Julianna Barwick Reflects On Her New Album: 'Healing Is A Miracle', But It Has Its Own Timeline

[Cover photo credit to Jen Medina]

Julianna Barwick has released her first solo album in several years, Healing is a Miracle, and it couldn't come at a better time. Her goals were to bring about new sounds and new directions in her work but also to include "throwback" elements recalling her 2010 groundbreaking album, The Magic Place, ten years on.

The imagery for the album and for the video for "InSpirit" conjures up Iceland's ethereal beauty, a country and people who have been very special to Barwick, and the songs on Healing is a Miracle, though all quite distinctive, take their tone from reflecting on a time of change in Barwick's life and the happiness and healing that change can bring.

Julianna Barwick spoke with us at Tower's PULSE! ahead of the album's release about Iceland, the radical experience of being free at last to compose a new album, and what reflections led to the sounds and ideas on Healing is a Miracle.

Hannah Means-Shannon: Congratulations on the new album. I know creating it has been kind of a long road for you. The song and video for “InSpirit” are really amazing and wonderful.

Julianna Barwick: Thank you so much. We were in Iceland last year, and we just shot that stuff for fun. Then when we were trying to come up with album art and material for videos, I was brainstorming some other things, then thought, “Wait, what am I doing? We can use that stuff from Iceland since it looks so amazing.”

HMS: It is really special. I was really fortunate to go to Iceland a few years ago, and it totally blew my mind, but I was still really blown away by the video. You really captured the best ethos and feeling there.

JB: Iceland is so special to me, since I made an album there in 2012 with Alex Somers, Nepenthe, which ended up coming out in 2013. I have also played a festival in Husavik, which is up North, and then we drove the Ring Road around to Reykjavik, clockwise. I think that was my third time in Iceland. I had also played the festival that Sigur Ros put together, Norður og Niður, three years ago.

HMS: What’s your impression of musical tastes in Iceland? Generally speaking, what are people most interested in?

JB: What hits me first is just the people within the community. There’s such a strong musical community there, and everyone else is interested in what everyone else is doing. That’s what strikes me first.

HMS: Is there a hands-on aspect to the music community?

JB: Definitely. People swap helping each other on projects, and it’s a real tight-knit group. A lot of cool peeps doing a lot of cool stuff there.

HMS: What made you choose “InSpirit” and “In Light” to be two singles that were released ahead of the album?

JB: Even in my notebook, where I make notes while making the record, I drew a star next to the song that would be “InSpirit” because that one was just magical. It wasn’t called “InSpirit” yet, it just had the date I had written it next to it. I was playing around with my vocal pedal, and had a ton of reverb, delay, and Gospel-Choir effect harmonies.

I was playing around and recorded the vocal line in one take and then added some thunderous bass to it in one take. The whole thing was a thirty-minute adventure. I’ve been telling everyone that this is the first record that I made with monitors, so it was a different sensory experience. I could feel those bass-tones in my body. It was one of those things where you think, “Where did that come from??” [Laughs]

HMS: There is a tremendous amount of energy in that opening. I love that effect.

JB: That was really where I wanted to go with this record. Though this is the first time I’m saying it out loud, really, I wanted this record to go somewhere new, but I also wanted it to be a throwback in a lot of ways, too. I made The Magic Place in 2010, and I knew that this was going to be coming out in 2020. Even the artwork and the font is a nod to The Magic Place. The Magic Place will always be what put me on the map.

That song kind of hit both of those things for me, going somewhere new and also being a throwback. I also didn’t want to do what people expected me to do. I didn’t want the first single released to be the Jonsi track, since that’s kind of obvious. He’s an amazing, huge, wonderful feature and I’m still gobsmacked that it all came together, though.

 HMS: Sidenote, it’s wonderful that he has a solo album coming out this year, after a period of several years.

JB: Yes! And Mary Lattimore has one coming out, too, in October. I think Nosaj does, too. He’s definitely dropping some singles.

HMS: Wow. There are a lot of great musicians with material out this year.

JB: There’s been a lot of talk about whether to postpone things this year, but for me, I’d been working towards this date for so long and I thought it can only be a good thing to release a record that might do some people some good during this whack year and depressing times. The idea was to just go ahead with it and hope that it uplifts people.

HMS: I totally agree with you. I usually give that speech to people about how much people need new music right now, but especially in the case of an album like yours, I think it’s a no-brainer that it’s a good time for people to get ahold of it.

Is live performance fairly complicated for you to set up for your work? Do you need a lot of preparation time for computers and sound engineers?

JB: Not at all. I don’t use a laptop on stage. Aside from a few samples that I might have, just sounds, I don’t have any click tracks, backing tracks, or anything like that. All of the vocal loops I’m making are from scratch. That’s part of what makes performing live interesting for me. That way, even if I perform the same songs every night, they are going to be a little bit different every time.

Some of my songs start out with a drone, and I’d build a vocal loop off of whatever key that’s in. Then I can bring in keyboards or whatever else. It’s just usually my vocal set up, which is my mic and effects pedal into my loops station. Then I have my keyboard and my sampler. Whenever shows happen for this record, I will, for the very first time ever, bring a sound person. I’ve never done that before. I’ve usually just traveled alone and use in-house people. With this one, I want to have that guarantee and that safety net of knowing that each show will sound amazing.

HMS: Awesome. That is super impressive that you do all that live, without a net.

JB: It just seems like the way to play live, to me.

HMS: It introduces more variables so more could go wrong, but that’s true of all live performance to some extent. Some people like that because it keeps them on their toes.

JB: That’s the way it feels, “Wow, nothing bad happened! That rules!”

HMS: Regarding the title of the album, Healing is a Miracle, how do you think that extends to the songs on the album? Are there degrees of commonality among the songs or are they completely different?

JB: In composing the songs, they were all completely different. These happened all over the place last year. The first thing I made was last March, two sets of vocal loops, just winging it, like I always do. I sent those to Nosaj Thing, and one of them ended up being “Nod”.

I know that for “In Light”, the song with Jonsi in it, initially I sent him a demo, and it was just these really murky strange strings with me singing over it. I just wanted him to sing on top of it, and obviously, that ended up taking a whole new life once he got his hands on it. The composing was very different, almost song to song. But there was a thread of continuity in the vibe and feeling, where I was and where I am in my life.

It’s now my third year in LA after moving here from New York. It was a different headspace and environment for me. In 2017 and 2018, I was working on music for a ballet company and I was working with AI on the Microsoft Lobby scoring. I was very busy for a couple of years doing a bunch of different projects, and then it came time to make a new solo record. It was absolutely freeing since I didn’t have any parameters and I could just let it rip. I couldn’t remember when that had been the case. It had been almost four years. I was in a literally sunny, happy place in my life, and that definitely colored the vibe of the record.

HMS: It is a weirdly appropriate album title right now.

JB: I know. I came up with it last year, actually. I just thought it was a cool phrase. I ran it by some best friends, and everyone loved it. It was unintentionally foreboding.

HMS: The phrase is really interesting because it kind of forces you to rethink each of those words’ meanings. It’s like if you had the sentence, “A human is an animal.”, it would force you kind of look at each of those words again and ask yourself what each means. It shakes things up in terms of what you think those things, “healing” and “miracle” are.

JB: Yes. It’s a fact, but we don’t think about it. You’ll be watching something, like a Marvel movie, and someone gets a huge gash in a fight, and because they are a superhero, it heals back up instantly. And everyone says, “Whoah!!” But actually, that happens on our physical bodies, just not as quickly. It’s a crazy thing to think about, that your body heals up to exactly to what it looked like before. It is superhuman in a way, but it’s just how things work. It’s cool to think about.

HMS: Your body kind of takes care of the situation, in the background, without you even noticing half the time.

[Photo credit to Jen Medina]

JB: It’s involuntary, and so is emotional and mental healing. I remember asking someone, when I was going through something really hard, “Is there any way to speed this up so I can go back to being mentally clear and have this not so heavy on my heart?” And they just laughed and said, “You can’t speed up healing. You can’t do that.” It’s a thing that’s happening without your control that takes its own time, which is cool to think about, too. It has its own timeline.

HMS: That is really interesting. It kind of dignifies the fact that something real happened that needs to be healed from, without downplaying things. There’s a certain timeframe that’s needed.

JB: It takes time, and you can’t speed up time.

HMS: You mentioned all these projects you’ve been working on, and all the collaborations. How do you decide when and how you want to do collaborations versus solo work?

JB: All of these things, for the last few years, have kind of come along at the exactly right time. In 2016, my record Will came out, and I spent most of the year homeless and touring. Then I moved to LA at the end of the year. A couple months later, I got hit up by Troy Schumacher, who is a choreographer and dancer for the New York City ballet, and he has a side-grind called Ballet Collective, and he hit me up for some original performance music for Ballet Collective. I did that for most of 2017 and ended up rehearsing and performing with them in October 2017.

In summer 2018, I got hit up by Microsoft to the lobby score. The hotel opened and the lobby score launched May of 2019, a little over a year ago. I spent a lot of time on those, but both of those experiences thrust me into worlds that I had never been in. I didn’t know how to work with AI. I had never played music live at a ballet premier. It was extremely nerve wracking but it made the success of the projects sweeter. And I’ve done little music projects with friends, one-offs. It’s been serendipidous the way that the timing has worked out.

Once all those projects kind of wrapped up and I entered the new year last year, I knew I didn’t really have anything coming up, and I had signed with Ninja Tune in summer 2017. It was time for me to get started.

HMS: That’ll get you moving! Do you have any messages for readers about how you hope they experience the album?

JB: I think that they should use it in any way that feels like it’s going to transport them out of this daily grind of bad news, whether it’s blasting it out in the car, or chilling out with headphones. If it is helpful for anyone during this time, that is the most magical and satisfying feeling that I could possibly have right now. This year is so hard, we are all low-key coping every single day, and that makes you tired, since you’re in crisis mode. That goes for any of my records. If any of them can help people out, that’s the best thing.

I’ll also namedrop Bandcamp, who has "Bandcamp Fridays". Now’s the time if you’ve never done it, to support artists, because we can’t tour right now. Bandcamp Fridays are a good way to do that because they waive their fees. Supporting artists right now by actually buying their records is extremely helpful, because we can’t tour and that’s our bread and butter.

HMS: Thank you for saying that. We very much agree on making sure that funding goes to artists right now.

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