Julianna Barwick is driving her father's van from Tulsa to Indianapolis to begin a tour. After spending a few days with her family, she's alone again. This is a familiar feeling for Barwick, a singer who uses a looping device to turn her voice into a chorus of one.
The first time I spoke with Barwick, she was touring her breakthrough 2011 album The Magic Place, on which she had begun to augment her digitally processed a cappella music with traces of piano, bass and drums. At the time, she claimed that collaboration wasn't something that particularly interested her. The mode suited neither her past nor her process.
"I borrowed a friend's guitar pedal, which had a looping setting, and I fell in love with it because I could make music so quickly and freely," she says. "My solo records always start with an improv session, and everything gets dreamt up after that. We've got these building blocks; what should be the next thing? I just try to make the most beautiful music that I can."
Not long after that first talk, her aversion to working with others changed. Recent times have seen Barwick opening up, more and more, to collaboration on an ever-grander scale, but without sacrificing the intuitive underpinnings of her style, where layers of harmony rise to cathedral-like proportions.
First, Barwick collaborated with Ikue Mori, an experimental musician associated with the No Wave movement. "The project sounded extremely cool and un-miss-able," Barwick says. "It wasn't too intimidating because we were going to be improvising, so there was no pressure to write something and execute it."
Believe You Me, with Asthmatic Kitty label-mate Helado Negro under the name OMBRE, soon followed. That less hermetic spirit infiltrated Barwick's next and most recent solo album, Nepenthe. She flew to Sigur Rs' studio in Reykjavik to work with producer Alex Somers. The record also features the string ensemble Amiina and an all-female teenage choir. The broadening scope of the personnel shows in the record's fuller, more polished sound. In ancient Greek mythology, "nepenthe" is a drug of forgetfulness, used to assuage sadness. This title perfectly evokes the music, which sounds like sorrow dissolving into a blissful oblivion.
"That was the ultimate collaboration for me," she says. "I never had anyone having eyes or ears on me making a solo record before, and I think those other collaborations prepared me for having a producer."
For Nepenthe, Barwick moved from Asthmatic Kitty to Dead Oceans, a label with a wider commercial reach. Now, she often has to make her music fill out larger amphitheaters—to wit, she recently opened for Sigur Rs on a string of dates.
"I really can't think about it too much," she says of those bigger spaces. "Of course, environment matters and has a mental effect on me, but you get to the place where you can do your show regardless, because you have to. I played my first big festival at Pitchfork in 2011. Up to that point, I didn't even use monitors—I used the room. That was the start of having to adjust."
Barwick has recently ventured into another new cultural sphere—the world of indie-classical music, working with the likes of New York composer Judd Greenstein and the chamber ensemble yMusic. New Amsterdam Records, Greenstein's label, paired her with an 80-piece children's choir and yMusic to perform Nepenthe in its entirety in Indianapolis. "It was insane," she says. "I kept having to pinch myself afterward: 80 kids were singing 'The Harbinger' and yMusic was playing with us; did that really happen?"
Now, under the auspices of Greenstein, Barwick is even shaking her aversion to composition. She's working on a concert with the Brooklyn Youth Chorus that will premiere in June. "I'm writing a couple new pieces for them to sing without me, and having a copyist help me figure out a couple for them to sing with me," she says. "Things have taken that turn this year, and it's a whole new world for me that's just dreamlike."
Though Barwick is again touring solo, she brings a large palette to augment her vocal loops: keys, samples, prerecorded atmospheric sounds, even guitar. A dedicated improviser, she's nevertheless careful to recreate her recorded music live.
"I want people to hear the songs they like," she explains, "because that's what I like when I go to shows. But there's always room to mess around a little bit, which is a lifesaver when you're doing a show every night for months."
Barwick's music is rooted in the hymns she sang in church as a child. "I love that timeless sound of people singing together without instrumentation," she says. "It's so powerful and emotional. Every culture in the world has done it for centuries. That's what I took away from the hymns I sang when I was young, which could be deeply mournful at times, being sung by a group of 100 or more people in a giant, reverberant space."
After learning to create that massed sound by herself, she's bringing it full-circle, back to the realm of human communion.
This article appeared in print with the headline "Out of One, Many."