Julianna Barwick’s Healing Ambient Music Traverse Her Innermost Emotions

By Vanessa Ague

Friday, October 13, 2023

Julianna Barwick is a leader in today’s ambient music scene. The Los Angeles-based composer, vocalist, and producer’s early albums, like 2011’s Magic Is A Place, established her sprawling and reflective style, building from loops of gossamer and impressionistic vocals that sound akin to Cocteau Twins and Grouper. Her latest album, 2020’s Healing Is A Miracle, builds from her signature reverb-laden vocals and includes a couple Los Angeles-based collaborators—harpist Mary Lattimore, Sigur Rós singer Jónsi, and record producer Nosaj Thing—to invite listeners to look forward to brighter futures. Though no one could have predicted it would release during the height of COVID-19 pandemic lockdowns, Healing Is A Miracle ended up being just what some people needed to exist during tragedy.

Photo Credit: Jill Steinberg

“I got many, many, many messages from people saying that the music really got them through hard times,” Barwick says over a phone call. “The fact that this record is called Healing Is a Miracle and then went on to do just that for some people is a trip.”

On September 21, she comes to Brooklyn, her home of more than a decade before she moved to Los Angeles, for a solo set of music from Healing Is A Miracle at National Sawdust. It’s just her second performance of the year—touring has slowed down for her since the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic—making it all the more special. 

From childhood, Barwick was into music. She describes her mother as a “beautiful singer,” and as a kid growing up in Tulsa, she sang in a number of choirs around her city. Yet, when she moved to New York to attend Hunter College in the early 2000s, she didn’t plan on studying the artform. “[Music is] my biggest joy in life,” Barwick says. “I didn't want to do music in school because I didn't want it to be a drag ever.” School meant rigor and structure—two things that are in opposition with Barwick’s fluid style that derives from her innermost emotions. So, she studied photography, a practice she picked up from her dad in high school, and planned on becoming a wedding photographer.

Photo Credits: Jill Steinberg

Music was still part of her life, though. While working at a photography studio and babysitting, Barwick would tinker with a Fostex four-track cassette recorder and an electric guitar that she bought “probably because I wanted to be Cat Power,” she says. She began to cloak her tones in waves of echoing sound with a reverb pedal a friend loaned to her, eventually deciding to record some music and upload it to MySpace. That led her to start knocking on doors at the small venues that dot Brooklyn’s streets, which over time added up to a career. 

Since those days, Barwick has expanded far beyond Brooklyn’s DIY scene, touring the world and building up to a new path in composing film music. She has harbored a long interest in film music, recalling watching weird films with her sister as a kid. “I would watch the movies and weep and just feel the emotion so deeply,” she says. One of them was Empire of the Sun, whose score she adored so much she checked it out from her local library to learn on piano. She also “stans” John Williams and goes to see him conduct at the Hollywood Bowl every year. While she has yet to compose for a feature film, she’s been writing for a variety of short films, learning the ropes.

Photo Credit: Jill Steinberg

Today, though, Barwick is focused on getting ready to come back to New York and play a great show. She’s played at National Sawdust once before, when she opened for one of her musical heroes: the pioneering ambient artist William Basinski, whose The Disintegration Loops is one of her comfort albums. And right now, she’s working on relearning the music of Healing Is A Miracle to play with fresh eyes. “It's always so fun to try and recreate the songs and give it a special live twist. New York shows are always incredibly emotional and incredibly special,” she says as she drives through the streets of Los Angeles, wistfully remembering her days zig-zagging across Brooklyn on her bike. Performing her music to an audience is like solving a math problem or putting together a puzzle, and Barwick can’t wait to travel those winding roads in New York, the city in which she became herself.

About Vanessa Ague

Vanessa Ague is a violinist and critic who writes for publications including the Wire, Pitchfork, and Bandcamp Daily. She is a recent graduate of the Craig Newmark Graduate School of Journalism at CUNY.