Julianna Barwick’s ambient vocal music evokes particular physical places. If her debut, 2011’s The Magic Place, suggested a forest of ritual power, and its follow-up, Nepenthe, a glacial wonderland, Will, her latest record, is a labyrinthine mansion, with dust covering every room and floating through sun rays. There is less of an organic quality to this album than on her previous two; it’s as though she’s retreated inside to explore the mystery of a familiar home, rather than the foreign natural beauty of ice and trees.
As a child, Barwick explains, she was attracted to “reverberant spaces, where I could sing for the love of it” — places like parking garages and churches, which she says felt gargantuan to her. But Will is the result of small ones, rather than the open landscapes suggested in her earlier work. Perhaps this is a result of how it was recorded — on a laptop, with a microphone on loan from a friend, in three different locations: Lisbon; the Moog Factory in Asheville, North Carolina; and house in upstate New York, where she cocooned herself during a particularly harsh winter.
Tying these disparate spaces together was possible because Barwick has a gift for creating exactly the kind of music she wants to make. In an era where ornateness is the rule in electronic music, Barwick stands alone by using her voice as her primary, and often sole, instrument. She loops and sustains it over and over, molding her utterances like clay into airy a capella compositions. “When I [first] got my hands on a loop pedal, it was a huge click,” she says. “It sounded really unique and came totally naturally to me.”
Barwick rarely sings in intelligible words, not because she’s a contrarian when it comes to musical technique, but because, as she says, “it’s just what [comes to me]. I’m just not the most literal person.” Her music, like the Cocteau Twins before her, relies on communicating the purity of emotion. “When you hear something that is sorrowful or joyful, it comes across, whether or not you figure out the cause of that emotional reaction.”
Will is a tapestry of these feelings. Its power lies in Barwick’s carefully crafted sensory starting points and the spaces she leaves between them for a listener to fill. Despite her commitment to producing minimalist work, her dynamic range and piercing voice prevent her music from fading into the walls. She asks us to listen actively and draw our own conclusions, and she enjoys knowing that her audience can make it their own, too. Although she reports being a fan of Sigur Rós, Drake, and Whitney Houston, she insists that pop music doesn’t inform the creation of her own work.
The album’s opener, “St. Apolonia,” begins with the sound of waves crashing, her voice sailing over the crests. When a cello rolls in, it’s as though a home is appearing through the fog. She shifts then to “Nebula,” far more grounded than its title would suggest: The song’s trajectory feels like wandering through the hallways of Versailles, its mirrors reflecting back her voice onto itself, with tendrils of keyboards running throughout. “See, Know” is a triumphant homecoming march with tight snares and commanding synth arpeggios, Odysseus seeing his house for the first time after his tempestuous journey. But for all of the faraway places that Barwick’s music goes to, Will carefully projects her voice into the forefront, without losing her heavenly quality. Whether she’s singing breathy arias or just looping herself over a comforting piano, like in “Heading Home,” her voice is an outstretched hand guiding listeners through these remote spaces.
“I like to keep everything a little more veiled, more buried,” she explains. But the spirit of fun and freedom is one in the same: “I want people to enjoy listening to my music — even if it is open for interpretation.”