Julianna Barwick doesn’t make music, exactly. Instead, the Missouri-bred, Brooklyn-based siren simply soul-searches. She strings together gorgeous vocal melodies, unencumbered by things as clunky as the English language, song structure, space, or even time, for that matter. That’s it. Like writing poetry in invisible ink, or whispering a secret into the stratosphere, she creates something that feels both private and intimate; soothing sounds for nobody but herself to hear. Barwick’s songs and performances are pure in their refusal to be anything but. They simply exist. Watching Barwick at Sixth and I Synagogue on Monday felt a tad voyeuristic. I’m not used to sneaking in on someone’s meditation. And yet, watching somebody explore the depths of their inner-universe proved a rare luxury.
On Monday night, Barwick’s spiritual vocal-scapes provided an unlikely respite from a fast-paced world; one that’s often incapable of turning itself off and/or breathing correctly. Just as the cogs of DC’s infamous down-to-business workforce were gearing up for yet another stressful week ahead, Barwick’s quiet coos silenced us all. Performing in front of a circular projection of idyllic interstellar imagery—something along the lines of a Terrence Mallick film or a NASA-produced art project—Barwick diffused herself into the ether. Layers of looped vocals formed a vortex, sporadically punctuated by hesitant but weighty bass keys and unidentifiable instrumental samples. Getting lost inside was the exact point.
Barwick winced and clenched and exhaled as she chanted, wholly consumed by these songs. Many, like the Grouper-esque “Crystal Lake”, come from Barwick’s most recent record, Nepenthe. Nepthenthe was produced and engineered by Iceland’s Alex Somers, of Sigur Rós side-project Jónsi and Alex semi-fame. The added structure and instrumentation give these songs a welcomed hint of post-rock weight (very similar to the kind found on older Sigur Rós records). That was also on display Monday night, as Barwick let heavy bass notes slide in at the most climactic moments.
Because of the nature of the stuff—wordless, breathy, uninhibited, explorative—it’s quite nostalgic. It reminds us of what we could all be, if we simply stopped worrying, stopped caring what other people thought, and just made the beautiful things we dream up, but are too afraid to execute. As children, we all ran around, climbed trees, screamed, cried, scribbled, and even sang nonsensical “musical” phrases. Barwick wants us to remember that this behavior needn’t be barred at a certain age. Though some of it was pesky and disruptive and wiry, the good stuff shouldn’t necessarily grow up.
The word “Nepenthe” is derived from Greek mythology; a medicine that literally erases sorrow. Without sounding too reverential, that’s exactly what Barwick’s music seems to accomplish. It is freeing. It permits us to “let go.” It is thoughtless in the best way. To steal from another of Barwick’s record titles, it is “The Magic Place” where fear and uncertainty dissipate, even if just for an hour.