"Right now, it's complicated...": Julianna Barwick interview
The Azores are a cluster of nine volcanic islands in the middle of the Atlantic Ocean, about 800 miles off the coast of Portugal. Though not quite a lost world (you can still get a Big Mac in a few places) they are very far away from real life – little, bubbling peaks of natural wonder. In the mountains of Sao Miguel, the largest of the islands, you can find gorgeous, greenish-blue lakes, fringed by nodding palms. On the west coast there are sweeping beaches of fine black sand. And in the east, if you’re lucky, you’ll spot another phenomenon – Julianna Barwick, Brooklyn-based producer of ghostly, reverb-heavy and strikingly beautiful choral arrangements, having a bit of a moment.
On a Wednesday evening in March I get just that lucky. I’m stood with her on an outcrop of jagged basalt rock, watching the sun go down behind walls of crashing mid-Atlantic waves. It’s not really the right time to ask any questions about her fifth album, ‘Will’, out in May. For example, why she’s moved away from layered vocal loops and towards stark piano motifs and pulsing synths on this latest record. In three days she’ll kick off a three month-long tour with a performance at Sao Miguel’s one and only music festival, Tremor. In this instant, however, I doubt that time and place are especially concrete concepts in Barwick's head.
"It was just the most visually stunning scene that I think I’ve ever encountered," she tells me, when we do get round to chatting, later on in her hotel. "The black lava rock, and the light blue of the ocean, and the boom of the crashing waves, and how everything was changing by the minute as the sun went down." Her eyes look a bit dewy through her J.Crew spectacles.
If I can’t quite match Barwick’s feeling for the natural world, I can at least empathise through her music. Her debut album 'The Magic Place’, out in 2011, was an ode to the forest landscape she experienced growing up in Louisiana. In 2012 she released ‘Believe You Me’ as Ombre, in collaboration with Helado Negro – an LP which made use of Spanish guitar on a Balearic voyage through watery, practically drowned sounds. "I’m strongly connected to the ocean," she muses. "It’s just the most powerful thing there is."
Now, with ‘Will’, Barwick’s come back to shore. For example, the song ‘Beached’ is a quiet, measured and unusually reverb-light piano piece. It’s matched in its sorrowful impact by another new track, ‘Heading Home’. I wonder, for someone who seems to float above the world, as Barwick does, what does home mean to her?
"Right now, it’s complicated," she says. "Because I don’t plan on being home, probably at all, for the next few months. Any home is far off in the future for me." How about her family, who now live in Oklahoma, do they bring her back to earth? "I love visiting them – it really helps sustain me. It’s a nice grounding feeling to go visit family and people you’ve known your whole life, and soak up all the positivity and love you need for your travels. But it’s not home to me."
Drifting is what Barwick does, and it’s to the benefit of her music. When she began recording ‘Will’, her first step was to get away from Brooklyn. "I just went upstate, in New York, and was there by myself in a house for a week. It was snowy and kind of cosy, but really isolating at the same time. At the end of that week I was so ready to get back into civilisation – I didn’t like anything that I had made." It was only when she visited the Moog studios in Asheville North Carolina, and used electronics to add momentum to some of the tracks, that the music came into focus. "The sounds just worked together really well, and the Moog team are so kind and wonderful."
Nowadays Brooklyn doesn’t hold quite the same appeal as it once did for Barwick – as a place to live, or to be creative. "I think that that environment and that vibe served me really well for a bunch of years," she says. "The motivation to make stuff came when I started meeting people who were artists and musicians for real for real, and not doing 14 other jobs in order to make it in the city. That really inspired me to be independent, also."
"I made a bunch of records and I’ve toured a lot and now I feel like I want to be somewhere more chill," she adds.
She also wants to break out of the cycle of releasing albums – the churn of writing, recording and touring every few years. Her songs are often bittersweet, like the sad end to a good story, and it's not surprising that she’s moving into the film world. Terrence Malick just cut her a cheque to use a track from ‘The Magic Place’ in an upcoming film. Is there anyone else she’d love to work with?
"John Williams. That’s my number one dream. I sent him my music, but I don’t know if he got it." Barwick’s obsessed with the legendary composer of film scores for Star Wars, Indiana Jones and Empire Of The Sun. "His music is totally singular, and recognisable and moving," she goes on. "And I would just love to do anything with him. Like, carry his bag. The soundtrack to Empire Of The Sun was a huge, huge influence on me – my favourite song ever is the one the boy choir sings at the beginning of the film. It’s a Welsh lullaby, which Steven Spielberg picked because Christian Bale is Welsh."
Strangely enough, Barwick talking with enthusiasm about Christian Bale’s Welsh heritage is one of the few occasions where she’s properly in the room. The rest of the time she’s somewhere else – somewhere abstract and hard to pin down. Or maybe she’s just feeling the remoteness of this Azorean archipelago more acutely than I am. There might be solid rock under our feet, but Barwick sees that we're just dots on these islands, as these islands are just dots in the ocean. "It’s such a crazy thing to think about, being out here in the middle," she says. "I love the ocean very much, and think about it a lot, but having miles of water underneath you is also the most terrifying thought."