Solitude does not result in loneliness. Missouri singer-songwriter Julianna Barwick may be the master of embracing that. Best of all, she does it by feigning the strength of a chorus by wielding her own voice and layering it until the strength of a church choir appears to stand tall behind her.
Her newest full-length, Will, saw her alone in winter, forced to face her own isolation. Instead of falling down, weak, she churned out one of her strongest records to date. Sure, she worked alone on almost all of her prior records, but returning to that process wielded juicier fruits this time around. “With Nepenthe, I was always making music with someone, be it the producer or a string player,” she explains. “The difference between the two records is like going from having great company to complete isolation.”
Barwick traveled to studios all around the world for Will, hiding away in Lisbon’s sun or a desolate house in upstate New York. Since she records music on the spot—no demos in hand or lyrics penned down—when she steps into a studio, her soft, choral-based dream pop relies heavily on environment for directional cues. Improvisation leans on pulse and pulse leans on pull. Songs like “Nebula” reaped obvious benefits from her visit to North Carolina’s Moog factory. Others came to life with piano thanks to the Lisbon studio she holed up in. Opening number “St. Apolonia” even takes audio from an underpass near a local train station there of the same name. Environment is everything for Barwick’s music.
“I really don’t know any other way at this point,” she says, shrugging off the perception of nerves coming hand in hand. “It’s about settling in and tinkering with things. I definitely did that every day in Iceland. I had my own little hour or two of jamming and coming up with vocal loops. I hash a plan after listening to everything. It’s what comes naturally to me. Pouring over sheet music or agonizing over planning everything is not in my DNA. That feels like homework to me.”
A great deal of the record’s flavor comes from her decision to rope in other musicians this time around. Contributions from Mas Ysa in particular change up the feel of the album. “Of course, for Thom [of Mas Ysa], I had to give him some [lyrics] instead of just hollering for a while. I came up with lyrics pretty quick that we could sing together,” she says. “Each contributor fulfilled a fantasy I wanted to occur on the record. I have always wanted a cellist to play stuff, a drummer to rock out over a song, a male vocalist to sing, and it all kind of happened. It was exciting to hear those things finally appear on my own recordings.”
Live, she remaps her work so it can deliver similar improvisational feels. With keys, samples, loops, and more onstage, there’s a lot to manage, but she’s beginning to pick things up faster. Like the album’s title, she’s able to dodge literal interpretations by letting human will determine the intent behind tonal shifts. Julianna Barwick explores the low end of sound on Will, and the sonic feast she comes up with supplies enough fodder for listeners to be happily full of beauty and breath until the end of this summer, at minimum. That’s the type of comfort a creative success like hers can reach.
JULIANNA BARWICK + NAT BALDWIN (OF DIRTY PROJECTORS) + SKINNY BONES + ST. NOTHING. THU 4.28. MIDDLE EAST UPSTAIRS, 472 MASS. AVE., CAMBRIDGE. 8PM/18+/$12. MIDEASTOFFERS.COM.