Every artist must forge a unique identity. And that task is especially crucial for singers, to justify the spotlight that comes with standing in front of others. In the decade that has found her recording and performing her own songs in public, Jill Barber has developed a strong presence on-stage, but when the music itself started to change, she went through her own, somewhat unexpected transformations.
Fans of the Toronto- and sometimes Halifax-based guitar strummer who won a pair of East Coast Music Awards in 2007, and co-led a band with her roots-minded brother, Matthew Barber, may have been surprised to encounter her fifth release. Last fall’s Mischievous Moon found her crooning jazzy originals against lush orchestrations. On top of that, the disc’s deluxe cover featured an elegant chanteuse straight out of the Mad Men mid-’60s, complete with upswept chignon, hoop earrings, and a feathery off-the-shoulder number.
“It all started with Chances, the album before that,” declares Barber, calling from her Vancouver home. (She moved here about two years ago, to be with her husband, writer and CBC personality Grant Lawrence.) “I turned a big corner in my musical evolution with that one. That marked the moment when I found my true voice. I’ve been singing since I was a teenager, and I think part of being an artist is allowing yourself to be influenced by your favourite musicians and songwriters.
“For a long time, I was experimenting with different styles and genres and trying to figure out where I fit in with the grand scheme of things. With Chances, I made the statement record about who I was or wanted to be, and the challenge then became finding a way to move beyond that. I wanted the new record to represent another chapter. With someone like Neil Young, all his records are different, and I want to push myself like that. Of course, I worked with the same producer again.”
Yes, but for Moon, she found a different stylist.
“With Chances, I started to think way more about the entire concept of performing—not just the songs, but the aesthetics of what I do, and how my show looks and feels,” Barber says. “So I guess I’ve become slightly more savvy about presenting myself as—I don’t want to say ‘a total package’, so let’s just call it ‘a total experience’.
“It’s tough for me,” she continues, “because I’m not one to create a persona and play a role, as it were. But I do know that part of my personality is what needs to be put on-stage, and that a part of me—authentically me—only really comes alive on-stage. It’s not a struggle for me, even though I was pretty shy as a kid. In the last 10 years, it has become a kind of home, and one with a kind of magic, especially when it comes to that exchange of energy with the audience. Honestly, I only make records in order to continue touring.”
Like the record before it, Mischievous Moon> features arrangements developed with guitarist-producer Les Cooper, known for his work with Ron Sexsmith. (Her touring quintet, featuring pianist Robbie Grunwald and four other Toronto-based players from those two discs, will join Barber here for a closing-night gig at the TD Vancouver International Jazz Festival.) And even if her sound has grown increasingly sophisticated, she still has in common with Sexsmith a deep appreciation for the songwriter’s craft. He also helped write the new disc’s “Any Fool Can Fall in Love”.
Songs like the bossa nova–flavoured “Took Me by Surprise” and the extra-torchy “Tell Me” offer vulnerability and witty wordplay, along with strings, horns, and bachelor-pad vibraphones. Like several other tunes cowritten with violinist and string arranger Drew Jurecka, the gentle, Hawaiian-inflected “Lullaby” floats on its smoothly retro feel.
“I love it when people have their imaginations engaged by my songs,” Barber says. “When I listen to music, I want to be transported somewhere I wouldn’t have gone without those songs. That’s the power of music, and I don’t think there’s anything better. Of course, it gets harder all the time to keep raising the bar, as a singer and songwriter, but if it didn’t get more difficult, I’d know I was doing something wrong.”
Next up, Barber is building on her following in Quebec and Europe—and on Mischievous Moon’s closing song, a Gallic version of “Tell Me”—with an all-French side project. That starts recording this month and centres, as you might hope, on deathless Charles Trenet and Françoise Hardy songs of the ’50s and ’60s. But despite Barber’s growing profile on the world proscenium, it bugs her that people still don’t realize she’s a full-fledged Vancouverite.
“I don’t get it,” she says in mock dismay. “I’ve been doing everything right! I’ve got the Lululemon, I’m hiking all the time, and I’m even looking at getting some Gore-Tex.”
Hmmm. Maybe it’s time to check in with that stylist again.
Jill Barber plays Performance Works on June 30 as part of the TD Vancouver International Jazz Festival.