In Conversation: Julianna Barwick
Just a few days ago Julianna Barwick released ‘Healing is a Miracle’, her first album in four years.
It’s the summation of a period of transition for Barwick, who moved to Los Angeles after more than a decade in New York, and it shows in the sounds of the record. This shift is most evident in the collaborations with her fellow LA residents: Mary Lattimore, Jónsi and Nosaj Thing, but even in the other tracks there is a brightness and positivity that radiates out.
Clash called Barwick in her Los Angeles home to discuss ‘healing’, her process, how those collaborations came together, and her desire to work in scoring for film and TV.
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‘Healing Is A Miracle’ is your first album for Ninja Tune, how did they come into the picture?
They hit me up out of nowhere. It was like two weeks after I moved to LA, so that was like January 2017, and they just basically said that they loved my music and wanted to see what I was up to. I met with them, and we just started talking about working together.
So by summer 2017 I'd signed a record deal with them. It was one of these things where I already knew they were very cool, but then every time I would run it by friends of mine in the biz like "I'm talking to Ninja Tune," the unanimous response was "No way! Love them!" So, I figured that was a pretty good omen.
It's a three record deal. I've kind of reached a point where I want to slow down the album release cycle. Instead of every two or three years, I want to look at releasing an album every four or five years. So we're going to be working together for next several years, and I've just loved working with them so far.
It's just been such a weird time to work on promotion; we're all in quarantine, but they've really come through and have been working so hard and I really appreciate their excitement.
‘Healing is a Miracle’ is a great title, and I've been thinking about it a lot recently, not just in terms of physical healing, but in terms of mental healing and societal healing as well. Did you have all these things in mind? Or were you just thinking about cuts?
I had it all in mind. I mean, initially it started with the physical healing, just nerding out – I burned my hand on the oven and then, you know, two weeks later it's like it never happened. It's kind of Marvel comic book superhero-esque, in a way, but it's just how our bodies work. And I was thinking about that; it's miraculous, but it's just how our bodies work.
The phrase ‘Healing is a Miracle’, I just thought I thought it was a cool phrase and it just kind of stuck with me. Thinking about emotional healing, not just myself, but people in my life and things that have happened; thinking about people and how it takes time and real work to heal.
Of course, I had no idea how apt the title would be in 2020. I decided to stick with ‘Healing is a Miracle’ last year, having no idea what would happen with COVID and then all of the stuff that's been happening here with the protests. It's kind of crazy.
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I think people would say that you've always made kind of healing music; it's very soothing and it's good for that kind of restorative time. Would you agree with that?
I believe that; it feels healing to me when I make it, or at least transportive or cathartic – definitely cathartic. Projects that I've had over the last few years have had parameters I had to think about, but with this record it was just new music and I could just let it rip.
Basically, the first time I started making stuff for this record, I totally cried because I hadn't just plugged everything in and made stuff up off the top of my head in a long time. So it's very cathartic for me. And I've heard from a lot of people that ‘The Magic Place’ in particular has gotten a lot of people through some dark times in their life, so I'm really glad for that. That makes me feel really good when people tell me that it helps them during dark times because I've definitely seen my share and I know how therapeutic music can be to make and to listen to and to heal to.
Immediately on pressing play on this record, it sounds like a much fuller, denser record. Has much changed in your process?
Not a whole lot. In fact, ‘Inspirit’, the first track on the record, is basically one take; the vocals are one take, and then the bass is one take. So it's two tracks in GarageBand. It’s kind of funny when people ask me like, “how do you record?” and I'm just like, “on GarageBand, like I have since like 2007.”
I guess the main difference this time around is I was recording using monitors. I've always been GarageBand and headphones this whole time. Of course with the exception of ‘Nepenthe’, which I made in Iceland with Alex Somers who had like proper equipment proper studio – not GarageBand with headphones.
Jónsi and Alex gifted me some studio monitors last year for my birthday and I started recording with those and there's an obvious difference – just in feeling the bass and being enveloped in sound, the way you would if you were listening to your favorite music. And of course, the collaborations are not an entirely new avenue, but the kinds of collaborations were very different than the ones on my last record, where I had Mas Ysa’s Thomas Arsenault sing on a couple tracks, Maarten Vos play cello, but they sent me stems from other countries.
These three collaborations on ‘Healing Is A Miracle’ were made sitting side by side, which is kind of new.
What was it like receiving that gift of those monitors? It must be quite overwhelming?
It totally was. I had a birthday party last year and suddenly there was a giant pile of presents, I wasn’t expecting that like at all; I felt like I was 12 years old. I carted it all home, and there were these two giant boxes from Alex and Jónsi, and I was like "what in the world did they get me?"
Just the nicest gift, because I recorded most of ‘Nepenthe’ in their house in Iceland; Alex had his little home studio and that was so long ago. So it was really neat to come from them especially.
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So cool. Let's talk about those collaborations; you were sitting in the room with all three of them, and was it quite difficult to share that creative space that's going to be on your album?
Not at all, I was kinda feeling pretty free with this one. And I had known for a long time that I wanted to do something with Mary [Lattimore], Jónsi and Jason [Nosaj Thing], so I was really excited about it. Initially I wanted it to be a Nosaj Thing produced record, like way back, but we just couldn't get it together, schedule-wise, so I ended up doing most of it myself.
But yeah, I just wanted to have those voices on my record. I have special relationships with all three of those people, and it's super interesting because Jason's from here, but Mary moved here not long after I did after 13 years in Philly; I moved here after 16 years in New York; and Jónsi moved here a few years ago, after living in Iceland forever. And so here we all are like, we all live in LA suddenly. That was kind of a special component of my new life here in LA, having these old friends that had moved here also. The collaborations kind of speak to that a little bit.
Jason's a new friend since I moved here, but Mary and I toured together a bunch of times, we're best friends, and I opened for Sigur Rós for 20 shows back in 2013 on the bus, lots of memories with Jónsi and they've seen me go through a lot of changes and vice versa. It’s just really special to have their voices on the record as part of my new Los Angeles world.
Amazing. What I love about Mary Lattimore is that you can just always tell it’s her whenever she's playing on anything. And even in this world, where you kind of mess with her sound a bit, you can still like tell it’s her. Did you kind of find a middle ground between your sounds; how did how did it work?
I mean, I know that about her. My favourite kind of musician is sort of an inimitable one, and always has been. I love that. I love that when someone is just singular, it's just kind of mind blowing. Jónsi's the same way, you know, and Jason and his music, so it's just so fun, it's almost like having their person in the song. I just wanted Mary to do her thing on the song. I sent it to her ahead of time, but I knew that I knew she didn't even really need that because she's classically trained and just a master improviser on top of it.
So she just came over and we did like something like nine passes, and then I just put her all around the clock like pan-wise, so it's just like this circle of Marys. It was just an afternoon; we recorded it here at my house and it's amazing. I love it.
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It is amazing. And then Jónsi, you've known him for a while now you're pretty close with him, but was it intimidating to invite him onto a track? His voice is so well known and powerful.
I wasn't super intimidated to ask and when I asked him he's like “sure, anything for you” – that wasn't intimidating. What was intimidating was getting into the studio with him, because I'm very loosey goosey in the studio; I go with the first take a lot of times. Even if I hit a blue note, I'll just make it work. And that was just definitely not the way it was working with him. I sent him this demo, it was these dark scrapey strings with me muttering something, and I wanted him to just sing, you know, harmonize not even saying words, which is most of my songs. But he was like, “Okay, great. Yeah, I want to work on this but you need to write lyrics.”
And of course, I've never sat down and written lyrics for any of my songs ever before, but I figured if Jónsi was asking me to do that – and he is literally one of my most favorite musicians of all time, my favorite singing voice in the world – I should probably do what he wants me to do; do what he asks and push myself. I've never been confident in writing lyrics, it's just never been my strong suit, I gave up on that a long time ago, but he asked me to do it.
He wanted me over at his studio at 10 in the morning, and I was writing them at like 9:20, of course, which is classic me – put it off to the very last second, under pressure that's the only way I get things done, that's always been the case. I went over to his studio so we could work on it and he had me re-record all the vocals and sing the words. So this is a whole new world for me. And not only that, but I've got headphones on and I'm singing into a quiet room with Jónsi listening. I felt just a lot of pressure to do it well and not waste his time. So by the time I got home that evening I was just pooped; I was just worn out from pushing myself – but it was the best kind of pushing myself I've experienced in making my own solo music.
And then he tinkered around with and sent me the track, and he had he had put all those harmonies in. To hear that was just amazing and I could have curled up in a ball and just cried about it all day, because it was so surreal and awesome and it sounded so beautiful and I was just so happy and grateful in that moment, and still am every time I hear it.
Even when we made the music video a few weeks ago, just to hear it playing was so awesome. Anyway, I could go on and on and on about that, but it's pretty it's still a pretty mind blowing thing.
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Yeah, sounds like it. And let's go on to ‘Nod’, the collaboration with Jason – Nosaj Thing to me. Is this more like what a Nosaj Thing-produced album would be like, do you think?
That's definitely his vibe, as an electronic artist he makes beats for people, he's not singing on anything. I wanted his influence to be on it; amazingly beautifully produced music with amazing bass and beats and things like that, which is not what you think of when you think of my music. I wanted to expand the sound; I didn't want to reinvent the wheel with my own music, but I just wanted his expertise in the studio and his vibe to come through, and that's definitely what ‘Nod’ is.
I sent him some vocal loops I made and then I went over to his studio, just like I did with Jónsi, and played around with the keyboards and everything. Jason has this kind of amazing electronic music producer vibe and as we worked together it was just obvious to me that his voice was shining on the song, and that was really awesome. Especially because we connected years ago, he just got in touch randomly and he said that ‘The Magic Place’ was a very special record to him. So it was kind of a mix of all those connections. It definitely sounds like Jason to me for sure.
As you said before, a lot of times you can't even hear words in your songs – maybe one or two words. So do when you're singing those vocal parts do you have something in mind that you want to channel?
It's just sort of this visceral emotive improvisational process. It starts with complete improvisation, like within ‘Inspirit’, that was me messing around with my vocal pedal and that melody just came out of nowhere, and I just pressed record so I wouldn't lose it.
It’s kind of interesting how it just magically appears, and it's all rooted in emotion so it's very immediate. It's just right there in that moment, whatever comes through, whatever I'm feeling, whatever I'm thinking about, and there's really no altering it later; I’m not tinkering with lyrics or anything.
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And then when do the song titles come in?
That's always the last thing I do on any record. Literally, we'll be submitting the art for the record and I have to name the tracks, and I'll sit and do all of it in a day – or in an hour. Usually when it's time to name the tracks they go from ‘8.28’ or ‘9.30’ – which are dates – to ‘Oh Memory’ or ‘In Light’. I listen to the tracks and I'll think about what they sound like to me; sometimes I'll even use a thesaurus so instead of it being like ‘Victorious’ it's ‘Prizewinning’, or something like that. Just the feeling I get from the song and then I'll name it.
So I'm curious about ‘Flowers’ because that doesn't sound like flowers at all to me – it's quite dark.
I know, such a weird song, I love it. I thought I heard me say “flowers”, and then I thought that would be a cool thing to title the song, because flowers are so beautiful and delicate and the song is so kind of weird and crunchy and dark.
You have a desire to do some work on TV and film soundtracks, where does that come from?
I've been obsessed with soundtracks since I was a kid. I used to bring home soundtracks from the library and play them at home and teach them to myself on the piano.
I still know how to play some stuff that I taught myself when I was like seven-eight years old. I know how to play most of the music from Somewhere In Time, which is a really old movie that I have no idea why I was seven years old and that was like my favorite movie – that and ‘Yentl’ and ‘Some Kind of Wonderful’. It's kind of cute to think about, like, seven-eight year old me teaching myself soundtrack music on the piano; it just seems kind of destined that's what I would end up wanting to do.
I feel like that kind of music making is wholly different from how I make music for my solo records. It has those parameters I was talking about before, but also very much uses that instinctual response to emotion or visuals that comes in handy when I’m making my own music. So far I just scored a couple friends' shorts. That's my dream, and I'm still hoping that that comes together someday – and I think it will, eventually.
Yeah, I can totally picture it. We're in a golden age of TVs and movie scoring at the moment. Are there any particularly enjoy?
This is an older one, but Jon Brion’s music for Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind is incredible; I really want to teach myself those tracks – I've done it before, but I but then I won't play them for a while and I forget how to do it. Jóhann Jóhannsson’s stuff is very beautiful. Of course, Alex Somers is killing it right now with all of his soundtrack work he's doing – that's so awesome and exciting to see that happen with him, he is so talented.
I saw a screening of Dawson City: Frozen Time that he scored a few years ago, and, to me, Alex has a very unique specific sound and the music that he made for that movie was just so inventive, out of nowhere – not what I was expecting at all, which really impressed me.
It just showed that he has a real ability to come up with something totally new and not lean on the sounds he's used to making, which I thought was so impressive.
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'Healing Is A Miracle' is out now.
Words: Rob Hakimian
Photo Credit: Jen Medina
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