When Julianna Barwick began to cry while singing in bed, she knew she had found what she’d wanted from California.
After 15 years in Brooklyn, the singer shipped everything she owned, including her grandmother’s piano, to Los Angeles in December 2016. In New York, Barwick had emerged as a surprising star of experimental music, turning her airy soprano into a one-woman choir that evoked the majesty of Arvo Pärt and the hypnosis of Sigur Rós. But a string of failed relationships there had left her exhausted, in need of a restart.
“I had to get away from those ghosts,” Barwick said recently in a phone interview, sighing from her home in Los Angeles. “I needed a place that inspired joy and delight again.”
After a few attempts to find the right home base, she moved into a newly built casita lined with terra-cotta tiles and insulation so thick it meant she could record music whenever she wished. Five days later, she had her first date with her current boyfriend, the director Joel Kazuo Knoernschild, the only person she’s ever asked out. Three months into the relationship, Barwick climbed into bed with a microphone and began singing.
Ever since she was a toddler in small-town Louisiana, singing to herself in the sanctuary of the church where her father was the youth minister, the sound of her own voice made her teary. As Barwick began to cry in her new bedroom, she knew she’d found home and the beginnings of “Healing Is a Miracle,” her first album in four years.
“It was so cathartic and joyous,” she said. “I hadn’t done anything that felt so free in a long time.”
From the outside, Barwick’s previous decade had been a spectacular success. After she arrived in New York from Tulsa, Okla., in 2001, she studied darkroom photography at Hunter College and tinkered with writing songs “like Cat Power would, but sounding like Whitney Houston,” she said. She never stopped singing, though she had long resisted formal music education, rankled by the ways it stripped joy from a pure emotional release.
But in 2005, a friend lent Barwick a little red looping station, allowing her to layer her voice in interwoven strata, webs of absolute feeling. She would sit for hours, shaping her celestial tone into improvised songs. “I would just start singing, and, by the end, wonder, ‘Where did that come from?’” she said. “That element of surprise went such a long way.”
In 2011, her debut album, “The Magic Place,” became a surprise indie hit. At a moment when the very idea of new age music seemed like a punchline, her largely wordless, a cappella hymns offered a reminder of the transformative power of something intensely beautiful. As her profile grew, she performed a new work at Walt Disney Concert Hall and an early song, “Anjos,” became the soundtrack for a Levi’s commercial.
But for Barwick, now 41, private turmoil riddled much of her seemingly charmed 30s. In late 2011, just as her hobbyist loops began to build a career, she married a longtime friend. “It was almost instantly miserable,” she said, chronicling a string of instabilities and petty jealousies.
In August 2013, the same month her second album arrived, she signed divorce papers, put her possessions in a storage unit, and lugged her life around in suitcases for two years of touring. “I was having to steel myself to do it,” she said. “It was awful.”
The years of subsequent torment crept across her 2016 album, “Will.” She sighed over brooding piano and wept inside webs of synthesizer, eventually trying to dance away the darkness during the finale, “See, Know,” a cavalcade of marching drums and garish keyboards.
Though it took time, Los Angeles became the new creative laboratory Barwick needed, teeming with old friends and potential collaborators. The Sigur Rós singer Jónsi Birgisson and his partner at the time, Alex Somers, who had produced Barwick’s second album, had recently purchased a house there. Shortly after Barwick’s move, one of her best friends, the experimental harpist Mary Lattimore, arrived from Philadelphia. Together, the quartet became the “Kismet Crew,” named for the stylish Mediterranean restaurant where they’d often convene.
Lattimore and Birgisson star on “Healing Is a Miracle.” Lattimore adds gentle rhythmic ballast to “Oh, Memory,” the spell Barwick casts against her feelings for her former marriage. Birgisson demanded that Barwick write lyrics — a rarity for her — before they sing together. The result, “In Light,” is one of her most commanding moments, a revealing ode to the effort of saving yourself.
“For years, Julianna was this one-woman choir,” Lattimore said by phone from Los Angeles. “But she let people in. That’s growth — opening up and being vulnerable to other people’s choices.”
For years, Barwick bristled at the “new age” label, even as the term returned to vogue. She wanted people to know she was wry and real, not some fairy flitting among the treetops or, as The New York Times called her in 2009, “the new Enya.” Barwick has an indelicate sense of humor that emphasizes absurdity and a ready, cutting laugh. She’s as prone to talk about growing up alongside the cast of “Duck Dynasty” as she is to explain the nuances of the generative music system she designed for a New York hotel.
But from its declarative title to its billowing songs, “Healing Is a Miracle” doesn’t shy away from new age’s self-help signifiers. “Safe” unfurls like a series of yogic breathing exercises. During “Wishing Well,” Barwick holds clarion tones over electronic drones, as though meditating.
“So much of my personal work these last few years has been about healing, and that takes real work,” Barwick said. “People reach out and tell me about the therapeutic qualities of my music. I get it — when I finish something, I feel like I’ve had a good cry. Often, I have cried.”
Barwick’s life in Los Angeles sounds like a continual adventure, pandemic notwithstanding. She talked about taking her mother to see the Pacific Ocean and the sequoia trees of the Sierra Nevada as if paraphrasing a fairy tale. And on most weekends, she and Knoernschild drive 45 minutes to his parents’ place near the beach. He’s been urging Barwick to learn to surf. She’s not ready yet — for now, she’s content just to splash amid the waves.