New Release: Julianna Barwick – “Nepenthe”

Julianna Barwick - "Nepenthe"
Julianna Barwick – “Nepenthe”

There is really nobody else creating music quite the same as Julianna Barwick’s. Her recordings have a unique way of connecting with the listener in a much more direct way than anything else being produced today.

It’s the character of her voice, and that her music is created almost solely with the sound of her voice that makes Barwick’s music at once is ethereal and otherworldly while retaining an ability to make a deep, meaningful connection with her listeners.

On her album “The Magic Place” layer after layer of Barwick’s voice are built up throughout the songs, but her ability to delicately shade the timbre across her entire vocal range means that there is never a dull moment. Despite the material perhaps being repeated several times before something entirely new is added through these accumulated minor changes. It’s more than enough to just sit back and listen to each sound, to explore the ways that the layers of her voice are interacting with each other until the fabric is interwoven in such a complex manner that other elements of the melodic lines are able to take flight.

Managing to take such a distinctive style of songwriting and approach while not allowing any of the tracks on an album to sound even remotely the same, despite obvious similarities, is quite the feat. However, each song on “The Magic Place” manages to take a different approach, from the pure angelic chorus of “Flown” to the shorter loops and added minimal synths and percussion of “Prizewinning.”

And on her latest album, “Nepenthe,” Barwick does it again, creating beautiful sonic sculptures with her understated, yet powerful vocal abilities that are equal parts Zola Jesus and Heinrich Górecki’s “Symphony of Sorrowful Songs.” And her tour in support of this album involves opening for Sigur Ros, a band that has, essentially, a matching aesthetic, yet requires an entire band to do what Barwick can readily do on her own.

It is also no wonder that this album comes from the same place as Sigur Ros, geographically speaking, as it was recorded in Iceland this past February. Not only was the album recorded in Iceland, but it was produced by Alex Somers, Sigur Ros’ producer. He enlisted the help of a string ensemble and chorus during the recording sessions where Somers and Barwick worked very closely. The word “Nepenthe,” by the way, refers to a magic drug of forgetfulness used to wipe out grief and sorrow in ancient Greek literature, and this album comes from a place of grief, though Julianna describes the process of creating the album as a way of moving away from that grief and moving forward, finding a way through difficult times – of retaining a feeling of hope.

One Half

The song “One Half” retains the signature qualities of Julianna’s vocal and compositional style, but the use of a small chamber ensemble of strings, playing sans vibrato to add a degree of the early baroque sound to the mix is the perfect touch. The vocal benefits greatly from an increased clarity that creates a bit more texture within the track without sacrificing any of the effectiveness of the densely layered, seemingly perpetual crescendo that is created.

You can watch the video for “One Half” below and find her out on tour now with Sigur Ros. “Nepenthe” is currently available on CD/LP/MP3 from Dead Oceans.