Heaven is wherever
A dispatch from Julianna Barwick’s first show in Tulsa
Guthrie Green was a drape of string lights and white tents against the downtown Tulsa skyline during its second annual Art Market After Dark on Friday, November 2. Stairs facing the market guided patrons down into a pool of chatter and wares. A bubble machine filled the air with little mirrors; when it stalled, toddlers kept dancing awhile and then fell onto the grass.
“The music you’re hearing is really live!” a voice promised through speakers across the park to acknowledge the polished folk-soul of Tulsa singer-songwriter Sam Westhoff. He was set up with a band in a vine-walled clearing found behind the main stage and through a hallway of plants and bulbs blinking in different colors.
Experimental musician Julianna Barwick was set to play next. It would be Barwick’s first show in the city where she spent her teenhood working Saturdays at a bistro called The Teacup and testing the acoustics of the public bathroom at Woodlawn Park with her voice.
The occasion: an overdue Kickstarter reward for the donor who gave $800 to help fund her album Florine’s release on white vinyl back in 2009. In return, the fan could choose any city in the U.S. and Barwick would play there. The donor who came through in the last moments of the campaign was her dad, Buddy Barwick, who works now as a doctor at Tulsa urgent care centers. Julianna told this story on Instagram two days prior, with Kickstarter screengrabs and a photo of her and her dad on Madison Avenue, taken the week she moved to New York.
Buddy is not exempt from the challenge of pulling up words to describe his daughter’s music. He’s seen her play in Poland, Australia, Portugal and France; he’s used to explaining what she does to those who haven’t heard as “kind of like Enya, but not really.”
“How do you describe something that there’s only one of?” he’d ask me with pride after she left town.
Barwick built her 2006 debut E.P. Sanguine with just a guitar pedal and a four-track cassette recorder. After attending a free GarageBand workshop at an Apple store in SoHo—"anything that was free was good for me, because I had no money,” she laughed—Barwick looped her voice with an RE-50 Loop Station and fed the WAV files to the program to make Florine. The ecstatic moment when one sonic layer finds another is all over the E.P. It is the kind of magic artists typically witness in private moments of new sight while they work.
Three full-lengths and three E.P.s later, Barwick is still making music in this intimate-omniscient mode. Guthrie Green’s live sound engineer helped make one of the records. Friday I found Scott Bell between stages in a lemon-yellow coat and headset. He met Barwick when they were about 18. Barwick, who’d gone to high school in Jenks, noticed Bellsitting alone with Brit-pop ephemera—souvenirs from a recent trip to England—at a coffee shop called Gold Coast off Brookside .
“We just started talking about Radiohead, or Pulp or something,” he says.
The pair started recording experiments at each other’s apartments, creating a world they couldn’t access in Tulsa as teenagers. Bell, who would later recorded Barwick’s’s mother Julia’s vocals nearby for the otherwise Reykjavík-made Nepenthe, said he is passionate about bringing artists like Barwick to Guthrie Green and its big sister Gathering Place to create moments of discovery for all-ages crowds. He can’t point to many times he and Barwick felt that way back then in spaces that could hold a lot of people.
“I do distinctly remember we went to see the Vienna Boys choir at the PAC once,” Bell said. ”She audibly said, ‘I’m gonna do that.’ And she has.”
Back in the enclave at Guthrie Green, Tara Waugh stood with about 20 people who gathered to watch her best friend Julianna play a song called “Flown” from The Magic Place. It was written for Tara’s late sister. Aurora, Tara’s daughter, knelt beside her mother in a pink hoodie.
Behind them, Katie and Robbie Wing wandered up to the park after dinner at Que Gusto. They’d followed a voice that sounded familiar. “Yep, that’s Julianna Barwick,” Robbie said to Katie. They loved her music for years but had no idea she was in town, or that they’d once shared a city.
While I waited to meet the artist after her set, something soft bumped into my knee. It was a small puffy jacket. Inside the jacket was Barwick’s’s nephew Cooper, who turned five on Halloween. (The show was timed so that Barwick could also attend his birthday party.) Cooper saw friends of his mother part ways around us. “Bye!” he said, hugging my legs, mistaking a stranger for no one in particular and everyone he knows.