If Jill Barber sounds happy and energized, there’s a good reason for that: when the Georgia Straight reaches the East Van resident she’s in Toronto, and still savouring the glow of having headlined her old hometown’s prestigious Roy Thomson Hall the night before.
“It’s a personal triumph”, the singer confides. “So I am happy, and I feel incredibly, incredibly privileged to get to do what I love, and to express my passion in my work.”
But there’s more going on in Barber’s life than some high-profile concert bookings. She’s also in the process of moving away from the jazz- and soul-influenced sound of her previous albums, with their nostalgic invocations of an elegance that no longer really exists in this world, and toward an approach that’s more engaged with the here-and-now.
Metaphora, her new album, is a conscious attempt to go pop—conscious not only in its deliberate use of radio-friendly backing tracks and sing-along choruses, but also in the sense that it finds Barber owning up to her feminism, and putting forward an affirmational message aimed directly at young women.
“I’ve always been a feminist, but my music was more of an escape from reality,” she admits. “And now I feel that I’m really confronting my reality head-on.”
It’s an approach, she adds, that involves engaging with dark elements from her past, but that’s bolstered by her current happiness as a mother of two, married to CBC Radio host and occasional memoirist Grant Lawrence.
“I feel like motherhood has been a pretty transformative experience for me,” Barber explains. “It’s changed some things about me, about my relationship to the world, about my relationship to my own body, to my own power. One thing motherhood has done is that it has actually been both a humbling experience and an empowering experience. I have a new respect for my own body, and what it can do.
“And, yeah, in a funny way it has made me more confident, because I feel like, I don’t know, ‘I am a mother and I can do anything now,’ ” she adds, laughing. “It’s the ultimate transformative, powerful, empowering experience.”
Part of Barber’s newfound artistic security lies in realizing that she can now collaborate on an equal footing with artists she admires—most notably Mother Mother singer-guitarist Ryan Guldemond, who cowrote four of Metaphora’s nine songs.
“I needed to find new pathways in order to express myself creatively,” she says. “And I knew that I needed to work with some new people.…So the first person I approached was Ryan Guldemond, who is a neighbour of mine and someone I’d wanted to write with for a while.
“He’s a really interesting guy,” she continues. “He’s a really raw, honest artist, who is not afraid to show his hand in his writing. Songwriting sessions with him are part musical therapy, part songwriting session. He wanted to get right down to the, um, dark matter—and that was exactly what I needed. He was really encouraging me to look at the less pretty side of my psyche.”
Guldemond’s also got an ear for hooks and bridges, Barber adds, something that’s easily heard in the post–Spice Girls sloganeering of “Girls Gotta Do” and in the album opener, “The Woman”, with its tribal beat and dramatic, stop-time finale. But her self-explorations are most comprehensively expressed in “Bigger Than You”—which was created with help from songwriter-for-hire Maïa Davies, rather than Guldemond. It’s almost certainly the darkest song Barber’s ever written. In it, her protagonist drives back a threat—whether sexual or simply sexist is never explicitly stated—through the sheer force of her confidence.
“The way I’ve been introducing that song is that I wrote it in an afternoon, but it took me about 20 years, really, to write,” Barber says. “I was reflecting on an experience that I had over a decade ago—and the amazing thing about being a songwriter is that I can draw from personal experience, as I did in that song, but I can recast myself as the hero, as the triumphant one, even if that’s not really how I felt at the time. It’s a way of processing an experience, for me.…It’s almost therapeutic to replay it in your head and react the way you wish you could have at the time.”
With its “I’m not scared” refrain, “Bigger Than You” offers a template for how Barber wants to engage with the world—and a prescient exploration of themes brought forward by the #MeToo movement.
“I wrote the whole record and recorded it before #MeToo happened, but it was so timely to create this record in this climate,” she explains. “It just goes to show that before #MeToo broke, there was a rising tide of whispers that eventually became a roar—and it hasn’t quieted. So this album does feel very timely—and I won’t say that’s an accident.”
Jill Barber plays the Vogue Theatre on Thursday (November 1).