Stumbling into SXSW

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The best thing about SXSW is the serendipitous find. With hundreds of parties going on across the city, featuring thousands of bands that start to sound remarkably similar after a while, you have to maintain the belief that at some point during the week you’re going to stumble upon that one group that grabs you and shakes the dust from your skeptical, complacent, jaded, grumpy, stony little heart and makes you believe in something.

My serendipitous find of the festival thus far is Julianna Barwick, whose set I caught at a lawn party on the grounds of the French Legation building in East Austin. There, among the singer-songwriters and Jesus & Mary Chain tribute bands (unofficial), was Miss Barwick, a vocalist from Brooklyn who had foregone conventional band accoutrements like guitars and drums, or instruments of any kind, and walked on stage with nothing but a microphone and what appeared to be a mixing board.

The mixing board turned out to be a looping station, which Barwick uses to record her voice in discreet segments that repeat over and over. She then records harmonies on top of those looping vocal lines and loops those until it sounds like an entire group of singers is performing. Close your eyes and you can picture a boys choir in a cathedral somewhere in medieval Europe. Open them again, and what you see is Barwick, who strikes a modest figure as a performer (head down, shoulders slumped) but who has a remarkable voice that is just this side of angelic. Which is a good thing. Too much perfection and Barwick’s dovetailing, reverb-saturated “oohs” and “ahhs” might spill over into over-formalized prettiness. Instead, the cracks and warbles (reminiscent of Brian Wilson, who was always just shy of perfection) humanize her music and make it accessible, which is critical when you’re a wordless a cappella artist competing with free beer and punk bands in the middle of a field at a music festival.

Josh Rosenblatt writes about film from New York City.