Jill Barber’s gift for creating the perfect mood in the right setting even extends to the location she chooses for her interview with the Straight. Finch’s Tea & Coffee House is a buzzing, closet-sized café on the edge of Gastown, with a rustic, wood-heavy interior that feels like a vintage Holly Hobbie dollhouse blown up to real-life dimensions.
Barber’s East Coast Music Award–winning 2006 debut album, For All Time, would sound perfect here, thanks to its quilted folk, country, and acoustic-jazz influences. But Barber’s follow-up, Chances—released last October—is a different thing entirely, with the now-transplanted easterner indulging herself in the kinds of sounds that shimmered out of L.A.’s Cocoanut Grove in the early ’50s. (We could have met there, too, but Barber’s label wouldn’t buck up for the time machine.)
With Chances, Barber says, she wanted to create “new standards”, meaning that she was aiming for no less than the Great American Songbook when she started penning the album early last year, invoking the likes of songwriters Hoagy Carmichael, Harold Arlen, and Johnny Mercer for inspiration.
“Because as much as I love a lot of the jazz vocalists that are performing the old standards today, at some point somebody’s going to have to write some new songs,” she explains, sipping a mug of herbal tea. “So I took it upon myself, ambitiously, to try to write some songs that could stand alongside those old jazz standards and work.”
Well, there’s nothing like challenging yourself. Besides the audacious reach of Barber’s vision, what’s remarkable about Chances is that it’s so obviously within her grasp. From the plucked strings and lush harp glissandos of the title track, to the western-swing-meets-Andrews-Sisters quick-step of “Leaving You”, to the spine-tingling orchestrations that lift “Take It Off Your Mind”, it’s as if producer-arranger Les Cooper had consulted with the ghost of Nelson Riddle. In total, the singer-songwriter has delivered a 10-song set that might well have made its way to Peggy Lee or Julie London in the last century.
Not to diminish Barber’s own unique instrument, of course—her tremulous kitty-kat purr is the icing on Chances. But in this case, perhaps the highest compliment Barber has received for an album that’s been universally praised is the mistaken impression that she didn’t write it.
“I can’t tell you how many times people have thought that I released a covers album,” she says with a smile. “And I like the idea that people hear the songs and can’t quite place where they’re from. I hear it from members of the audience a lot, that songs I’ve written that they’ve never heard feel familiar somehow. Which leads me to believe that I’ve either ripped off a song unwittingly, or I’ve written a song that instantly feels timeless to them.”
With a chuckle, she confirms, “The latter is what I’m striving to do.”
Barber found sympathetic company with her collaborators on Chances. Vancouver gospel trio the Sojourners first inspired, and then ended up performing on, “Oh My My”, which started life as an a cappella spiritual until Barber and producer Cooper gave it a sizzling, swing-time percussion arrangement.
And joining her for a cowrite on three tracks is her friend Ron Sexsmith, who put aside his own idiosyncratic voice for Barber’s classicism. “He was the perfect guy to ask,” she says, “because of anybody, he gets old music. He has an encyclopedic knowledge of old music and singers and old songs.”
There is of course some danger in looking backward as enthusiastically as Barber and her partners do on Chances, no matter how brilliantly rendered it is. She recognizes what she calls “a fine line between kitsch and class”, but pleads for the honesty of the work.
“I do think I’ve arrived at what I do best,” she offers. “I tapped into my own voice and my own abilities as a songwriter and really figured out what kind of artist I wanted to be. Whereas with my last record, I was experimenting a bit more, figuring it out. I mean, I’m still figuring it out, but I’m closer. Getting closer all the time.”
Behind all that, Barber suggests, is a drive to secure her own legacy. Which isn’t hard to understand in a world that feels increasingly ephemeral.
“I’m a pretty modern person, but what I love about old music is that it’s stood the test of time,” she says, “and I’m fascinated by art that stands the test of time. I can tell you whatever pop music you hear on the radio today we won’t care about tomorrow, and I don’t want my music to fall into that vortex of ”˜the current’. I’ve never been very good at writing a pop song. Cutting-edge doesn’t come very naturally to me.”
Jill Barber plays the Rio Theatre on Saturday (April 4).