It’s a brutally icy winter’s night, and Julianna Barwick is singing solo amid a cluster of trees. Unfortunately, they’re fake plastic trees arranged around the stage at a pop-up art space sponsored by a liquor company. And we can only assume Barwick is singing, as the crowd, fueled by free libations from said sponsor, is generating an impenetrable din. But ever so slowly, an otherworldly sound can be gleaned amid the drunken chatter. Gentle gossamer vocal melodies waft up and take form, a wordless beauty seemingly distilled from such chaos. Strain, and you can just make out her voice-based sound-world.
“When I’m in a noisy club, there’s definitely something lost in translation there,” Barwick says much later, sipping on a latté, her towering frame now folded into a wooden booth in South Brooklyn. “To be honest, for what I do, I’m surprised that I can play all these clubs. I feel lucky that there are always people who are paying attention and into it.” Tangentially, what she does is sing at the volume one would use to comfort a colicky baby, before diverting her vocals through a loop station and copious amounts of reverb to create innumerable layers. She sings the way Julee Cruise does: moving beyond language to instead weave pink clouds, paint scarcely glimpsed heavenly vistas, and infuse dim childhood memories with golden light.
The Magic Place, Barwick’s first release on Asthmatic Kitty (after two self-released albums), trails a dreamlike reverie across its 45 minutes. It begins with the title track, harkening back to her childhood home in Springfield, Missouri, and a peculiar tree on that wild land. “It was a bodark,” she recalls of the tree that drops alien-like green oranges colloquially referred to as “horse apples.” “But this one was extraordinarily huge, much larger than normal, its branches all up, over, and around. So as a nine-year-old crawling around in there, it was all enclosed and fairy-tale-like. My heart would leap with wonder when I was inside its boughs.”
Born in Louisiana, Barwick’s father was a youth minister for the Church of Christ (“You can’t go two miles in Louisiana without seeing a CoC parish”), and the family was itinerant in the South throughout her upbringing. At every stop along the way, Barwick sang in church. “Not in choir,” she clarifies, “but just in congregation three times a week. It was all a cappella, with no instruments of any kind. I was always singing like that.” Nearly 10 years ago, she left Oklahoma for New York City and began to play music with friends. “I would just make everything up, as I couldn’t commit to lyrics,” she confesses. She would then go home and attempt to write some, only “every time I tried to write and sing, it felt cheesy.”
It was after a friend lent her a Boss DD-20 Giga Delay guitar pedal that Barwick holed up in her Greenpoint apartment and began to experiment intently with these improvised vocal melodies of hers. The Magic Place has the slightest traces of upright piano, snare, and bells in the background, but the emphasis remains on her voice, the choir that she conjures out of herself. This year, she has shared the stage with the likes of Sharon Van Etten, St. Vincent, and Sean Lennon’s band the Ghost of a Saber Tooth Tiger; she also has a forthcoming release with No Wave legend Ikue Mori. But no matter the stage, Barwick still recalls that one church auditorium in Springfield with its natural acoustics: “You could just utter, ‘Ahhhh,’ and it would keep going for a million years.” In The Magic Place, such echoes still resound.