Release Date: Aug 20, 2013
Record label: Dead Oceans Records
Over the course of her recordings leading up to third album Nepenthe, Brooklyn-based solo musician Julianna Barwick's vaporous compositions were largely the product of infinite layers of her own voice, looped and processed into misty, near-cosmic realms. Spreading out across a wide range of octaves, her mostly wordless vocalizations found a specific state of emotional transparency that could instinctively communicate by turns feelings of harrowing darkness, contemplation, fear, and confusion -- or even an understated humor. No small feat, being able to say so much without any conventional language, and Barwick pushed her atmospheric songs to new places, adding subtle layers of guitar and piano to her walls of voices on 2011's The Magic Place.
Some scattered thoughts in a time of loss 01. Creatio ex nihilo or creatio ex profundis? However things come to be, they always come by way of a loss. Simone Weil was right, at least, to argue that creation is kenosis, an emptying of the self. A space, once vacated, is filled with what came from — but is no longer a part of — you.
With 2009’s stunning Florine EP and 2011’s equally great The Magic Place, ambient musician Julianna Barwick established herself as simply one of the most creative, experimental, and innovative artists working today, a phenomenon that continues on the grand Nepenthe. Nepenthe is an emotional album inspired by a death in Barwick’s family and one that prominently features Icelandic string ensemble Amiina and a teenage chorus. Having previously worked with Sharon Van Etten recording on last year’s great Tramp and having released an album with Helado Negro, Barwick is fully collaborative on Nepenthe.
Julianna BarwickNepenthe[Dead Oceans; 2013]By Ray Finlayson; August 23, 2013Purchase at: Insound (Vinyl) | Amazon (MP3 & CD) | iTunes | MOGTweetJulianna Barwick must feel like she’s living one of her dreams right now. She recently cancelled a string of solo shows so she could accompany and open up for Sigur Rós, a band she’s always had a great love for. She recalls in an interview the first time she saw them live: “[It was] one of the best concerts I've ever seen; I couldn't get it out of my system for days, I couldn't even talk afterwards.” But not only has she been given the chance to travel about and play with some of her favourite musicians, she also got to record her music in the same setting as the Icelandic band.
Growing up in rural Louisiana and then later on a farm in Missouri, Julianna Barwick was a preacher's daughter at a church whose organ got very little use. "We would always sing a cappella," she explained in an interview a few years ago, "And instead of instruments we would clap or sing in rhythmic rounds." A curious kid and a bit of a loner, Barwick showed a precocious fascination with the human voice. Her hobbies included harmonizing with random sounds, making up songs about whatever she was doing at the moment, and singing long, loud notes in hollowed-out spaces like parking garages and inside the trunk of a giant tree just to see what the echo would sound like.
Julianna Barwick decided to call her most heavenly record Nepenthe after a death in the family occurred in the middle of recording—which took place in Reykjavík, Iceland, working with Alex Somers (Sigur Rós collaborator/producer, Alex of Jónsi & Alex)—taking its title from a magical drug of forgetfulness from Greek literature. Appropriately, the Brooklyn ambient-musician’s incandescent-yet-stentorian release acts as a warm and pacifying salve for the heartbroken and exultant alike. .
In the morning I listen to the atoms singing. The simple drone, in my ears or brain, composed of incalculable smaller sounds, that isn’t the needling note of tinnitus or the moan of wind in the lift-shaft; just the quiet, efficient buzz of the universe, being. It may be the aural nerve’s equivalent of the lightshow behind my eyes, falling asleep: those concentric galaxies in gold and acid green that ripple out across the burgundy expanse towards the edge of vision, only for another fuzzy halo to be forming at the centre by the time the circle dissolves.
Nepenthe is made blue by the cold, a record put through the darkened days of an Icelandic February, and one that ultimately sees beauty in its own numbness. All this makes listening to it now, in the middle of August, a trippy experience. I’ve spent my time using Julianna Barwick’s third album as the soundtrack to a stormy, sun-blasted British summer in which the job of an average meteorologist has been to announce what type of extreme punishment this island is in for next.
It takes an album like Nepenthe to give its meaning back to the word "mesmerizing," overused as it is in music reviews. Julianna Barwick's third record is a beautiful collection of ambient songs tied together by an alien theme. She's always had masterful control of loop pedals, and she confirms her dexterity here, intricately layering vocal and instrumental samples until they reach a tipping point.
Julianna Barwick is one of seldom few composers who can make apparently simplistic, minimalist ambient music, and find the impression of her individuality always floating in her wake. As on her 2011 album The Magic Place, Barwick’s music is formed around the constellations of her reverb-glossed vocal loops, wordless sequences of vowel sounds that fall into place with effortless harmonic cohesion. Nepenthe takes her sound its next logical step forward by filling out her music with a wider range of acoustic instruments that underpin the sonority of her vocals, with the help of sometime Sigur Rós affiliate Alex Somers (who produced Sigur Rós’ Valtari, and is half of Riceboy Sleeps/Jónsi & Alex).
Named after the ancient Greek drug of forgetfulness, Julianna Barwick’s third album recalls the pleasant haze of 2010: Grouper, The xx, extremely cheap ketamine. The new record is the result of the Brooklynite deciding to record outside of her bedroom for the first time. She headed for Iceland, where she worked with Sigur Rós producer Alex Somers.
Julianna Barwick's breakthrough record The Magic Place saw the Brooklyn singer find her, ahem, voice, as a creator of ambient, ethereal choral works—layering vocals to the extent that they become lost in the ether, finding an otherworldliness fit for religious ceremony..
The importance of place in Julianna Barwick's music cannot be overstated; both the feelings and emotions we are capable of projecting onto our surroundings, and the memories and moods that our surroundings are, in turn, capable of evoking within us. 2011's The Magic Place made this explicit. Named for a tree she played in as a child, its gorgeous soundscapes spun gently outward until they took root, conjuring all manner of feeling and emotion themselves.
There is a Tibetan Buddhist tradition in which several weeks are spent crafting and then ritualistically destroying a (usually large and complex) sand mandala. Despite the time and attention that goes into the creation, the mandalas are, soon after their completion, dismantled piece by piece, the way one might clean out a refrigerator—except, you know, way more thematic. Nepenthe is like this.
Julianna Barwick’s music has always been intensely introverted; recorded alone in her bedroom and composed using little more than her voice and a loop station, it was entirely her own. Her last album, 2011?s The Magic Place, however marked a broadening of scope by adding subtle threads of piano and a ghostly rhythm section, and this outward trajectory is furthered on Nepenthe; a record which has a far more immediately accessible beauty than her earlier work. That is something no doubt heavily influenced by the fact that it was recorded in Reykjavik with Alex Somers (Sigúr Ros cohort and one half of Jónsi and Alex), who also called in contributions from string quartet amiina, Múm guitarist Róbert Sturla Reynisson and a local choir of teenage girls.
Julianna Barwick turns the grottiest clubs into cathedrals, with her weightless washes of indefinite tone, her spectrally altered choral elements, her slow moving angelic ecstasies. She fills the darkest spaces with pure white light. Nepenthe, her third full-length, she works and reworks a downward cascade of notes, in massed vocals that seem to come from everywhere and nowhere.
Despite being rather avant-garde in reality, Julianna Barwick always seems to be able to weather the possibility of alienating listeners. Perhaps uniquely among very leftfield fare, her records are listening-in-company-friendly, even if the content is abstract to the point of inaccessibility on paper. The difference between her music and other ambient or post-rock works is perhaps most evident when comparing her opus ‘The Magic Place’ to a work like Evan Caminiti’s excellent ‘Dreamless Sleep’ LP.
Julianna Barwick belongs to a relatively recent strand of singer-songwriters, such as Liz Harris of Grouper fame, who dissolve the foundations of song form, so that the resultant creations become mere captions of vaporous, half-formed melody and ambiguous sentiment. In Barwick’s case, there are hints of words and lyrics, but these are drowned in icy layers of fragile textures and further refracted by multi-layering, transforming her airy alto into a gossamer web of interlocking voices. It’s hard to tell what exactly is being deployed on Nepenthe, beyond this emotionally-charged, looped choir, but the effect is to create a form of song that aims right for the heart, as if Barwick is trying to transfer her own emotions straight into her listeners.