Originally published in The Local/The New York Times F
If Julianna Barwick’s singing style is reminiscent of a church choir, there’s a reason. Growing up in West Monroe, LA., Ms. Barwick attended church three times a week and her mother performed as part of a traveling Christian music group.
“Our whole entire congregation would sing,” Ms. Barwick, a recent transplant to Fort Greene from Greenpoint, said of her church experience. “But we would sing a cappella and with no instrumentation or anything. So it’s all like bare vocals, layers of harmonies and rounds and clapping.”
Ms. Barwick might have been describing her current approach to music. Her songs consist of layers of vocals with practically no lyrics and very little instrumental accompaniment. She uses a BOSS RC-50 loop station to achieve that sound, a machine that captures a vocal phrase that she sings, and then repeats it continuously while she sings a different phrase on top. It is this approach to creating music that defines her new album, “The Magic Place”, which she recorded in Brooklyn by herself.
Sitting at Roman’s on DeKalb Avenue on a late January afternoon, Ms. Barwick spoke about what inspired the way she makes music. Before she started looping, Ms. Barwick had played around with electric guitar and a four-track cassette machine. Then she borrowed a friend’s guitar pedal with a looping function.
“I haven’t felt that creative and inspired by the guitar and singing, and I couldn’t commit to lyrics,” she recalled. “It just felt ‘blah’ in a way. But when I started looping, and I could add layers and layers and come up with these crazy choral arrangements by myself, I was like, ‘I loved it.’”
With a guitar pedal, Ms. Barwick recorded her first album, “Sanguine” in 2006; she later purchased the loop station. “You can make three loops at a time with that, weave them in and out,” Ms. Barwick explained. ‘That is how I perform and record is with that thing, because all the loops are stored as WAV files. My recordings changed because I can have a loop going and bring another one in. It would be synced up and I could fade them in and out. That’s how it progressed.”
For Ms. Barwick, songs start out by just “plugging everything in and messing around,” as she put it. “I just start singing. It’s more about the sound of it than the words. Plus, I have a real phobia or problem with lyrics for myself. I can’t commit to lyrics. It’s not that I don’t think about it. It just comes out that way.”
On stage, it is just Ms. Barwick and her loop station, as was the case during her performance at the Mercury Lounge last month. During the concert, she sang into a microphone that she held with one hand and touched the loop station’s buttons and dials with the other. “I’m not thinking about anything,” she said about performing. “You just get in that zone and your just doing your thing, not really aware of anything.”
In October 2007, Ms. Barwick performed several shows in London and Lisbon. Since then, Ms. Barwick has toured with other acts, most recently Sharon Van Etten and The Ghost of a Sabertooth Tiger, and is planning to do more shows this year, including an appearance at South By Southwest next month. Her music has been mentioned in various media outlets such as Pitchfork and National Public Radio. A New York Times review of her CMJ show in October 2009 carried the headline “Meet the New Enya” — a reference to the Irish vocalist whose multilayered vocals are similar to Ms. Barwick’s. “I did get an email from the Enya fan club the next day in like France or whatever,” Ms. Barwick said with a laugh. “It’s funny because we had every single Enya record at home growing up.”
“It’s hard to pinpoint where all this came from,” she added. “I did this weird thing when I was a kid where I’m singing and I get all emotional by myself. It’s really visceral. I don’t feel that I’ve been inspired by certain musicians. I feel like I’ve been more informed by the way we sing in church.”
Ms. Barwick later recalled a church she attended as a child. “The auditorium had this cavernous amazing ricochet reverb. So I was totally in love with that. It’s a beautiful sound. [Like how] you see something beautiful in concert and you’re moved to tears. It’s the same thing.”