It was early evening at South By Southwest in 2011, and my ears were already blasted out from a few days of the noisy madness of Austin’s Sixth Street. Exhausted, and feeling a little daunted about what music to seek out the rest of that night, I wandered into Austin’s gorgeous Central Presbyterian Church to catch my breath with the music of Julianna Barwick. As I sat in the church pews (with my pal, NPR Music’s Stephen Thompson), I could feel the weight lifting.
The next day, I was lucky enough to have chance to meet Barwick for a video shoot with NPR Music at the famed Driskill Hotel and see her setup up close and watch her perform my favorite song “Bob In Your Gait.”
I was familiar, if not an expert on Barwick’s music before. After that SXSW, I was a fan.
To listen to the hypnotic choral voices of Julianna Barwick is to be swept away, transported to a musical world out of time. Her songs are lush, yet minimally constructed, parsing out fragments of looped word-less vocal phrases and spare instrumentation and layering them into church-filling meditations.
With her previous records, like 2011’s superb (and perfectly titled) The Magic Place, Barwick assembled her music by singing into a single microphone through some effects and a loop pedal into a laptop, while sitting cross-legged on her bed alone in her Brooklyn bedroom “studio.” For music that feels intended for ancient crumbling cathedrals, it seems hi-tech. Yet for most modern electronic music, however, that domestic intimacy is decidedly lo-fi.
For Nepenthe, her forthcoming record (out Aug. 20), Barwick both expands her musical worldview, and collaborates with others, turning to Icelandic musician Alex Somers (of Sigur Rós, Jónsi) to record this latest collection of moody and experimental tapestries amid Iceland’s majestic landscapes. The album also brings in collaborations with string ensemble Amiina, Múm guitarist Róbert Sturla Reynisson, and a choir of teenage girls to fill out the sound in a new way.
Like its predecessors, Nepenthe artfully mixes Barwick’s alluring voice — think Gregorian chant crossed with Enya, but in a good way — with swooning electronics, all fluttering and swelling in the shadows. Yet, with the influence of Somers — and, no doubt, the setting itself — songs like “Offing” or “Forever,” with all those sounds swirling in the ether, take on new life, becoming even more wonderfully cathartic and grand. And in “One Half,” Barwick sings distinct, if still elusive lyrics for the first time.
Nepenthe is not an immediate album and it won’t actively grab you right away — but that’s not really the point: Barwick’s music is so subtle, so delicate, so outright pretty, that you just have to let it linger in the room like a halo of smoke slowly unfurling.
Even now, a few years later, Julianna Barwick’s immersive and near-spiritual set at SXSW is one of my favorite things I’ve seen at the festival, so much so that I’ve almost been reluctant to see her again in concert, if only because that setting was so perfect, I can’t fathom how anything could rise to that. Next week, Barwick will be performing her amazing new record in New York, in a church. I hope to be there so I can close my eyes, lean back, and let this elusive and stunning music take me away again.