Eclectic Canadian singer-songwriter Jill Barber puts worries aside as she hits her stride with new album Fool’s Gold
West Coast singer-songwriter Jill Barber. (Courtesy, Vanessa Heins)
There was a time when Jill Barber considered her unique and eclectic sound a “blessing and a curse.”
She thought it was problematic for her and the industry that she didn’t fit in with one genre, dancing, albeit delightfully, between folk and jazz, country and pop and soul, even releasing an album in French.
And when she made a statement such as “I wear my influences on my sleeves,” she was a little uncertain about how people would view the garment she was wearing, as if the arms were oversized and perhaps a little too busy to be taken seriously.
That was old Jill. Meet new Jill. Her motto now and her approach, with her wonderful new release Fool’s Gold, seems more in keeping with that of the old Mad man himself, Alfred E. Neuman.
“I worry less, that’s what it is,” says the West Coast-based chanteuse. “With making this record, I worried less about all of the things I used to worry about. And it seems to be serving me well.”
And it serves the album, her sixth and finest studio release, incredibly well.
It’s a beguiling work, one that doesn’t run from those different influences, but fully, passionately and unequivocally throws its arms around them and into them. It is the sound of an artist hitting her stride.
Barber acknowledges it took a long time for her to be able to get to that point, to fully realize who she was as a singer and songwriter couldn’t be defined by one genre, be it the folk sound she first caught the nation’s ear with, or the gorgeously antiquated jazz she progressed toward.
After more than a decade, she finally realized the only thing her sound could be defined by was that it was hers.
“I feel different with this record,” she says. “I used to be afraid of the idea of being a mid-career artist. But now, I guess I am, because it’s been a good dozen years since I put out my first record ...
“I feel more confident and I feel less tentative musically. I feel like I can try different things on records too, now.
“On the one hand I feel like I have my sound and people can recognize what I do but on the other hand I feel like we can play within it and it’s really liberating.”
You can hear it in the songs on Fool’s Gold, you can hear that confidence, that certainty sparkle through in the writing and Barber’s squeaky-clean, sinfully seductive vocal performances.
Recorded with her regular crew of musicians in her hometown of Toronto — Les Cooper and Drew Jurecka — she tackles everything from Motown-like opener Broken for Good and the smouldering Shirley Bassey-esque To the Last to the slow swinging charmer Darlin’ It Was You and old-timey country track The Careless One, a collaboration with now Nashville-based musician and producer Steve Dawson.
The fact that it all holds together she thinks is less about the styles than it is about what’s at the very core.
“The thing that is most important to me is not genre, it’s about the song,” she says. “If it’s a good song then that will shine through, no matter how you produce it or whichever tradition you’re writing in. And I think that’s what ties those traditions.”
It also helps tie together the material, itself, which runs the gamut of playful to lovestruck to heartsick without stretching for sentiment.
Barber admits, that, too, is something that comes with her current artistic confidence — being able to show off all of her emotional sides without having the songs spring directly from those emotions.
If that were the case, Fool’s Gold would be the sunniest and possibly most saccharine of outings, reflecting the fact that her life right now is as picture perfect as one can be, with an almost one-year-old son and a supportive husband in CBC personality Grant Lawrence.
“Every song I have to draw from my own resources, emotional resources,” she says. “But I feel liberated in the fact that I can write songs now that are not necessarily about my life ...
“I used to feel like I had to write about something that was going on in my life, that it wasn’t authentic (if I didn’t). But I don’t feel that at all anymore. I feel like I’ve broadened my horizons and I can draw from anything that I want to draw from.
“So that was a nice change with this record, too.”
And now Barber is hoping audiences will embrace the new, worry-free her, as she’s currently in what she describes as the “most exciting time in the artist cycle,” a month after Fool’s Gold’s release where she’s supporting it with appearances in fittingly eclectic events, such as jazz festivals and, this weekend, the Calgary Folk Music Festival.
Surprisingly, for an artist who’s just hitting her stride, it will be her first appearance at the event. She was invited last year but her due date was the same weekend so she had to decline.
But, as with Fool’s Gold and the freedom and certainty she now feels, Barber is looking at it as a case of better late than never.
“It feels like it’s been a long time coming because it’s been on my wish list for a long time,” she says of her spot on the bill. “So I’m really happy to be doing it.”
Jill Barber performs Saturday and Sunday at the Calgary Folk Music Festival. For more information calgaryfolkfest.com.