I read that you’ve been working with Alex Somers [of Parachutes and Jónsi & Alex] on a new solo record. Is this the first time you’ve worked with an outside producer on your solo work?
Totally, yeah. I made The Magic Place by myself with no eyes or ears on me, so this was definitely like a new, raw experience. It was just one of those things – again – where everything just fell into place and felt right. I got the first email about working with Alex in January 2011, and then we talked all year long about making a record together in Iceland. We met up a couple of times in New York and I went over to Reykjavík in February of this year, and then again in May, and it was just really natural. We had a really good, productive vibe from the very beginning. We’ve been working on nine or ten songs, but there are another six or seven outtakes that we might use.
Has anyone else been involved?
Yes! We had a guitarist, Róbert from múm, come in a couple of days to lay down some stuff on the spot and he made some magic. Then we had two days in the Sundlaugin studio, which is also called the Swimming Pool Studio, in Reykjavík. We had Amiina come in and record some strings for us. And then Orri from Sigur Rós…his teenage daughter and three of her friends came into the studio and sang a bunch of stuff all day long, and that’s on the record too. I had them do some simple stuff and it was a very intense and beautiful experience. The Amiina girls would just listen and then make stuff up on the spot – they’re geniuses!
And on top of all that I brought my mum with me! I had her with me for the February session but we had to rush back to the States halfway through the session because of a family thing. My plan was to have her come into the studio and sing because she has a beautiful voice, but it didn’t happen in Iceland. Then Alex went to the town she lives in and recorded her, so we got her on the record finally.
Yeah. It was a bit crazy, a really intense record to make. But it was very wonderful and Alex is wonderful.
I can’t wait to hear it. Was that your first time in Iceland?
Yeah, it was the first time when I went in February.
What did you think of it? It’s one of my favourite places in the world.
It’s like nowhere else. I mean, even just being in Reykjavik…it’s so friendly. And it’s so beautiful and clean. I got to do a bunch of travelling outside of the city and now all I can think of its all the cheesy clichés [laughs]. It’s absolutely breathtaking beauty. The landscape is stunning. Really free, and the colours are amazing. It was incredible. I’m really amazed and happy that I got to have that experience.
Going back in time, I wanted to talk a bit about the OMBRE record you put out with Roberto. I read somewhere that the Asthmatic Kitty label manager, Michael, proposed the idea for the record to Roberto before you’d even signed the label for The Magic Place. Is that right?
Hmm, I don’t know. I think I signed with the label for The Magic Place in March 2010, and then Roberto and I had a tour together in April so it was really quick – like, a back-to-back kind of thing – and the idea for the record was hatched in rapid succession! [laughs]. We did the tour and then we started on the record when we got back, but it took a couple of years to get it all finished up.
There always seems to be a really strong collaborative spirit at Asthmatic Kitty, with the artists on the label often working together or covering each other’s songs. Who else on the label are you most tempted to work with?
I think it’s probably easiest if I say Sufjan Stevens. I’ve been a big fan of his music for a long time – like, I used to be a huge, huge fan so that would definitely be fun. And then Shara Worden from My Brightest Diamond. I’d sing with her any time; her voice is amazing.
I’m a big fan of hers too. So, when you and Roberto first started thinking about the record did you have a kind of idea in your head about what you wanted it to sound like? I know you guys did a lot of jamming and that the songs kind of came out of that, but did you start out with any kind of brief – for want of a better word?
Not really. We didn’t know where it was going, and it wasn’t really until the very end that the album became what it is. Certain themes and moods would just appear as we worked together. Like, I started to feel, pretty early on, that this would be a summery record and not a wintery one. A record you would listen to in the backyard with some friends, or down the beach, or with headphones under a tree somewhere. It just has that kind of summery, chill vibe. So that probably started to inform the way I started making sounds but really we just kind of flew by the seat of our pants.
And, you know, Roberto would make some stuff at home, and I would make some stuff at my home, and then we’d get together and listen. Roberto has pretty much every instrument known to man in the studio, so that’s how we ended up with vibraphone in there, and the Wurlitzer and the electric guitars. So it was really a case of just adding a little bit here, a little bit there, until the songs were finished. A lot of musicians say that, but that’s definitely how it worked this time. We never sat down and planned out a song before we did it. Except I did write lyrics for ‘Noche Brilla’, which was kind of strange for me. I don’t know if I want to say that I’ve never done it, but I don’t do that ordinarily. But otherwise, yeah, it was pretty free and easy.
You’ve previously said that when you’re making an album you sometimes dig into your archive of recordings and end up building songs out of parts that you’ve just had lying around unused. Was that the case for this album or was it all brand new?
We did do that when we first started working together. Roberto had a bunch of stuff like that, and I had a bunch of stuff like that, so we listened to them both. We didn’t end up using any of my old stuff but I think we might have used some of Roberto’s old beats or simple, jammy stuff. But most, if not all, of it was made in real time.
When you’re jamming with someone, how do you know when something’s really working? Do you have a sort of ‘eureka!’ moment when you realise you’re on to something special, or do you have to go back and listen to it again?
Both things happened! I mean, sometimes a song would grow on me and other times – like with ‘Tormentas’, say – I just knew immediately that I loved it. Roberto had some other people come in to play on that record and I didn’t hear it until the next time I came into the studio, but I knew straight away that it was beautiful. So, yeah, I think it went both ways. There were some songs that were more work than others, of course, but some of them just took off very quickly and were easy to work out.
Do you remember what song was the hardest?
I think maybe ‘Cara Falsa’ was one that took a lot of going back and forth. I made that piano loop and then Roberto added some beats, but we passed it back to each other a bunch of times so there were a couple of different versions.
It was mentioned in the press release so I checked out the film ‘A Day With The Boys’ on YouTube to get a sense of how it might have inspired you. It definitely had that haunting yet summery feel that I imagine a lot of people will get from some of the songs on the album, but I was wondering how the movie influenced the pair of you specifically?
Well, when Roberto and I get together we have a lot of fun. He’s hilarious. And one thing we had to kind of stop ourselves from doing a lot was having YouTube days instead of, you know, a music-making day.
Oh, I definitely know that feeling.
Yeah! But anyway, it ended up being that there were a lot of things that we would show each other on YouTube while we forming a vibe for the record in our minds. And that film was one thing that Roberto showed me. I’d never seen it before but it’s something that Roberto really, really loves. I actually thought it was really beautiful. It was one of those things where I was like, ‘why haven’t I seen this before?’. But yeah, as you saw, it has that hazy, sunny feel to it and kind of like a wild, childish ending. Really cool.
I was wondering about the significance of the title you picked for the album, Believe You Me.
Well, again, we were talking over a few years, back and forth with a bunch of things trying to figure out what we wanted to do with this project. Roberto came up with that title. I’m not sure where he got it from but I instantly loved it. Partly because I grew up in the South and people say that down there, so it kind of resonated with me as well. And also it sounds cool. There’s a kind of ‘you’ and ‘me’ thing going on – which is what Roberto and I had – so it seemed perfect.
Tell me about the album artwork. I love the texture of it.
I believe that Roberto’s brother took the photo that’s on the cover when he was in Ecuador. Roberto showed me the photo and we both loved it, so then we took it to one of Roberto’s good friends Paul Coors, who’s an artist in Cincinatti, and he came up with the concept that we used. He printed that photo on an actual towel and then photographed it so it has that ‘towelly’ look. Paul’s a really, really great artist and he’s done a lot of layout and print work for Roberto in the past. You know, we actually had the towel at our listening party for the record.
Aw, nice touch.
And, in addition to Paul’s cover, the inside artwork and press photos were taken by a Canadian artist named Jonathan Dueck who came on that April 2010 tour with Roberto and I, and Roberto’s percussionist Mario [Schambon]. It was just the four of us in a van and every night Roberto would do a set as Helado Negro, then another set as Epstein, which is another project of his. I would do a set as me, and then Jonathan would show his films in between the sets. He was also doing a lot of documenting of the tour, just capturing the vibe, making portratis and things like that. He was definitely a part of this project, because that tour was supposed to, you know, ‘inform’ the record. So, because Jonathan was with us, his photos are part of the record too.
Sounds like a really creative trip. I remember that Roberto had previously remixed your song ‘Vow’ for The Matrimony Remixes EP that you put out last year. Was that project a lot of fun for you? Can’t say I had imagined you ever working with Diplo before that!
Oh yeah, that project was a lot of fun – it was just for fun. I met the girls from Prince Rama last year in Istanbul, and we were all at a couple of different festivals together, and I love them to death and loved their remix. And then Alias Pail are guys I have known since my high school days in Oklahoma. So, really, three of the peeps involved were people that I knew really well and really like. And, actually, Diplo and I kind of had a history too because we were both commissioned by XL to do remixes of Radiohead’s ‘Reckoner’ about four years ago, so I guess he heard my music that way. Later I met him at a show and then over the years he would drop me an occasional line, asking what’s new and things like that. So I asked him if he would be interested in doing a remix of my stuff and he was into the idea. So yeah, it was super fun.
Okay, last question! I saw that The Magic Place reached #4 in the Billboard New Age album charts and I was wondering if that’s a label you’re comfortable with?
Sure [pauses]. I mean, I’ve been categorised in every way you can possibly be. Well, not every way, but I’ve been in the classical category, the pop category, the New Age category…I think it’s funny! Oh, and I’ve been in the electronica category, which is totally not what’s happening at all [laughs]. So, you know, at this point it’s just funny. It’s like, ‘Oh, I’m New Age now?…please!’.
Julianna Barwick kicks off a short European tour with a sold-out show at Café OTO in London on Thursday.