Looper: Julianna Barwick is beautifully directionless

Jun 22, 2016 at 1:00 am
Photo by Zia Anger
Photo by Zia Anger

As I walk around my neighborhood, listening to Will by Julianna Barwick, I abandon my usual route and begin to wander. I let go of my destination. The looping of Barwick’s voice washes over me, intensifying the beauty of the fallen rose petals on the cement in my path and celebrating the little boy I find dancing to his own music, out of sync with Barwick’s, on his front lawn. The sound of her piano bounces through my head. Her songs create space in my thoughts. Although I walk in the sunshine, the iris of my eye expands, and I see more elegance in the environment of my Ferndale neighborhood than usual. Barwick’s stirring arrangements, the repetition and balance, condense the essence of life, spirit, and experience. With Will, she has built a sonic cathedral for listeners to dwell within and without. Will, recorded in a variety of locations — upstate New York, North Carolina, Lisbon — is Barwick’s fourth full-length album. Brooklyn-based Barwick channels voice, pianos, strings, and sometimes synthesizer through her Boss RC-50 Loop Station. In anticipation of her performance at MOCAD, I called Barwick to chat about her music.

Metro Times: Will is the title of your latest album. How does the title encapsulate the album?

Julianna Barwick: It's not about any one specific thing. I liked how interpretive it is, which my music tends to be, pretty interpretive for people. I liked how it could be some many different things — "good will," "bad will," "leave a will." You know, it's like one of these words that has so many different meanings — and also, this is probably not the best reason, but I wanted something that people could say pretty easily. I have the habit of naming my records really weird words. I wanted to keep it simple and open-ended. 

MT: I read your approach to songwriting relies on spontaneous improvising and immediate recording. Can you tell me about why that works for you?

Barwick: I'm not a planner in music. I work so much better improvising. It's always been this way. I like the immediacy of it, the quickness. I'm not the kind of person that's going to spend months on a composition. It's actually physically impossible. I would be very unhappy if I had to make anything in that way. 

MT: It would get boring. 

Barwick: Yeah, and with the looping, the reason I fell in love with it is because I could improv something and it would start looping, and I would be harmonizing with it, and having no plan, so that made it really fresh and exciting and surprising. So whenever I would feel like I was done with a loop, I would be like, "Wow, where did that come from?" I really get into that kind of element of surprise and immediacy. That's when everything clicked and I said, "Ahh, this is how I want to make stuff."

MT: Maybe that's one of the reasons it affects people so much — I mean emotionally and spiritually: Those words always seem to be related to your music. 

Barwick: Yeah, it's like looking in a mirror. It's exactly what I'm feeling without any sort of filter. 

MT: When you perform live, do you attempt to replicate what is recorded?

Barwick: Yeah, I have to — and it's really a weird process, because I'm having to dig with my ears and be like, "What was that? How did I get to that?" and dissecting it in a way that I'm figuring out what each and every layer is.  

MT: How present are you when you perform? 

Barwick: I have to be very present. I can't think about other stuff. I have to be very, very in-tune with the emotion of the song, or it just doesn't work. 

MT: As I listen to your music, it occurs to me that it could be considered "punk" — in that there is minimalist repetition and simple patterns. Is there any truth in this idea? Are there other elements of your music or in your personal, artistic ethos that are punk?

Barwick: In the way my music isn't super-classifiable and I wasn't intimating anyone or even really inspired by anything in particular — I think that's pretty punk. 

MT: You just let it roll. 

Barwick: I like that. I like being extremely individualistic, and if that's not punk, I don't know what is. I still am not really the best at describing my own music. I'm not really good at articulating what my sound is or what genre it is — but I kind of like that. I like that the music itself is interpretive, and I don't even know how to describe it, so it does seem "outsiderish" for sure, and I fully embrace that. 

MT: And it doesn't really hold you down to anything, so you can do whatever you want. 

Barwick: Exactly. I love that. It's like pure emotion. There's like zero intention or direction, really, when I'm making stuff. It's like pure volume of emotion.

MT: You're directionless, in a positive way. 

Barwick: [Laughs] Yeah. 

MT: I'm intrigued about the language you use when you describe your process — "made" and "built." Do these terms tell us anything about your philosophies about what a musician does?

Barwick: I think all artists, visual artists, build on an idea until it feels right. A painter adds a little, takes a little away. There's editing involved, until you are just like, "Yup that's it, that what I want to make."

MT: Do you face any personal limitations when you create? I mean, because I don't know how to play guitar very well, and I'm always like, if only I knew how to play guitar ...

Barwick: I wish I was better at everything! I play piano. I play guitar. I play clarinet, but not amazingly well by any stretch of the imagination. I'm a total novice, basically. I would love to play those instruments a little bit more skilled, but I'll get there someday. 

MT: Why do you think people enjoy repetition in music and art?

Barwick: I think there is something meditative about things coming back around, and back around, and back around again. It allows you to have your own zone. You're not being yanked in a bunch of directions. It is comforting. 

MT: Anything you would like to add, in anticipation of your show at MOCAD? 

Barwick: Anyone who's going to read this should listen to Mas Ysa, who is touring with me. I want everyone to check it out. It's so good. 

Julianna Barwick performs at 9 p.m. Thursday, June 23 at the Museum of Contemporary Art Detroit, 4454 Woodward Ave., Detroit; 313-832-6622; $12; tickets available online at mocadetroit.org.