Julianna Barwick Scales Peaks for 'Nepenthe'

The enchanting vocalist confronts isolation and tragedy in Iceland, returns with her most commanding album yet

Julianna Barwick
Julianna Barwick Photo by Jolie Ruben
Paula Mejia WRITTEN BY
Paula Mejia

"Any time of night," Julianna Barwick says, "things were just glowing this strange blue!" Her eyes widen with the mention of Iceland, and her hands gesture animatedly to describe its nightless summer. Barwick, the Louisiana-born, Brooklyn-based songwriter, had received an email out of the blue from producer Alex Somers (Sigur Rós, Jónsi) in January 2011, inviting her to record at his home studio in Reykjavik. And though Barwick immediately accepted, the singer admits she harbored doubts.

"To go from a hermit-y bedroom recording girl to a different country and running every bit of sound by another person — that was a total opposite experience," she says. Despite her apprehension, the results of the rigorous recording sessions surprised her. "After I let myself be open to [Alex's direction], he was actually right," she admits. "There were several moments on the record he'd say, why don't you try it like this? And then after I thought, that's perfect."

The forthcoming Nepenthe, due August 20 via Dead Oceans, teems with triumphant swells of swooping, looping choral work. And though it was born from a place of curiosity, tragedy also found a way to wedge itself in between. "I had a death in the family in the middle of recording," she says. "And being away, while it was awesome, was sad and lonely. There's a heavy emotional strain on the album."

The album's title Nepenthe is both its thesis and antithesis. It plays on the duality of remedy and sorrow, paralleling Barwick's own experience. "I was on a nerdy word blog, and the word 'nepenthe' came up," she explains. "One of the definitions is that it was a potion used by the ancients to induce forgetfulness of something sorrowful or painful. And I thought, this is it."

Aristotle claimed that tragedy invokes both pity and fear. Barwick's songwriting plucks at tragedy with an overarching theme of healing, from the lapping echo loops of "One Half" and the angelic waves of "Look Into Your Own Mind."

Barwick traveled to Iceland twice to record Nepenthe with Somers. Her mother, who contributed vocals to the album, joined her for the first session. But for the second, Barwick went alone. "I don't love being by myself," she sighs, shifting in her seat. "I'm not a read-a-book-in-a-café type of person. I always wish I were around people."

Still, Barwick speaks of the experience positively, noting that Reykjavik was an endlessly inspiring environment to record. "When I listen to it now, I love it," she confesses. "But I get a lump in my throat sometimes during some songs."

She's currently planning a fall tour in support of the record, where she hopes to work alongside a small choir. "I've always wondered what that would be like, to be onstage and making music with others and how powerful that vibe can be," she says, smiling. "I think that's going to be really powerful."

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