Vancouver's Jill Barber rekindles songwriting flame en français

She will perform at the 31st edition of Festival d'été francophone de Vancouver

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      Jill Barber accomplished something pretty significant recently: she wrote a song. Perhaps that doesn’t seem so extraordinary. After all, songs are Barber’s stock-in-trade. No less an authority than Kris Kristofferson once described the Vancouver-based musician as “a damn good songwriter”.

      There was something special about this one, though, as Barber explains when the Straight rings her up at the home she shares with her husband, CBC Radio host and erstwhile Smugglers frontman Grant Lawrence, and their two children.

      “I just wrote my first song in this postpandemic world,” she says. “It felt amazing. I’ve been thrown into a full-time domestic role. I’ve got a four-year-old and a seven-year-old. And to have two little kids with me 24/7 is intense. My husband is working full-time, and he’s like the salary person, so the child care has fallen to me. He actually took them out of town, up the coast for a few days to give me a break, and I finally had a minute to come up for air and write.

      “So I wrote my first song, and essentially put the last five months of angst into a song,” Barber continues. “It’s pretty heavy, I guess, because it captures how I’ve been feeling in these times as a creative person who hasn’t had any space to create.”

      Considerably less angst, presumably, went into Barber’s most recent album, Entre nous, which she released in June. The record kicks off with the title track, a bossa-nova-flavoured confection with all the pastel hues and fluffy sweetness of a plate of macarons. It also includes just the briefest snippet of English (“…just for me and you”) on an album that is otherwise sung entirely en français.

      Entre nous is Barber’s second French-language release. The first, Chansons, was made up of songs made famous by others, including Charles Aznavour and Edith Piaf. The new collection had its genesis in Barber’s work on her last English LP, 2018’s Metaphora. She and her songwriting partner Maia Davies came up with “Entre nous” then, and that planted a seed in Barber’s mind.

      “I knew that I wanted to make another French record at some point, because I had such a good time making the first one,” she says. “I loved to sing in French, and I was touring more in Quebec, so I was kind of inspired to do something in French. And I thought, ‘I’ll do another covers record, but I’ll include “Entre nous”, and maybe I’ll do two or three original songs and the rest covers.’

      "So I invited Maia to come out to Vancouver. She came out on two different writing trips. We worked at the little SOCAN writer’s room in Gastown, and song after song after song kept coming out. Much to my surprise and delight, I ended up writing about a dozen original French songs, so the album ended up being all original and one cover, as opposed to all covers with a few originals.”

      (That lone cover, incidentally, is a version of Leonard Cohen’s “Suzanne”, which uses Graeme Allwright’s translation for the lyrics.)

      Barber recorded Entre nous at Vancouver’s Afterlife Studios last October. Davies joined her in the studio, acting as the singer’s French-language coach.

      “I wouldn’t want to show how the sausage is made too much, but on this record I would sing four or five takes of a song, just trying to get the feeling right,” Barber recalls. “And then we would pick the best take. Maia had the lyrics printed out, and she circled in red anything that needed fixing. It sort of looked like your nightmare paper back in high-school English—you know, just covered in red marks. So I would re-sing little bits and pieces of the song.”

      It was meticulous work, but Barber felt she had an obligation to do things properly. “It’s really important, when you sing in another language, to be understood,” she says. “It’s one thing to have an accent—like, the accent is charming—but with anything like a mispronunciation, I feel like you’ll just lose people.”

      Vanessa Heins photographed Jill Barber for the cover of the Georgia Str prior to her appearance at the 2014 Vancouver International Jazz Festival.

      Barber looks forward to performing live

      You only get one shot to get it right when you’re singing live in front of an audience, of course. Barber hasn’t done much of that in recent months—thanks, COVID-19!—but she’s getting back to gigging now.

      Earlier in August, for instance, she sang a pair of responsibly distanced outdoor shows, for 50 people at a time, at Holberg Farm in Agassiz. For now, Barber is performing strictly solo.

      “Over the course of many years, I’ve played with a band,” she says. “I love to tour with my band, and I’ve done almost no solo shows in the past decade. But my band lives in Toronto and L.A., and one of my bandmates is in Australia. So they can’t be my band right now. I’m trying to come around and embrace a bit of a DIY approach, which is how I started back in the early 2000s. So it’s kind of like back to basics for me.”

      Barber says she’s still figuring out how to present the songs from Entre nous in this pared-down format. On the album, the arrangements range from the chiming indie pop of “Les étés de Montréal” to the piano-and-strings melodrama of “La pluie”. The artist’s job, then, is to strip the songs back to just voice and acoustic guitar. It’s a challenge, but Barber seems more than up to the task. In fact, she seems to derive a great deal of joy from being able to do creative work again, whether that’s writing songs or playing them live.

      She admits that life during the pandemic hasn’t always been smooth sailing, and that she has had more than a few moments of despair. Diving back into her musical career has been a potent antidote, it turns out, and she relishes each opportunity it presents her.

      “I am booking shows for the fall—I’m booking a little B.C. tour of the theatres that are participating in safe, distanced shows,” she says. “So I am starting to feel some hope.