Versatile Beauty

With current tour, Julianna Barwick takes her acclaimed ambient sound from bars to synagogues

click to enlarge Julianna Barwick (Photo: Shawn Brackbill)
Julianna Barwick (Photo: Shawn Brackbill)


ulianna Barwick, whose music consists of ethereal and largely wordless vocals looped and otherwise layered to achieve a haunting choral effect as she plays keyboards, has booked some unusual venues for the tour that brings her to Cincinnati this week. 

On her touring itinerary are museums and arts centers in Pittsburgh and Atlanta, churches in Philadelphia and Brooklyn, N.Y., a synagogue in Washington, D.C., a bookstore/coffeehouse in Alabama and, here, Over-the-Rhine’s busy MOTR Pub, which never charges a cover. (There are other bars/clubs on her tour, too.)

This raises a question. Her music, which is experimental and ambient but also within a tradition of introspective Dream Pop and Rock that includes Cocteau Twins and contemporary Icelandic performers, needs a quiet setting to be effective. Synagogues might actually make more sense than bars.

But she’s not worried about her Cincinnati date. She sought out MOTR and other bars/clubs.

“I’m going to be playing essentially the same show in different places, but it’s going to feel different,” she says by phone from her Brooklyn home. “I wanted more interesting places to play that are off the beaten path, rather than just go to one medium-size Rock club after the next. I’m really excited to play in some of these places.”

But can she keep a crowd’s attention in a usually boisterous pub? She’s the headliner at MOTR and will go on after opening act Vasillus’ 10 p.m. set.

“I don’t know — it just happens,” she says. “I just usually get pretty lucky in that way. More so now than in the past, because now people are coming to see the show because they love the latest record (2013’s Nepenthe) and will be paying attention maybe more than when I first started out. I usually get respectful, nice crowds of people at my show.”

Anyone who saw her open for Sigur Rós at Cincinnati’s PNC Pavilion in September knows that to be the case. You could hear a pin drop at the outdoor “shed” venue. In fact, quite a few audience members stood near the stage and intently watched her, not an uncommon occurrence when she performs.

“It’s quieter and very personal music — maybe that’s what draws people,” she says. “Maybe people haven’t seen someone perform the way I do, where I’m looping and layering and playing keys at the same time. It’s a little different than the average performance. Hopefully, people just think it sounds beautiful.”

On this tour, she handles everything herself. She has a new Nord Electro 4 keyboard, a sampler and a microphone that feeds her voice into an effects pedal to get a reverb sound that then goes into a looping station.

Barwick self-produced/self-released her first EP in 2006. She has gone on to make two additional solo albums and several collaborative projects. The new Nepenthe, for the Dead Oceans label, was recorded at Sigur Rós’ Icelandic studio with Alex Somers, who has worked with that band and its singer Jonsi. The album judicially uses a string ensemble, a guitarist and a choir of teenage girls to supplement her voice. There are even snatches of discernable lyrics, though their effect is tone-poem-like.

It’s been a fast career trajectory for Barwick, who was born in Louisiana and raised as a church youth minister’s daughter in Missouri.

“The churches had cavernous auditoriums,” she says. “That’s why they sounded so reverberant. I would sing in the auditorium by myself as a kid all the time with that sound. I just loved it. That’s why I still make music with my vocals to have that kind of effect. I can’t imagine singing just dry.”

At the church in Springfield, Mo., where her father worked, the entire congregation would sing at services.

“The sound of all the voices of the people a capella in those reverberant places made me feel so much emotion,” she says. “It almost sounded sorrowful, but the effect was of feeling something deeply. It was about being overcome by love or devotion. I got really swept up in that. When I make music now, that same feeling happens and that’s when I know I’ve tapped into something.”

While Barwick was inspired by group singing, she has chosen to be the group, herself, rather than join one.

“That was kind of happenstance more than anything,” she says. “I messed around with recording stuff from the time I was a teenager and had a guitar and could play piano. It wasn’t until I started playing around with a guitar pedal that could loop that I realized I could quickly make a piece of music.

“And I was always obsessed with harmonizing with myself. It was so much fun to create things on the spot and create something quick. I didn’t anticipate falling in love with making music like that, but I did.”

Despite the family background, Barwick doesn’t see her music as religious.

“It’s personal and emotional,” she says. “There are no religious overtones. I think in a way it could fit into all kinds of categories. It is experimental on a level. Any kind of improvisational music can fall into that category. A lot of people think it’s ambient. I’ve heard it classified as Classical because it’s almost like choral music.”

Now that she has recorded with others and introduced outside elements into her recorded music, she’s unsure what might happen next.

“I have no idea,” she says. “I didn’t even really think I would collaborate with people a few years ago. I can see myself making another record completely on my own, bedroom-style. And I could see working with Alex again. Now that I’ve seen both sides of what’s done, I would do it either way again.” 

JULIANNA BARWICK performs a free show Friday, Feb. 7 at Over-the-Rhine's MOTR Pub. Details here .

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