We all know what to do when life gives us lemons. But on this sunny, warm Vancouver day, with little fleecy clouds scudding across the North Shore mountains and birds singing in the lilac bushes, Jill Barber has a different kind of problem. Life, it seems, has given her a bushel basket full of handpicked organic tangerines, glossy leaves still attached to their stems, and she’s worried about how this will affect her art.
Well, maybe not that worried.
We’re sitting in the East Vancouver home she shares with her husband, CBC Radio personality, award-winning author, and former Smugglers singer Grant Lawrence, and their first child, Joshua. It’s the kind of midcentury-modern bungalow that seems much larger inside than out, with its stark white walls and Dwell-approved furnishings. A sleek, minimalist turntable and a vinyl copy of Paul Simon’s Still Crazy After All These Years give the only indication that musicians live here, unless you know that the large shark painting that dominates one wall is by Sloan drummer Andrew Scott.
Baby Josh is out on a ramble with Lawrence’s sister, the windows are open wide to the breeze, and Barber is ready to tell all about her charmed life, her creative process, and her new album, Fool’s Gold. An album, by the way, that presented the singer with a creative challenge many of us might envy.
“It’s not interesting, the material in my life right now,” she says. “It was easier to be a writer when life dealt me a harder hand, but now I’m happily married with a beautiful child, and I don’t want to just put out an album of lullabies.…It’s not to say that life is blissful all the time, but I’m not in and out of relationships, getting my heart broken, and writing about it. So I’ve had to make an adjustment as a songwriter. And it’s been a pretty important adjustment, which is that I still write about heartbreak; there’s a lot of it on this record. But it’s not necessarily my own heartbreak that I’m writing about. It’s the heartbreak of other people, although I’m drawing from my own knowledge and experience of it. But the really important part is that when I’m singing about it, I’m feeling it.
“It might be fiction,” she adds, “but it’s no less real.”
Fool’s Gold, which dropped on June 17, is split equally between songs that mourn love lost and ones that celebrate love found. For every “Let’s Call It Love”, a Wurlitzer-tinted Muscle Shoals ballad tailor-made for crooning into your sweetie’s ear, there’s a “Broken for Good”, an elegant moan set to film-noir guitars and ominous baritone sax. The album also offers an intriguing detour into Patsy Cline–style country soul, thanks to the blue and brokenhearted “The Careless One”, and a “Lucky in Love” that, although a Barber original, could have easily found a place on any of Frank Sinatra’s Capitol LPs.
The overall effect is both intimate and suave, which belies both Barber’s assertion that she’s uncomfortable in the recording studio and her belief that this is her most rocking record to date.
“Well, it’s not a rock ’n’ roll record,” she says after a moment’s thought, “but I think it’s got some guts.”
What her seventh release doesn’t have is much to support the popular notion that Barber is a jazz singer—and she’s just fine with that. “I don’t think I’m a jazz artist,” she stresses. “I’ve only ever really felt, like, jazzy.
“I love the old jazz standards,” she continues. “I love them. I draw a ton of inspiration from the old standards, but what I think separates me from a lot of folks in the jazz world is that I don’t perform the standards. I could, but I feel like my place in the world of jazz is to carry on that tradition of songwriting, to write new songs that have the spirit of those old standards.
“However, in the last few years the jazz world has kind of opened its arms to me and invited me in‚ which has been wonderful for me as a musician, because it’s nice to get invited to the party, and I love playing jazz festivals. And I love the audiences that come out. They’re really serious about the music, and I take music seriously too, so it’s a good match.”
Barber’s upcoming TD Vancouver International Jazz Festival appearance will be notable for more than just her easy rapport with a crowd. Although she’ll perform with essentially the same Toronto-based quintet that has been her band for the past five years, it marks, she says, her first local show as a real Vancouverite. After growing up in Toronto and maturing as an artist in Halifax, the 34-year-old feels that she’s finally landed exactly where she wants to be.
“I really, really feel like this is home now,” she confides, with an affectionate glance at her surroundings. “I had the baby here, and we have this home that we bought that we’ve been in for a year and a half now, and that changed things a lot for me. I mean, I’ve been a bit of a wanderer, and maybe I’ve felt like a bit of an outsider to the musicians in this town. But I’m getting inside Vancouver, and it’s getting inside me.”
Jill Barber plays the TD Vancouver International Jazz Festival at the Vogue Theatre on Tuesday (June 24).