Interview: Julianna Barwick wills magic for Melbourne Music Week

American electronic-musician Julianna Barwick has been taken far-and-wide thanks to her music. At the time of the interview, a tired and jet-lagged Barwick is in Berlin, awaiting a flight to Barcelona. “I can’t wait to see what my brain feels like when I’m in Australia,” she laughs.

Live and on record, Barwick’s experimental choral-music billows lushness, blooming to fill wherever it’s played. Barwick will do the same at St Paul’s Cathedral for Melbourne Music Week, the first time the 126-year-old cathedral has been used as a performance venue.

“I’ve performed at a few cathedrals,” says Barwick. “It’s a very special when it does happen. It’s just a very reverent feeling, and it usually sounds really good, too. Really good memories made in those kinds of places, so I’m extremely excited. Of course, I’ve googled it and looked at it, and it looks amazing.”

Music has always been a part of Barwick’s life, with her surrounding environment often being an influence. Her first taste of music came as a church-going child in Louisiana, growing-up with a preacher father.

“I think it’s ingrained at this point – really reverberant vocals and layers of harmonies – from an entire childhood of singing in choirs at school, then singing lessons, then being in a chorus singing acapella with a congregation in church my whole life. I’ve been singing like that for my entire childhood, and really was drawn to that kind of music in the world.”

As Barwick grew, so did the desire to create her own music.

“I fiddled around with trying to make my own music, but I was mostly bored by it,” she says. “Then, my friend let me borrow his little guitar delay-pedal that had a looping feature on it. I started playing around with that and was just instantly hooked. I finally found a means in which to express myself and make something in the moment because I’ve never been very good at sitting down and composing music. It just hit all the spots and really made me excited about making music when I was stuck and not very enthused. It changed everything, and everything just developed from there.”

Using her voice, those delay pedals, and a sampler, Barwick recorded her 2011 debut album The Magic Place, named after a tree on her family’s farm that was big enough to crawl in to. Each of her albums have seen a progression in style, with her 2013 album Nepenthe, recorded in Iceland with Sigur Ros producer Alex Somers, featuring more piano. Her most recent album, 2016’s Will, saw Barwick working alone again, but further filling out her sound with more electronics and including lyrics, a first for her.

“I had Tom from Mas Ysa sing on it, and I couldn’t just tell him to make sounds, so I had to come up with some things to say,” she says. “And then Moog asked me if I wanted to record at their sound lab in Asheville, North Carolina while I was working on Will, so I was working there and had access to all their goodies. And that’s how the Moog Mother-32 ended up on two tracks, and now I perform with it and a little digital delay pedal.”

The new additions to Barwick’s live set-up are a major leap compared to when she began performing, sitting on the floor with microphones and her looper pedal. But every new progression in her music has led to albums filled with extraordinary results. Of course, broadening her sound means more work on stage, an exciting prospect for her.

“I kind of like to have a lot going on onstage. And I don’t have a laptop or anything, so everything is made [live onstage]. Every loop is brand new, and every sequence on the Mother-32 is new, so there’s a lot going on, and a lot can go wrong,” she laughs. “It’s kind of a fun balancing-act, and I really like how it makes [my songs] sound a lot more full and dynamic with all the different elements.”

One of the joys of a Julianna Barwick performance is hearing how she’ll reinterpret her own songs. Barwick is an intuitive musician, with her feelings and environment dictating the direction her performances will take. St Paul’s Cathedral will surely provide a grand inspiration, and the opportunities exciting Barwick.

“One night I could go play a song, depending on how I’m feeling, for eight-minutes, and the next night play it completely differently and play it for three-minutes. I’ve really always loved the experimental nature, even with songs that are written that I am able to play around with onstage. I’m not a singer-songwriter, and I don’t have to stick to a performing exactly how the recording is; everything can be loose. That keeps my brain happy, especially being on tour where every night can be a little different.”

WILL is out now. Follow Julianna Barwick here.

Julianna Barwick plays Melbourne Music Week and Smooch Record’s Opening Night at St Paul’s Cathedral, Friday 17 November. Tickets are available here.