Jill will showcase material from Fool’s Gold, while Matthew has new album Big Romance
Music, Published on Fri Nov 14 2014
Jill Barber has been waiting for this.
When the 34-year-old singer and songwriter takes to the Massey Hall stage on Saturday night as headliner, it will be the crowning achievement thus far of a career that has taken the Port Credit native through numerous styles, seven albums and three continents.
“It’s huge,” said Barber of her appearance at the 120-year-old venue.
“On Saturday night, there will be three big events in my life that are standouts: getting married, having my baby and performing my own show at Massey Hall. It is beyond my wildest dreams, which is an incredible feeling. I really think, when I was a teenager growing up in Port Credit, of being a musician, that playing the Rivoli felt like that would be the pinnacle, so to be invited to play onstage of Massey Hall is a great honour and I really feel it. I feel it a lot.”
Making the occasion even more special will be her warm-up act, her older brother Matthew Barber, a potent singer and songwriter in his own right who has eight albums to his credit, and the one who inspired her to follow her musical dreams.
“It’s totally a dream come true,” says Jill, who will perform material from her latest collection, Fool’s Gold. “My parents, who will be in the audience, what a big night it is for them. It’s a family celebration, obviously with my family, my parents, my brother and I, also with my musical family: my band, the label and all of the people that I work with on a daily basis. It’s a celebration for everybody. It’s not the size of the room, it’s the prestige and the fact that we all got here together is something that we’re all celebrating.”
Matthew, who’s pushing his own new album, Big Romance, has previously experienced the awe factor of the Massey stage.
“I’ve played there as a drummer with Doug Paisley when we opened for Jim Cuddy once and I know that when you’re up there the time flies rather quickly. You’ve got to take a minute to stop and savour the moment, so I’ll do that.”
Produced by the Jayhawks’ Gary Louris, Big Romance offers more of Matthew’s predilection for strong, pop-hooked melodies that are both personal and potent; something he felt was strengthened by Louris’s presence.
“I was aiming for a classic sounding album,” says Matthew. “I’m a huge fan of Gary’s songwriting and the Jayhawks, and I wanted to bring him in to help us craft an album that’s interesting from beginning to end but has classic sensibilities and also some hooks. There’s really no more of a conceptual angle than that.”
Aside from “On the 505,” which is a song concerning the Sammy Yatim streetcar shooting last summer, and “Magic Greg,” an ode to one of Matthew’s late friends, Barber says the remaining eight songs on Big Romance are deal with “existential issues that I’m always interested in, or issues of science and nature and making sense of the world, or just issues of the heart and the emotions that go along with love and relationship. That’s my usual terrain for songwriting.”
But not his only terrain: Barber will also provide the music for the new John Patrick Shanley play A Woman Is a Secret, premiering at Toronto’s Theatre Centre on March 20.
It’s not the first time Barber’s dabbled in theatre; he finds scoring for plays refreshes him when it comes to penning material for his records.
“It’s a nice diversion. I think it’s kind of a breath of fresh air to keep the songwriting wheels turning, but having these set parameters to contend with where you’re writing for a particular show or writing for particular characters is a nice, different way to work. So when I come back to writing my own material for my next record, it’s fresh.”
He also revealed he’ll be cutting a duets album next year with Jill, whom he calls “amazing.”
“I’m very proud of and inspired by her,” says Matthew. “She’s really crafted her own sound and her own esthetic package, for sure. She experimented with some sounds and has found a style that really works for her.”
Central to that sound is Jill’s plush, torchy voice, described by the authoritative All Music Guide website as a “mid-century blend of little-girl timbre and orotund vowels,” and suited to the jazz-influenced songs that she’s written for Fool’s Gold, some of which sound like a throwback to yesteryear.
It’s been a journey of stylistic twists and turns for Vancouver-based Jill, who began her career with more of a folk esthetic on her first two EPs and 2006’s For All Time before switching directions and being embraced by the jazz community for 2008’s Chances.
Barber said her writing style evolved accordingly once she left her guitar out of the process.
“The way I write songs most of the time these days is a cappella,” says the bilingual Jill, who also released a collection of French-language covers last year called Chansons.
“So it’s really just my voice. I’ll take a little demo recording of me singing a cappella to one of my band mates and they will help me create the music underneath it, so my vocal melody is always the first thing that is written, along with the lyric.
“Back in the day I wrote with my guitar at the same time. But because I’m not the world’s greatest guitar player, I started to find as I started to explore jazzier vocal stylings it became harder for me to accompany myself. So when I put down my guitar, I could sing any melody and was free to let my voice lead the way.”
Jill says she’s always felt a deeper connection to older music.
“Back in university, I would go to the local record shop and thumb through the old dusty records. I would essentially pick out the records that I thought had cool record covers, and I’d take them home and I’d listen to them. There was something about this old jazz, these old standards, and the way these men and women delivered these songs that, to me, instantly felt like a soundtrack: this beautiful, whimsical, romantic experience.
“So I think that when I’m writing, it doesn’t matter what style I’m writing in, I’m trying to write music that is timeless, that might be old but hasn’t aged.”
Massey Hall concertgoers will receive a generous taste of these contemporary “vintage” originals, as Jill says she’s employed a three-piece string section, a three-piece horn section, backing singers and hired a special lightning designer for the show.
“We’re gonna go to town!” she declares. “My two Fool’s Gold producers — Drew Jurecka and Les Cooper — have been working tirelessly on arrangements just to put this show over the top. We’re pulling out all the stops that we know how to pull out and it’s going to be really special.”