Music

Jill Barber reaching hearts, bodies and minds with her ebullient and empowering new pop direction on Metaphora

Thankfully, she takes it the way it was meant.

As a joke.

But also, thankfully, the always enjoyable Jill Barber has a serious, thoughtful and in-depth answer or answers to the cheeky question that begins the interview (after, of course, the requisite five-minute Canadian conversation about the weather): Is this her mid-life crisis album?

“My husband teased me that I should have called it that,” the East Coast-born, West Coast-based Barber says of her latest release Metaphora. “I don’t actually think of myself in mid-life yet, but I’m getting close, I’m getting close.

“To seriously answer your question, I do think this record is very much the record of a woman who has finally, in the second half of her thirties, finally has gained enough wisdom and has developed a new sense of her own power … and her own confidence, a new attitude about caring less about what the world thinks or what other people think.

“I don’t think I could have made this record 10 years ago, I think that it’s very representative of where I’m at in my life, which is inching forward to mid-life.”

She laughs. “And again, to answer your question seriously, there was a minor crisis, there was a minor artistic crisis. And what that looked like was I grew incredibly proud of my whole body of work, because I’m now definitely a mid-career artist because I’ve got eight albums or something like that under my belt, I’ve got a lot of music under my belt and a lot of it’s pretty different. But I was starting to feel a little bit uninspired and a little bit bored with the music I had been making and I knew that I had to make a change, and the main change that I knew I had to make is I knew I had to start pushing myself a little bit more and working with people outside of my comfort zone.

“So there was also a crisis element, a small artistic crisis that led to this album.”

Not a bad response to a smart-ass quip, eh?

Which requires a little background for those who haven’t heard Barber’s wonderful Metaphora, which she’ll bring to Calgary Friday, Oct. 26 for a Bella Concert Hall show.

For a woman known as first a folk artist and then a jazz chanteuse, it is her first foray into straight-up radio pop. The album is big, unabashedly catchy, slick, smart and confident, at times recalling fellow Canucker Serena Ryder’s commercial breakout Harmony, with single after single punching out of the sensational 11-song (including two French versions) lineup.

It’s not an entirely jarring or unexpected change-up for the veteran musical enchantress — and her gorgeous voice suits its ebullient new surroundings — but it’s one that’s worth acknowledging, as is the album in its entirety worth embracing for its mature approach to the pop format.

Barber admits that the content of the material was as much responsible for the direction than that aforementioned artistic crisis.

“I feel like I wanted to address a lot of contemporary issues on this album and I wanted to use a contemporary musical language to express them. That, to me, made sense,” she says.

“But the other great thing about pop music that has substance is you can deliver a political message and still have people groove to it — that’s the beautiful thing about music and politics, mixing it can be really fun.

“Music can be an amazing conduit to reaching people, I think music reaches people through their hearts and their bodies and their spirits and everything, and then their minds.”

As for those messages, Metaphora is a remarkably empowered and empowering collection of songs, with tracks such as openers The Woman and Girl’s Gotta Do speaking directly to the sisterhood in a bold and beautiful way, and other tracks tapping into the human condition in general — love, self-doubt, standing up for oneself, etc.

And musically, for that new vehicle, Barber turned to several people to collaborate, including New York producer Gus Van Go (Whitehourse, Arkells, Terra Lightfoot), who also brought onboard his partner Werner F and Chris Soper and Jesse Singer (a.k.a. Likeminds). More production was also done by Gavin Brown and Maia Davies in Toronto.

But before any of that, Barber first turned to a neighbour — Mother Mother’s Ryan Guldemond, who lives a couple of blocks away from her and her family in Vancouver. She admits she’d been a “fan of his writing for a long time and just an admirer,” but when friend and fellow musician Hannah Georgas introduced them a strong artistic connection was formed.

The first time they got together for a writing session, The Woman was the result, with 10 songs in total coming from the fruitful relationship — four made it to Metaphora while the other six “didn’t really have a place on this record.”

“I had a lot I wanted to say and I needed a new musical vehicle in which to express some things that I had to say,” she reaffirms. “He could tell that I needed a change and he was a big part of the change, for sure. He was very supportive.”

As for how supportive her longtime fans have been, whether or not they’ve followed her on this new musical journey, Barber says that over her 15-year career she’s cultivated a base that knows to expect the unexpected and that they, like her, are in it for the long haul.

She credits them for being “sophisticated and (they) can appreciate that an artist can go in these different directions and still be true and still be authentic, they can still follow me as an artist.”

Besides, she says, as a songwriter and performer she’s never really felt like her feet are firmly planted in any stylistic terra firma.

“I’ve actually always felt like an outsider no matter what genre of music I’m being slotted into,” she says. “For the last 10 years now, in my life I do feel like — while I feel very grateful that I’ve been kind of embraced by the jazz community, I really never felt like a jazz artist. It’s not where I come from. I love jazz music, don’t get me wrong, I do, but I always felt like I had to be like a small ‘j’ jazz artist or I was only comfortable with ‘jazz-y,’ because I just didn’t feel like a straight-up jazz artist.

“And I’ve never really felt like a straight-up folk artist.”

She continues. “And no, I don’t identify as a pop artist, even though I recognize this record is more of a contemporary pop sound. When I see myself, I see myself as a songwriter first and, when it comes to producing albums, I always want to serve the song, and they sometimes take shape in these new forms that are friendly to the jazz market or to the pop market, but at the end of the day I want to be a career musician.

“And I feel like the secret to longevity that some of my favourite idols artistic have had is that they have evolved and changed and reinvented. And that’s the playbook that I’m drawing from.”

(Photo courtesy Rachel Pick.)

Jill Barber performs Friday, Oct. 26 at the Bella Concert Hall in Mount Royal University’s Taylor Centre for the Performing Arts. For tickets please go to https://tickets.mru.ca/eventperformances.asp?evt=290.

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