Interview: Jill Barber

Jill Barber

(Feb 2009) If you believe they don’t write songs like they used to, here is new hope for old romantics. On her new album Chances, Canadian chanteuse Jill Barber picks up the torch where the golden age of music left off. Stepping away from her folkier past, Jill delivers an album of ten original, fully orchestrated songs that strongly evoke – and could themselves become -the classics. From the moment you hear her sultry voice on the opening title track, you are transported to another time and place. A seasoned performer with a growing fan base across North America and the UK, Jill gained acclaim as a 2008 double-Juno nominee and multiple East Coast Music Award winner for previous releases For All Time (2006) and Oh Heart (2004). In February 2008, Jill was given the extraordinary chance to perform in concert with Symphony Nova Scotia as part of its Pops Series. The results evoked the rich sounds of Patsy Cline, Edith Piaf and Etta James. It was clear that Jill, previously a self-proclaimed “smoky folkie”, had reached a new level.

I spoke with Jill by phone as she recuperated from her trip down under and begins organizing the last leg of her Canadian tour…

Mb: Hi Jill.
JB: Hi!
Mb: I heard you just got back from Australia!
JB: I did. It was amazing. I was there for 5 weeks on tour and I’d never been to Australia before. It was a lot of fun. A totally new country and I played a lot of dates within that time. I did some festivals and it was really an incredible experience. I’m going to go back soon!
Mb: Where were you?
JB: We toured up and down the east coast, Brisbane, Melbourne, Sydney and Adelaide… and we went to Tasmania.
Mb: There’s an incredible music scene in Melbourne. I spent about a year and a half there recently.
JB: That was one of my only regrets. We only did one show in Melbourne. We arrived that day and had to leave early the next morning so we didn’t spend too much time in Melbourne. But I kept hearing from musicians in Australia that, that’s the music capital. Next time I’ll have to spend some more time there. I’ve really fallen in love with that country. The people are amazing and it’s a really interesting place. It has a lot of cross over with Canada but it’s still distinct. I really love Australia.
Mb: Well, you’re back and touring around Ontario…
JB: Ya!, My record came out in October and I wanted to do a full cross Canada theatre tour. I had to do it in three parts. I did the first part on the East Coast and the second part on the West Coast and this is now the last, and final leg of the cross Canada tour, in Ontario and Quebec. I’m really pleased I’m making it back to Peterborough. I’ve played there only once before, which I have a hard time believing becaase I’ve done a lot of touring, but for some reason…. actually that’s not entirely true I have played Peterborough a few times, but they weren’t the greatest dates. But the last time I was there I had an amazing time. I don’t know, maybe I was just blocking them out. I think I played in the wrong venues… but the last time I played the Folk Under the Clock and it was an amazing show.
Mb: It must be challenging to find the right venues for your style of music.
JB: I feel I’ve found a really comfortable niche musically and definitely now the challenge is to find the venues in which to do the shows. I definitely think soft seat theatres as opposed to shitty rock clubs!? I hear Showplace is nice…
Mb: It is… it’s a sit and listen.
JB: Ya, and that’s what it needs to be. Between small theatres and churches across the country I been finding some really nice rooms to play in and it’s been making a big difference. I’ve really been enjoying this tour and I’m also doing this tour with a full band for the first time. So in order to fully appreciate my band, a sit down venue is perfect.
Mb: So as a young performer, what has driven you to sing and write this style of music. Did you grow up listening to 50’s torch songs with your parents?
JB: I did listen to jazz growing up, but dinner jazz. My parents would listen to Ella Fitzgerald on the stereo so I new all the old standards from a pretty early age. I was also really obsessed with musicals as a kid. I loved Andrew Lloyd Weber and that sense of drama, I’ve always loved that. Then of course as a teenager I rejected all that and totally got into rock music, especially Canadian indie rock and that’s where I really fell in love with live music. That’s the time I decided I wanted to be on stage playing songs that I’d written. I started writing as a teenager, but as I got into my 20’s I went back to…. I got a record player and I would buy old jazz records and listen to Nat King Cole on vinyl. Even further back… I found an old 78 record player in an antique shop a couple of years ago and I started collecting 78’s, a lot of really obscure older music. I suppose I account for my love of that music… I don’t know… it’s very romantic. There’s something really magical about old music and I’m fascinated by these old standards and how they’ve stood the test of time. You can walk into a Starbucks today and hear Ella Fitzgerald or Billy Holiday or Frank Sinatra..
Mb: Or Michael Buble…
JB: Ya, he’s the second generation… well I guess I am too. We’re contemporary musicians. He’s singing the old songs. What I’m trying to do is write new standards, if that’s not too bold a statement to make. I’m trying to write new songs that will hopefully have some staying power.
Mb: And speaking of staying power, you wrote some songs with Ron Sexsmith.
JB: Yes I did. That was an amazing experience. We wrote a number of songs together and three of them are on the album. I’d never co-written before, so writing with him was sort of a dream come true. He’s a romantic too so we were both in the same head-space.
Mb: Ya I can imagine sitting the same room watching you two write would be a pretty “gooey” experience!
JB: (laughs) Ya, you wouldn’t want to be in the room… but for the people in the room doing it, it was a lot of fun. We laughed a lot. Neither of us are too concerned with being too sentimental. I think because we both really believe it. It’s from the heart, at the risk of saying something too cliche.
Mb: Ron actually said that very thing to me a few months ago. That it was his natural way of writing songs.
JB: Ya. He said that?
Mb: So what about the rest of your life. What else do you like to do? Are you a closet gamer or..?
JB: I’m a Scrabble addict! Luckily I have reliable Scrabble players. I do a lot of traveling and I have a travel Scrabble that comes with me everywhere. Ya, I like Scrabble… and the rest of my life is music.
Mb: So music it is and you’ll be in Peterborough and….
JB: I’m really looking forward to this tour. I’m playing with the most amazing band. I did the Australian tour solo, so I can’t wait to get back with the band… and I’m really looking forward to being back in Peterborough. You’re my kind of people!