Julianna Barwick has been creating wonderful sounds in weird places ever since she was a little girl. These days Julianna Barwick packs them onto albums and tours the world for all of us to hear. The only thing she is not such a fan of is writing lyrics, as she tells Alex Kitain on a park bench in Utrecht before debuting at the Le Guess Who festival.

You know what’s so totally strange? I took a shower at my hotel room earlier and as I was sitting down to pull on my tights I noticed that the chair was wet.

Maybe you had hadn’t dried yourself properly?

No I was definitely dry. Isn’t that just really weird? Sorry for sharing my personal weirdness with you, haha.

Ehm, that’s totally cool. I love personal weirdness! Aaaanyway. So, tonight’s your last gig of the tour. Are you relieved? Shitting yourself? Mega excited?

I am definitely relieved. The last few days have been super intense. I played like 10 shows in 12 days. I know other people tour way harder than that but at my pace, that’s a lot. I’m also super excited because this is my booking agent Bob’s festival and I lurrrvvv him and it’s my first time in Utrecht. My husband and I are actually staying until Sunday so we can catch some of my friends’ performances tomorrow. So, yeah. I’m excited. Luckily, I don’t get nervous before shows.

Wow, that’s a good skill to have. Other people get absolutely terrified before going on stage. I heard Adele even has a little puke sometimes.

I know right? I can’t imagine that. Touring alone is so stressful already if I had to fight crippling stage fright before each show, I’d be a wreck.

When you’re on tour, is it important for you to connect with your surroundings? 

I don’t want to say no but at the same time you’re in a place so briefly, you really don’t get much of a chance to truly connect. I mean last night I played in Riga and of course I’ve never been there before. It was like a winter wonderland but I literally only had a few hours to spare. If I pressured myself into connecting with every place I go to, I would go pretty loco.

This is your second time in Holland. You played in Amsterdam last year. Did you get a chance yet to have a typical Dutch kroket from Febo?

Gosh, no! What is that?

It’s a quintessential Dutch obsession. It’s a deep fried stick of mush with bits of meat in it. You walk up to the window, throw in a coin, smear some mustard on it and gobble it up.

That sounds awesome. Let’s go grab one after sound check!

Deal. Tell me a bit more about this habit of yours to hide in weird places to sing. You prefer car parks and stairwells these days, as opposed to the empty halls of your dad’s church when you were younger. Is this your favourite way to create music?

I did that as a kid all the time and I still do it. The thrill is still the same. Finding different places where it’s just super fun to sing is something I have always really loved doing.

On your latest release, The Magic Place, you added a few more instruments to your songs, other than just your own voice. How important was this musical evolution for you as an artist?

Well, I think it was just a natural progression. From my first EP Sanguine, to Florine and then to The Magic Place, each record was a step away from the previous one. When I first started, I recorded all my music in my bedroom using just a guitar pedal and a 4-track cassette machine and there’s really only so far you can go with that. I recorded Florine and The Magic Place with my loop station and my computer but for the last record I had access to a real soundproof recording studio and I was just interested in incorporating some of the instruments that were lying around there.

Your dad has been begging you to include some intelligible words into your songs but so far you’re not granted him that wish. What’s the reason for you avoiding them so much and could you see yourself bringing them in for your next album?

You know I love a good lyricist like Joanna Newsom or Bill Callahan. I always think: “How did they come up with that?” They’re way smarter than I am. I guess in my case it has to do with the fact that I have real trouble committing to any lyrics I come up with. It would also sound really strange if on top of the loops and layers I’d have to include words. My music is not so much about the meaning of words but about the sound of everything. I’ll let others write the lyrics.

On Sanguine a lot of your songs are left untitled but on your later releases they have names like “Prizewinning”, “Vow” and “Keep up the good work”. Are these just random names or actually images that you had in your mind when you wrote the songs?

It’s a bit of both really. I normally come up with the song titles after I’ve decided on the sequence of the album. I listen to the songs and try to imagine what they sound like. For example, this one song sounded triumphant but I didn’t want to call it that so I thought: “What else can I call it? Ah yes, prizewinning. That sounds better.” In “Keep up the good work” I am actually saying that somewhere in the song, but it just gets so washed out you can’t understand it. It’s what my dad has been saying to me weekly for pretty much my entire life so I guess I just wanted to hold on to that somehow.

When you play live, do you ever end up trailing off and playing a certain song totally different to what you had intended? I guess in your case people wouldn’t really notice so much, would they?

Playing live is always an experiment. I mean I also need to figure out how to play my songs live, like everyone else, but the thing I like about my style is that there’s always room for error. It’s totally possible that you end up with something that doesn’t sound so awesome. Last night I actually completely lost my way for the first time ever. I knew I was meant to be doing something but I couldn’t remember what. I was like: “What’s happening to me?!?!” Good thing is no one noticed, but me. If I were in a band, people would have been like: “Uh, she just totally screwed that one up.”

You got loads of very positive feedback for The Magic Place from the likes of Pitchfork and The New York Times. This guy from the SF Weekly even compared your music to “getting head in a massive, airy cathedral.” Fair assessment?

Hahaha, are you serious? Wow, each to his own, you know? I have come across some pretty creative ones. Diplo once tweeted: “If you want to listen to music that sounds like care bears making love, go check out this chick.”

People have called your music all sorts of things but it’s actually rather hard putting you in any known category. Where do you see yourself?

I feel like I don’t fit in anywhere and you know what? That’s perfectly fine. If people want to call my music New Age or Electronica or whatever, I don’t mind. 

You’ve been doing quite a few collaborations lately, with artists like Ikue Mori, Helado Negro and Sharon Van Etten. Diplo, who you just mentioned made a remix of “Vow” ….

 I loooooooove that remix.

… and you also did a remix of Radiohead’s “Reckoner”. Is that a sign that you’re big business now?

Full disclosure. Someone at Radiohead’s label reached out to some peeps like Diplo, me and a few others to kickstart that public remix contest they had. Don’t get me wrong. It was super awesome but at the same time I am not too amped to become “remix-girl”. But that’s actually how I met Diplo and asked him to do that remix for me. We’re total bessies now. Just kidding.

Are you a totally different person today than you were when you first started five years ago?

I was actually thinking about that on this trip. I mean I still have the same looping station and bags I’ve always had. So, I guess apart from having written new material and having played a billion shows I still do things the same way I did then, when I still had a Myspace account, haha.

So, when you get home will you just hide for a while or are we going to hear from you again soon?

You know, I’m married. I love cooking and hanging out with my friends, so I’m not actually planning on doing a hell of a lot for a while. My new album comes out in May and I’ll definitely do some touring again after that.

Julianna Barwick ’s latest album “The Magic Place” is out on Asthmatic Kitty Records.

 

Interview: Alex Kitain

Photography:  Jody Rogac , © Jody Rogac

 

 

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