In the Loop: Julianna Barwick reveals Nepenthe

Her acclaimed second album The Magic Place made Julianna Barwick's haunting, looped vocals the go-to comfort for long, lonely summer nights. She returns this month with the lighter but no less beguiling Nepenthe

Feature by Sam Lewis | 07 Aug 2013

Julianna Barwick’s first experience of a capella singing was in church, in the American South where she grew up. “My dad was youth minister,” she explains to The Skinny outside London’s Southbank Centre, where tonight she'll perform as part of Yoko Ono’s Meltdown festival. “Our congregation would sing together. It was two decades of growing up, two or three times a week singing with people in a room with no accompaniment. I was always singing.”

Years later, in Brooklyn, she began experimenting with recording vocal loops on “this little pedal. I was just trying stuff out, it was more about the sound, making these crazy, choral, experimental little pieces. It wasn’t about any message, just about the sound of it, and it still is.”

Barwick's music lies somewhere between that of Grouper and Enya (hang on, come back!), both otherworldly and new-agey, each track layering abstract vocal loops in joyous – and occasionally melancholy – union. Her 2011 album, The Magic Place, was named in honour of the farm where she was raised, and she describes her upbringing in Louisiana and Oklahoma as “super mellow. Slow paced, easy going, pretty much the antithesis of New York. Hazy, sunny, summer days.” This haziness passes over into her music; a world of repeating cycles and drifting harmonies. “I like things that repeat,” she says. “When I started making loops, it just became addictive.”

“It's not about any message, just about the sound of it” – Julianna Barwick

Ten years after seeing Sigur Rós play in 2002 – an experience she describes as “still one of the best concerts I've ever seen; I couldn't get it out of my system for days, I couldn't even talk afterwards” – she found herself fielding a call from producer Alex Somers, one half of the Sigur Rós side project Jónsi & Alex, asking if she’d like to record with him in Iceland at the band’s Sundlaugin studio, built into an abandoned swimming pool. The intensity of the process led Barwick to the title of her third and forthcoming album, Nepenthe; an ancient Greek word that describes a ‘drug of forgetfulness’. “Part of the recording process was really heavy,” she recalls. “I mean, it was glorious – I was in Iceland, I was with great people – but some of the time I felt really isolated. It was cold. I just liked the idea of something that could be used to make all of that go away. Feeling alone, and the heaviness of some of the process.”

Nepenthe was written and recorded during two trips to Iceland, one of which was cut short due to a family bereavement. “The second time I was alone, for five or six weeks,” she explains. “It was a long time. I was thinking about some pretty heavy things when I was there. It all worked together to be pretty powerful and intense.” But despite its dark context, the record makes, like Barwick’s previous work, for an uplifting experience. Featuring members of Múm and Amiina, it has more shades of light than dark. Does purely vocal music – be it choral singing, or singing alone at home – tend towards catharsis? “It always does, that’s what it is,” she insists. “That’s how I feel every time I make music. Even when the feeling of the music is coming from a sorrowful, sad place, I still love to make beautiful music. My favourite musical combination is sad and pretty. But I guess it doesn’t always have to be sad, it can just be pretty.”

Julianna Barwick plays St Giles Church, London, 29 Aug, and End of the Road, Larmer Tree Gardens, Dorset, 1 Sep

Nepenthe is released on 20 Aug via Dead Oceans