Julianna Barwick makes beautiful, genre-defying music that doesn’t impose much on its listeners. Take her 2013 album Nepenthe: It was massive and spacious enough to fill either a temple or valley, but not specific enough to favor one setting over another. In the past few years, Barwick has grown more concrete about the setting of many of her songs.
On her Rosabi EP from 2014, she recorded her signature choral-based vocal parts over the mechanical hums and clanks of brewing her own beer at Dogfish Head in Delaware. And on her latest, Will, she recorded vocal parts in an underpass near a train station in Lisbon, Portugal, on the track “St. Apolonia.” The meanings of these songs remain ever inscrutable, even if the sounds become increasingly recognizable.
This new album is much more concerned with sense of place than were her previous efforts. In many ways, it’s a product of restlessness — she recorded in an upstate New York cabin for a week, spent two weeks at the Moog Factory in Asheville, N.C. and another several weeks in Lisbon. To the casual listener, it might not be too obvious which songs were recorded in which locale, aside from the Moog tracks and “St. Apolonia.”
On Nepenthe, Barwick’s main musical fantasy was to have her mother sing on the record. Since she categorizes Will as a somewhat scatter-brained album, she set out with even more goals this time around. “This record was kind of so all over the place and didn’t have any kind of centered zone of creation, and I just decided to incorporate all my secret musical wishes,” Barwick says. Those wishes: cello, featured male vocals on multiple tracks (tour opener Mas Ysa) and having a drummer “rock out.”
Even if Will is a comparatively intimate work that toys with new instrumental flourishes, Barwick’s stream-of-consciousness approach hasn’t changed much over the years. Most every song begins with an unintelligible vocal loop, and the piano parts follow underneath. “It’s usually just me sitting down with my gear or at the piano and playing whatever comes into my head, which is what I’ve always done since I was a tiny kid,” Barwick says. “Just making stuff up as I go and seeing what sticks.”
Barwick’s freewheeling creative process mirrors the limitless opportunity for the listener to write meaning onto her songs. By keeping most every lyric out of clear hearing range, Barwick keeps her music widely open for interpretation. The emotions are meant to be malleable: Based on your feelings on a given day, you can hear mourning, triumph and serenity on these songs — and sometimes all at once.
“It’s very freeing, I think, for people to be able to tap into something emotionally, that they’re not being told a story or a narrative,” Barwick says. “I love to experience that myself and listen to music — even if I don’t understand the language, I can feel it.”