“My whole life I’ve always loved the sound of my voice in a parking garage or a stairwell when that reverb happens,” says Julianna Barwick. Or a church. Growing up in Missouri and Oklahoma, she heard a cappella choral singing in local houses of the holy, a milieu which was later replaced by a New York City bedroom, a new guitar and loop pedal, which helped her create 2005 debut album Sanguine. Many years later, Barwick finds herself back in a church. Granted, it’s many miles away from her childhood home of the American Midwest – but then again so was her February trip to Iceland where she recorded her latest – and to date greatest – album, Nepenthe.
Bounding onto the otherwise empty stage before the moody lights and altar of St Giles, Barwick greets the crowd with a simple hello before blurting out: “Isn’t this exciting?” And it is. Recorded with Sigur Rós collaborator/producer Alex Somers, Nepenthe is a genuinely beguiling album full of colossal wordless soundscapes and hazy psychedelic washes of sound. But commandeering these tunes without the advantage of the studio or the extra musicians (which even included her mum) means she’s got nowhere to hide in tonight’s ritual sacrifice of her new tunes.
The double deckers can be seen drifting by the church’s lower windows as Barwick’s voice begins unwind, starting slowly and simply to lay down a few loops, which she locks in on her glowing keyboard. With her eyes shut and hands firmly rooted to the instrument, she switches from the keys to the effects and back again to build up the tune and its loops, letting her quivering voice loose over the top. And again, it’s big. But even with the reverberating acoustic of the church, it sounds merely loud rather than vast, with the volume clipping at the top end and forcing everything into a mushy wall of sound. Whether it was the heat or the blast of her yearning vocals, it causes members of the pew-bound audience to follow her lead and close their eyes as the walls bounced the tunes around in some sort of reverberating galactic game of ping-pong.
Throughout her 60-minute set, Barwick courts a fine line between monotony and repetition. From small, barely perceivable evolutions in her vocal attack and sample to the megalithic wall of synthesizer sound duly supporting the angelic vocals, the formula is the same. Barwick does introduce some variation with the arrival of electric guitarist and ‘old friend’ Scott Bell three songs into the set, and the five-strong teenage female choir who shuffle out close to the end. Bell’s stabbed and processed, albeit minimal, interjections on guitar occasionally feel sublime, while the choir’s support for a lengthy take on Nepenthe’s One Half also help underpin the tune nicely. But as the final note rings out and Barwick skips off the stage, the sensation of enjoying a gig that was more characteristically stuck in the land of ‘nice’ and ‘lovely’ compared to the epic and transfixing sound of the album is hard to avoid.
Like an archival Peel Session, this gig offered a visual pairing of how Barwick creates her complex sounds and a fascinating test of what she can achieve with a whole lot less gear within the intimate church. But where she fails is in her inability to convincingly recreate the intoxicating world of sound she evokes in the recording studio. It’s no bad thing – but it’s certainly not the same thing.