The ambient songwriter delights in solitary work, but isn't afraid to open up
Julianna Barwick would sit in the pews at church three times a week, listening to the choir as it layered harmony upon harmony, building into big moments but highlighting small, quiet reflections with precision. Barwick, originally from West Monroe, was captivated by the swirl of voices and sounds that created an acoustic experience that would stay with her as she grew older — so much so that it became her mission as a musician to reproduce that spiritual wonder and reproduce it alone. She plays a free show Friday at Tulane's Quad.
Barwick is a solitary force among the modern ambient music genre. Her success is minimal from a mainstream perspective, but there's no doubt followers of indie music blogs know Barwick as the ambient artist who ruled in 2013. It wouldn't be right to say she's reached that level without any help, but her process is purposefully introverted, and her musical expression intensely personal. Barwick says her recording process is simple and improvisational as she experiments with looping her voice repeatedly, throwing in what feels right until it's done. Her second album Nepenthe was entirely recorded in Iceland with almost no pre-writing. The process isn't logical or pragmatic, Barwick admits, but it's a direct representation of the mood she's in when she makes the music. "It's created with no forethought or intention," she says. "It's purely visceral."
The product is something quite like a church choir, but so deeply intricate that it sounds like nothing else at the same time. It's usually amorphous, but Barwick's layers are complemented with simple, warming chords, and the effect is unexpectedly refreshing and affirming. Barwick's songs are rooms that contain her most personal belongings — thoughts, feelings, cathartic moments. Still, Nepenthe is ambiguous enough to offer a blank slate to its listeners. Ambient music can be a difficult genre to approach, but Barwick's brand is inviting and precise, a sign of the relentless self-expression her process requires. It's not music to soundtrack a road trip or accompany a run on a pretty day. It's one of those records that asks you to just close your eyes, and offers in return everything Barwick has: Her moods, her anxiety, and her release, all stirring in the vast spaces her music forms.
Nepenthe is a one woman show, but it was created with one other person who joined Barwick on her journey to Iceland — producer Alex Somers. She has toured by herself, and Barwick bravely traveled by herself to Europe to play shows she arranged with no one else to support her but strangers she met along the way. "Ever since that trip, I fell completely in love with making music," she says. She continued to trudge through tours with only her looping rig by her side, but she added a guitar player after Nepenthe, which requires a bit more instrumentation on stage.
"I delight in doing things by myself," Barwick says, then quickly adds "and with other people."
Barwick will play Mud and Water in Baton Rouge on Saturday