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Destined: Julianna Barwick

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Dusted’s Ben Tausig profiles Brooklyn experimental vocalist and Destined selection Julianna Barwick.

Destined: Julianna Barwick

  • Download “Untitled 4” by Julianna Barwick

    The voice is always both meaningful and meaningless. Meaningful because it speaks in many codes – language, inflection, ideals of identity like femininity, youth, and soul. Meaningless because, as a materiality, it conveys each of these dumbly. The voice is the truck, not the cargo, let’s say.

    But every musician has to stock the truck with something. These contents may be solid, liquid, or gas. They may be loaded in neat stacks, or arranged deliberately so that they shift or turn to vinegar in transit.

    Today in indie rock there so happens to be an active trade in volatile materials. Panda Bear, Deerhoof, Ponytail, etc. – each of whose vocals are meant to produce strong visceral effects, evoking hallucination, sugar high, and the ecstasy of performance, respectively. For these effects to occur, the cargo must be liquid, so it can be drunk, and free-flowing, so it can spill. The contents of these artists’ voices are expressions that can induce, among other things, confusion and pleasure, which are by nature breakdowns in language.

    Add to the list of adherents to this approach Brooklyn’s Julianna Barwick, vocal improviser. Born in Louisiana, formerly of Oklahoma, Barwick played to consistent acclaim in New York City last year (Cakeshop, Glasslands, Mercury Lounge, etc.) in addition to releasing her first record, Sanguine. Her pieces feature accumulations of looped vocal samples, including short melodies, single notes, quasi-intelligible phrases, and trilling whistles, along with an occasional dash of guitar or piano. The relationship between the different samples tends to be harmonic and pretty, and the development of a track is usually limited to a minute or two at most. Her songs are small, even vignettes, although they suggest cavernous spaces.

    Says Barwick: “Singing without words is something I’ve always done, I just kind of make up my own language in a way. I remember doing that when I was a kid very clearly, even singing along to the Dallas TV show theme or something, singing along in a made-up language. It’s not that I’m against making songs with words, but with the way I started making music when I was recording the songs from Sanguine, in a looping style, it was most comfortable for me to just sing whatever popped into my head, and concentrate on the sound most of all … some of my favorite music is in a language I don’t understand, so the sound of the music draws me in more than anything. Like with Sigur Ros, or like with an Italian aria like O mio babbino caro.”

    A strong emphasis on sound as sound tends to draw out critical references to the ineffable, the sublime, the mysterious, or the spiritual – to domains beyond meaning – as it often has in press about Barwick. This is especially so because she sang in a church as a child, and maintains an affinity for choral singing. But it isn’t actually an effort at transcendence at work in her music. Rather, Barwick, like anyone who’s ever been drawn to the sensation of being “drenched” in echo and delay, plays with space as a tool for inviting accidents, for submitting one’s actions to the vicissitudes of environment, and for reincorporating the results into composition.

    As she explains, “space shaped what I love about a particular sound – heavy reverb. very heavy, or with echo. I think I fell in love with that sound when I was a kid, and spending a lot of time alone in a huge auditorium in the church we went to. I loved to sing in there. And from there parking garages, stairwells, bathrooms – whatever – anywhere that created that sound when I sang, was a place I went to often. The feeling I get when I sing in places like that is sort of remarkable – like a specific kind of giddiness mixed with a strange heaviness, not quite sadness. I try and create that sound with effects pedals, artificially expand the space I’m in. I don’t like to sing without it. Singing ‘dry’ is pretty weird and uncomfortable for me.”

    Barwick plays Wednesday, March 5th, at the Bell House in Brooklyn.

    By Ben Tausig

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