Vera Marmelo

Julianna Barwick Embraces The Synthetic On Will

The Brooklyn musician’s third solo album transforms her organic, pastoral sound

Fans of New Age musician Julianna Barwick know by now what to expect from her records. Across two albums and several EPs, the Brooklyn-based artist has looped and echoed her serene vocals into gorgeous ambient compositions with remarkable consistency. There’s an ageless quality to Barwick’s music. Its wordless, choral layering evoking a sort of musical ritualism that’s hard to define, though you may feel like people have been singing this way for centuries — Gregorian chant and "Orinoco Flow" come to mind. To listen to one of Barwick's albums is to meditate on the quiet complexities of the human voice; she splices and warps her own but retains its natural beauty.

As familiar as her sound is to fans, though, it has not settled completely. On her third and latest album, Will, Barwick pushes her abilities as a musician and a vocalist, complicating the minimal instrumentation that has thus far defined her work. The additions to Barwick’s vocals in her music have traditionally been limited to light orchestration; a deep, building hum of a string quartet here, a classical piano melody in the distance there. On Will, she turns up her electronic experimentation, at times overshadowing her voice in ways that feel new and exciting. Lush, reverb-laden synthesizers vibrate throughout the track "Same"; Barwick’s hazy, incoherent vocals fight against it, recalling a softer reincarnation of M83’s early dream-pop days. On the album's closing track, “See, Know,” sharp, cold synths jut up against jazz percussion in the background, growing louder as the song goes on, with Barwick’s singing buried underneath. The electronic instrumentation on these songs never feels obtrusive — it gives Barwick's sound a new sense of power, and invests the music with a dark, flashy energy.

A handful of songs on Will stick closer to the beautiful simplicity of Barwick’s earlier work. “Bleached” seems to relish the effortless, echoed sound of fingers dancing on a piano’s keys, with her whispery voice hanging just above. On “Heading Home,” Barwick sounds like Mazzy Star singer Hope Sandoval trapped at the bottom of a well; her vocals follow a traditional verse-chorus song structure, but the lyrics remain just out of reach, letting the song’s heavy cello take the spotlight. Some songs veer, successfully, even closer to conventional, lyrical music than the quiet experimentation we expect from Barwick. The first piece of music listeners heard from Will was the foggy standout “Nebula,” on which Barwick’s utterances — cryptic messages of anticipation — are the clearest they’ve ever been.

Julianna Barwick’s origin story as the child of a Louisiana preacher has always contextualized her work in pastoral settings. Her first record, 2011's The Magic Place, was named after a tree on the family farm that she would crawl into. Her second, 2013's Nepenthe, was inspired by the winter scenery of Iceland, where she recorded it. Built as it is on loops and layers of her own voice, Barwick’s music is powerfully human and deeply natural at its core. She makes the kind of abstract art that reminds people of simple, everyday pleasures they probably take for granted, like the sound of a voice echoing in a chamber, or the beauty of a tree growing in the backyard. On Will, she builds that sound outward with spooky electronic touches that challenge and expand the bounds of her creative universe. Barwick has always appreciated and upheld the purity of the human voice; now she has invited a synthetic element into that organic world without losing anything. If there are pastures that Will can call home, they seem to be the ones on which extraterrestrials inconspicuously land their ships.