Composer, vocalist, and producer Julianna Barwick crafts ethereal, largely wordless soundscapes built around layered loops of her voice. Inspired by her early years singing in rural church choirs, she begins most tracks with a single phrase or refrain, then uses a loop station and hints of other instrumentation to build her songs into intricate compositions with a powerful emotional impact. Barwick’s transcendent music draws comparisons to ambient legends like Brian Eno and Steve Reich, dream pop luminaries such as Sigur Rós and Cocteau Twins, conceptual artist Meredith Monk, and the soothing sounds of new age music, but the humanity in her approach is unique. She explores the intimate and vast aspects of her sound in continually fresh ways, from the relatively down-to-earth feel of 2011′s The Magic Place to 2013′s ambitious, polished Nepenthe. Though she added more elements and collaborators on albums such as 2020′s Healing Is a Miracle, Barwick’s music remained as distinctive as ever.
While growing up in Louisiana, Missouri, and Oklahoma, Barwick fell in love with vocals and the power of natural reverb, whether singing rounds in an a cappella church choir or by herself in a parking garage. Her other formative musical experiences included high school vocal lessons and listening to everything from pop and R&B like Whitney Houston and Lionel Richie to film scores (John Williams’ music for Empire of the Sun was a favorite) to alternative music icons like Björk and Tori Amos.
Barwick discovered experimental music after moving to New York, where she played DIY shows and recorded exploratory guitar pieces. However, her signature approach to making music began when a friend loaned her a looping guitar pedal in 2005. She used the pedal to record her self-released 2006 debut album Sanguine, which found her discovering the parameters of her sound. Following shows in Lisbon and London, Barwick graduated to using a full-fledged loop station for June 2009′s Florine EP, another self-released collection of tracks that embellished her vocals with touches of synth and piano. The growing praise for Barwick’s music led her to remix Radiohead’s “Reckoner” and sign a deal with Asthmatic Kitty. Recorded in a Brooklyn rehearsal space and named after a giant, hollowed-out tree trunk where she sang as a girl, February 2011′s The Magic Place presented a more refined and expansive version of her transfixing sound. In the wake of the album’s acclaim, Barwick issued that April’s Frkwys Vol. 6, a recording of an October 2010 live collaboration with Ikue Mori, and that October’s The Matrimony Remixes, a collection of Magic Place reworkings by Prince Rama, Diplo, Helado Negro’s Roberto Carlos Lange, and others. She continued to work on collaborative projects into 2012, appearing on Sharon Van Etten’s album Tramp and reuniting with Lange for their project Ombre, which released the album Believe You Me that August.
In 2013, Barwick returned to her solo career. She issued the Pacing seven-inch on Suicide Squeeze in March, and in August she released her third full-length Nepenthe on Dead Oceans. To make the album, she traveled to Reykjavík, Iceland to record at Sigur Rós’ studio Sundlaugin with producer Alex Somers, marking the beginning of a long-running friendship. Inspired by the death of a relative, Nepenthe’s sound was more musically and emotionally complex than Barwick’s previous work and featured the string ensemble Amiina as well as members of Múm and a young women’s choir. Like her previous releases, Nepenthe earned glowing reviews. Next came June 2014′s Rosabi EP, a collaboration with Dogfish Head Brewery that incorporated recordings of the brewery into its pieces. The following year, she performed alongside Philip Glass and Laurie Anderson at the Flaming Lips’ reimagining of Sgt. Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band at Carnegie Hall and played a pair of shows with Yoko Ono. Meanwhile, she recorded her fourth album in such distinct locations as Asheville, North Carolina; upstate New York; and Lisbon, Portugal. The results were 2016′s simpler and more grounded Will, which also featured Mas Ysa’s Thomas Arsenault, Dutch cellist Maarten Vos, and Chairlift drummer Jamie Ingalls.
After 16 years in New York, Barwick moved to Los Angeles in 2017. Her first project after relocating was a July 2019 performance in Lincoln, Massachusetts that was part of visual artist Doug Aitken’s nomadic art project New Horizon, which sent a mirrored hot air balloon across the state. That December, the RVNG Intl. imprint Commend There issued Circumstance Synthesis, Barwick’s AI-enhanced score for the lobby of New York’s Sister City hotel. Barwick moved to Ninja Tune for her next album, July 2020′s Healing Is a Miracle. Based on improvisations she made just for herself, the album’s pieces were created with studio monitors given to her as a gift by Somers and his partner, Sigur Rós’ Jónsi. Jónsi also contributed to the album, along with two more of Barwick’s longtime friends, harpist Mary Lattimore and producer Nosaj Thing. ~ Heather Phares