire to be like Whitney, to make music like hers?
JB: No. [Laughs] But I love to sing like her at karaoke. Oh, and in high school, Tori Amos and Björk changed everything for me. I went from listening to Pearl Jam to them. Those two ladies were super-huge! Björk changed my life. I was at the mall in Tulsa and I saw that cover, with her in that little fuzzy sweater, with those rhinestones under her eyes, you know? And I was like, Holy—what the—what’s that? And I just bought it. It was a huge deal. I didn’t know anything about her. I was, like, thirteen or fourteen years old! I bought it and I was just like, What’s this? Debut is my desert-island CD, definitely. All I’d been listening to was radio and church music. I used to have a subway-size poster of the Debut cover in my bedroom in Tulsa, and every time little kids came over, like my cousins and stuff, they thought it was Michael Jackson.
BLVR: [Bursts into laughter]
JB: If you look at that cover now, you can see why.
THE BELIEVER: There’s a certain amount of patience that’s required to listen to your music, and I was wondering if crowds get impatient.
JULIANNA BARWICK: I have no idea. It’s weird to think about my stuff objectively. Sometimes I think, Would I even like my stuff if it was me listening? What I’m doing does take some patience on the listener’s part, but I’ve been pretty amazed at the mostly positive response I’ve gotten, because I can’t imagine that it’s up everyone’s alley!
BLVR: Well, as many effects as there are in the music, it still seems to be very human-centered.
JB: Yeah. I love to put the reverb on, but that’s pretty much the only manipulating I’m doing. When I’m playing a show, I’m actually singing nonstop.
BLVR: Not having seen you live, I’m struggling to imagine how it evolves onstage.
JB: Layer by layer.
BLVR: More like being a painter than a rock band?
JB: Yeah. Basically everything starts with improv. I’ll plug everything in, then I’ll mess around with the vocal effects. It’s the same as when I’m recording. I’ll just keep recording, keep recording, and then I’ll find things later, combing through. I’ll be, like, Ah, I love that—I’ve got to figure out how to do that live. Then, in order to get the same end-result live, I have to start from the very
beginning, where I’m laying down that first melody.
BLVR: And that’s not terrifying, in a live setting?
JB: Not at all. What I do is very easy. I love to harmonize. My sister used to hit me for harmonizing! She’d be like, Stop harmonizing with everything! It’s what I’ve always been doing. Now it’s just me and a computer. I like to work fast and I don’t like to wait for others. If it’s just me, I can do everything at my own speed.
BLVR: How long did Florine take to make?
JB: Less than a week.
THE BELIEVER: You’ve mentioned the pressures of being a preacher’s kid and pushing back against the pressure to be “good”—
JULIANNA BARWICK: I mean, all kids are told “that’s bad, that’s good.” But I feel like, in the church, there’s this more grave idea.
BLVR: Heaven and hell. No gray areas.
JB: You get heart palpitations. You get schooled on swimsuit areas and all this weirdness. But I was a good kid. In high school, I never slept in. Not one day. I went to school Monday through Friday, waitressed on Saturday mornings, and went to church on Sunday mornings.
BLVR: So you were never a troublemaker?
JB: I guess I had a bit of a rebellious spirit in high school. I wore my dad’s overalls and cut all my hair off. When I was reeking of cigarette smoke and stuff, my parents hated that. But they liked my weird friends. We were always close. I respected them fully, even as I was going through my teenager crap. My parents are awesome. They’re the easiest parents to talk to, ever, besides my fiancé’s.
BLVR: And they love what you’re doing now?
JB: Oh, man. They’re so excited and proud. My dad and I talked on the phone for an hour yesterday. It was the first “this is what you’re doing full-time” conversation. He’s so psyched. He said the whole “not many kids go to New York and live their dream” thing. He googles me, all that stuff. He went with me to France and Portugal last month. I played six shows. It was awesome. He saw me play in the crypt of the Notre-Dame de la Croix church in Paris. My mom has only seen me once. It was very unfortunate. It was in this smoky-ass bar in Texas and I got super-heckled. My dad said if the owner hadn’t thrown the heckler out, he would have.
BLVR: So, wait—you waitressed every Saturday morning?
JR: From age fourteen to twenty-one.
BLVR: Are there any parallels between waiting tables and performing for audiences?
JB: Hmm… only doing everything right, I guess. No screwing up.