After more than a decade of heavy rotation in the online circuit and shows at festivals and venues across the country, Julianna Barwick is no longer a rising star in independent music. Instead, her multi-layered wordless vocals and penchant for misty sonic loops have become signifiers of a contemporary milieu, one that transcends era and the limitations of any one scene.
On July 20 she’ll return to Dallas with harpist Mary Lattimore to perform for “Til Midnight,” a series in the Nasher’s sculpture garden. The series couples national and regional talent with film screenings—the children’s fantasy The Neverending Story will follow Barwick and Lattimore—and this program is sure to cut through the heavy July heat with a cool, calming sensation. I spoke with Barwick via email to get some more details on the upcoming show, and to consider how indie music has shifted since her career started in the late 2000s.
You’ve mentioned before that you sang in a church choir when you were younger, yet have performed mostly alone on stage. Can you tell us a little bit about this performance with Mary Lattimore?
JB: I sang with the congregation in church — a cappella — in reverberant auditoriums, hence my love of reverb. But all of that can be artificially created with machines and pedals. And I can do [it] all on my own. That’s what really drew me in to looping in the first place. I could make a lush, unexpected, and unique sound all on my own. I guess electricity is my main ally.
Mary and I are great friends and have been fangirls of each other’s music for many years. An opportunity came along for us to perform together and we jumped at the chance and built a tour around it. We have played together onstage many times but usually just for a couple songs. So an entire set where we can kind of come in and out of each other’s musical and emotional worlds is very exciting.
I saw that you did a Daytrotter session in 2008, the early years. You’re also a favorite of Dallas’ own legacy indie music blog, Gorilla vs Bear. Have you noticed any changes in the cultural significance that blogs hold over the past 10 years?
JB: Wow, Daytrotter! That was a crazy scene. It was about 8 degrees in Chicago and I drove over to do the session and on the way back drove through a whiteout! I still check my favorite blogs; Pitchfork, Gorilla, Stereogum, Brooklynvegan. They’re a great way to stay on top of new stuff. The main shift I’ve seen in that the ‘indieness’ of them has leaned farther and farther into the mainstream via new ownership and corporate sponsors, which I guess is inevitable.
I recently watched your Blogotheque Take Away performance where you sang “The Harbinger” on a lakeshore in Iceland. I really adored that video series in the early blog era. Do you find interesting challenges or connections to your voice while performing in unique locations?
JB: I love the [Blogotheque] Take Away shows Derrick Belcham and I captured during my recording of [2013 album] Nepenthe. The emotion (and temperature!) of the environment was beautifully captured. The voice is such a mirror for what is happening in your heart, what you’re taking in. My time in Iceland was so heavy and jubilant all at once. I think it’s reflected in the sound of the record. But when I’m singing in a marble hall in a train station in Lisbon, it’s a little more sunny. I used to make all of my music in my bedroom in Brooklyn. Once [musician and Sigur Ros collaborator] Alex Somers brought me to Iceland to make a record I realized the immense power an environment can have on your creation and sound — particularly when your voice is your main instrument.
Other artists for this series at the Nasher have considered the environment of the sculpture garden, or the sculpture itself, when developing their performances. How does it feel to be doing a show like this at a museum, rather than a venue dedicated exclusively to music?
JB: I think that speaks again to environment in a sense, being reverent to your surroundings. I have always loved to perform in settings not specifically made for music performance. It kind of makes it a little more oddball and keeps you on your toes. (For instance when I performed in the Philip Johnson glass house or a crypt in a cathedral in Paris). You can feel the souls of the artists that have inhabited, created, worshipped, or performed there previously and it’s a moving experience that’s reflected in the performance. (In my humble opinion!)
Among musicians manipulating the qualities of sound, such as yourself, there is sometimes a desire to work with engineers or artisans to forge the tools that meet the specifications of the musician. For instance, Clara Rockmore worked with Robert Moog to design theremins for her performances. Would you ever work with technicians to tool vocal instruments to your liking? Has that crossed your mind?
JB: I mean that would be awesome! The opportunity hasn’t presented itself yet. The closest I have come to that was a session at Soundtoys where they set up a glorious station of plug-ins and giant plate reverbs. That session can be seen here! Beyond that I would love to work with artists to create new instruments and effects–that would be incredibly fun. Maybe it’ll happen one day.
This interview was edited for brevity and clarity. Julianna Barwick and Mary Lattimore perform for the ‘Til Midnight series in the garden of the Nasher Sculpture Center on July 20. Admission is free. More details can be found here.