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Julianna Barwick talks Drake, Choirs

By Shawn Cooke / Staff Writer

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Julianna Barwick specializes in a stunning brand of simplicity. Characterized by wordless melodies, choral looping and a penchant for ethereal reverb, Barwick’s songs layer dozens of sounds and vocal patterns into one gorgeous landscape. Her excellent 2013 album, “Nepenthe,” made small refinements to the formula, resulting in her most emotional and dreamlike work yet.

On Saturday, Barwick returns to Pittsburgh for a show at the Warhol Theater. Last week, Barwick spoke with The Pitt News about her songwriting process, childhood choral influence and her desire for Drake to sample her music.

The Pitt News: I always struggle with describing your music to people who haven’t heard it before. Ambient, wordless and looping are easy adjectives to throw around. But if you had the choice, how would you like to describe or categorize your music, if at all?

Julianna Barwick: It’s tough for me, too, and I was just talking about this with my last interview. I still am, like, not that awesome at categorizing or classifying the music that I make, because I feel like it can fall into a bunch of different genres. I mean, I think that it could be considered experimental, on a level. I think it could be considered classical, on a level, because there are so many choral elements to it. And it’s kind of hard even for me to classify still. I don’t see it fitting into any specific genre. I’ve been saying this for a few years, and I’m still not totally sure what genre it falls into perfectly. Do you have an idea?

TPN: I wish I did. You mentioned the choral influence that is partially rooted in your upbringing. Could you talk a little bit about how your childhood church experience has influenced your sound today?

JB: Sure. As a congregation, there was no church choir so to speak, but we all sang as a giant group in these cavernous auditoriums together, a cappella. The music I make is definitely informed by the kind of music I grew up singing and hearing, so it absolutely had an effect on me, growing up and singing like that. Not only just at church, but I also sang in choirs my whole life at school.

TPN: Did you always have a desire to warp those sounds?

JB: Not as a kid, but since I’ve started making music, yes. And maybe not even experimenting so much as trying to recreate that beautiful, choral, reverberant sound that I love so much in the music that I make.

TPN: Last year you toured extensively with Sigur Ros. Your songs both seem to exist in this open, widescreen space. Did touring with them change your songwriting approach at all?

JB: No, it didn’t change my songwriting style, I would say. I’m making music for a few different projects now and my approach is still pretty much the same. But that was definitely the experience of a lifetime, getting to travel with that band and their music — being able to do 20 shows in a row. I’ve always loved them, so it was definitely inspirational in several ways.

TPN: So was that the widest tour you’ve been on?

JB: It was definitely the longest tour and the hugest audiences, for sure. Thousands of people every night, gigantic spaces — that was definitely new. Definitely a turn from what I’m used to, but it was absolutely glorious.

TPN: Also during that tour, there were a series of stunningly beautiful images onscreen while you performed. And I had something of an anonymous tip from your publicist, Caroline Marchildon, who suggested that “Nepenthe” is best paired with specific installments of “Planet Earth.” So do you base these songs around specific images in your mind, or do those sort of fall into place?

JB: Well, all the music starts out with me just recording off the top of my head. So it’s all improv in the beginning — 100 percent of it does. Just me plugging in all these things that I perform with. And it all starts out with me just making stuff up, singing. All the music is just really personal — I’m not really meditating on anything outside of what’s happening in my life and people I love or the environment I’m in. Those are my main influences. I’m not really thinking about any kind of imagery.

TPN: Would you ever allow or consider any of your work to be sampled or used by a hip-hop artist? There would have to be some potential there.

JB: Absolutely. I mean, it depends on the artist. But you know, if Drake hit me up today, I would do it in a heartbeat. I really like Drake, also.

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Julianna Barwick talks Drake, Choirs