All you lovers in the house, if you’ve never fell under the spell of Jill Barber, I recommend you give the sultry songstress a try. For the past ten years, Barber sung of love and its downfall through different lenses: Motown, jazz noir, ’20s, swing, folk. Her music takes on the ambiance of foregone eras, yet always feels fresh. I had a chance to speak to her before her performance at the Montreal Jazz Fest and found out about the many sides to Jill Barber, not just in her music, but also in her life.
Rachel Levine (RL): You’ve completely changed over the years from folky to jazzy, yet one thing is consistent. You manage to combine sexy, classy, and romantic at the same time. Is this your natural personality or one that comes out as you write and perform music?
Jill Barber (JB): It comes out when I perform music. I would say it’s all in me. There’s something for me about music that’s sensual. It’s a performance, and it’s vulnerable and intimate and that kind of brings out a sexy sultry thing. That comes out more on stage.
RL: Building on that, your songs also always feel to me like they’re from a different era. To the Last is so smokey, straight out of a crime film, very femme fatale. It seems like an identity to me…
JB: I think in a way I do. I put on songs like hats and when you put on different hats you feel different. And I suppose now, more than ever, I’m writing songs that are not all directly about my experience. In my folk days, I could talk about the songs from personal experience because I’d write from that. It’s been liberating to decide I’ve graduated to a place in my artistic life where I can talk about other people’s stories and feel authentic. It’s my authentic voice, but I am not always drawing material from my own life. It’s essential as a performer, for me, when I sing a song in first person to try and get in the skin of the person whose perspective I’m getting in. I draw all of these from within. I’m not trying to be a character. I’m trying to have empathy.
I am married and I have a child and we’re domesticated and I’m happy. There’s not a lot of tension or grief to work with. It’s not perfect, but it would be tired to write the same love song over and over again. I love singing love songs, but its fun to write and sing heartbreak songs too. They’re not necessarily about my own heartbreak, but there’s a lot of heartbreak in the world that I can use as material and I can identify with it. That’s why this record has a lot of heartbreak on it. I had to qualify to my husband that it’s “not about you.”
RL: You’ve recently released Fools Gold a few weeks ago. How would you describe the ethos of this album? Did the major changes in your life change how you worked on this album?
JB: I know I will always listen to these songs and think back to this time and the whirlwind that I’m on now. As a mom, it was important to me, and I think it was a personal challenge, to release a record in the first year after my baby was born. It was goal. It was going to be okay if I didn’t make it. The reason for that is that I’ve been at my career for over 10 years, and always trying to keep up the momentum, always trying to have a show booked. I panic if I don’t have shows to look forward to, or songs or an album that I’m working on. I thrive on forward momentum in my career and grinding that to a halt frightens me. I was worried. I always knew I wanted to have a family, and I was worried that it would grind to a halt with a baby. So I wrote a lot during my pregnancy and made plans and a tour that I committed to in Quebec.
The process changed. One thing that I’ve learned is a parent is how to trust my instinct and not second guess everything. It makes you a good parent and a good artist, not to overthink every little thing. In a studio environment it’s possible to do take after take after take. But, like parenting, now I’m accepting that there is no perfection. Of course, there is giving it your all. That’s important as an artist.
I also from a practical point of view had less time to spend on this album. I wrote and recorded in shorter spurts of time. I’m motivated to get more done in a shorter period and I feel like the hardest thing about being a parent has nothing to do with my child. It’s just getting shit done. It’s hard to get stuff done. And, um, that whole raising a person thing… that gets done. That’s a big job, but a different way of quantifying how you spend your time. It’s a long term investment.
RL: I want to go back to something you mentioned earlier, especially now that you no longer rely on your personal experience alone when writing music. Can you tell me where the inspiration comes from? Do you start with music or with the lyrics, because the lyrics and feel are what always stand out most to me.
JB: I usually start with a concept, like what is the concept and do I want to write a love song or heartbreak song. The lyrics and the melody happen at the exact same time. I’ll start with stream of consciousness lyrics [she begins to sing “What is the melody?”] I actually do that with a stream of consciousness lyrics, stream of consciousness melody and do this for until I stumble upon something that feels good. I don’t do it with a guitar. I do it a cappella. I bring in instruments after I have melody and lyrics. The instruments come afterwards.
RL: So how does it feel to be performing in Montreal tonight? Will you be performing a lot from Chansons or from the new album?
JB:We perform the French songs at every show across the coutry. I added a couple of extras for Quebec. I would sing more in French, in places like Regina, except that there won’t be the same level of appreciation.
Jill Barber played at Club Soda on July 5.