Artist: Julianna Barwick
Label: Dead Oceans / Cargo Records
Julianna Barwick’s art is equal parts force and beauty. Her music finds its motor in significant events in her own life, but they are abstracted into a sense of sonic wonderment, a radiance that you could say is her signature sound. That radiance has been taken to new zeniths with Nepenthe, her third full-length album, which was recorded in Reykjavík, Iceland, in the dark cold days of February and will be released August 20 on Dead Oceans.
In ancient Greek literature, nepenthe was a magic drug of forgetfulness used to wipe out grief and sorrow. The title suggested itself to Julianna, who experienced a death in her own family in the middle of making the record, but it also refers to the music consoling her during the isolation she was going through – on her own, in a foreign country with a terrible internet connection – during the sessions. Nepenthe’s heady potion is about moving forward, finding a way through difficult times – of retaining a feeling of hope.
“Everything I was making was visceral – the record represents some serious emotional stuff,” she confirms, while at the same time she raves with enormous positivity about the unique recording environment. Alex Somers (musician/producer of Sigur Rós, Jónsi, Jónsi & Alex) invited her to Iceland in the first place. For Julianna, who was blown away at a Sigur Rós show in 2002, it was a dream come true. “That was the fastest email I ever wrote: ‘Yes!’ Who would say no to that?” Somers produced and engineered the record and brought in local Icelandic musicians who turned out to make crucial contributions: string ensemble Amiina, guitarist Róbert Sturla Reynisson from múm, and a choir of teenage girls.
The biggest influence on Nepenthe, though, was the unfamiliar surroundings of Iceland itself, with its vibrant music scene and stunningly alien landscapes with their lingering magic. “I had never had anyone play on any record before, so this was a 180 turn,” she explains. “I also was inspired just by being there, and the gorgeousness of that place. Your eyes can’t believe what they’re seeing. I walked home one night and got totally lost in Reykjavík. I ended up walking alongside the ocean – and it was glowing blue. It looked like it had a lamp underneath it. This is a completely different experience than recording myself in my Brooklyn bedroom.”
Nepenthe is intimate without being introspective. Instead it’s a radiant array of light-dappled choral works, drawing a powerful sense of hope from the depths of despair. The extra musicians have rounded out her sound, emphasizing the yearning mood, the reaching towards the light. Check the teenage choir’s ecstatic crooning on “Forever,” or Amiina’s shimmering sound clouds on the glorious second track, “The Harbinger.” “Offing” and “One Half” are the perfect showcase for her seamlessly layered vocals, which circulate and settle upon one another like sheets of gauze on the breeze.
Far from the secondhand emotions and digital dabblings of so many other artists, Julianna Barwick’s music is the real deal: a life-affirming work of importance, interest… and sheer beauty.
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