Sing a song of romance
New mom Jill Barber, Artsci’02, has emerged as a Canadian original – a chanteuse who’s equally at home singing dreamy tunes in either of Canada’s official languages.
“I think we won the baby lottery for July,” says Vancouver-based jazz singer and Queen’s alumna Jill Barber.
Jill is referring to her son, “the very serious, thoughtful young man” who’s already part of her jet-set lifestyle. He was barely a month old when he collected his first concert stub at the Sunshine Coast Musical Festival – with an onstage shout-out from the band The Matinee. Little Josh also has his first passport, so he can accompany mom to an upcoming gig in New York and perhaps on a planned 2014 tour of Germany.
Clearly, fans who feared motherhood would sideline Jill can rest easy. “The fate of my career depends on baby Josh’s willingness to go along with it,” says Jill, “and he seems willing.”
Josh’s easygoing attitude, combined with support from Jill’s husband, CBC Radio 3 host and author Grant Lawrence, allowed Jill to book an extensive tour of Quebec in October and she has even had time to write new songs for her sixth album. “I want to have it all,” she says, “my family and my career.”
Underlying Jill’s success is her Queen’s education. She earned her honours BA in philosophy (“I think I’m making as good a use of a philosophy degree as anybody,” she says) and minored in drama. Although not directly related, her studies have influenced her music. If philosophers grapple with vastly complex human concepts, well, so do songwriters. And being a good performer requires a sense of stagecraft. Hence, drama.
In an extracurricular sense, too, Queen’s shaped Jill’s music. She performed her first shows at open mics at Clark Hall Pub and the Grad Club, venues previously familiar to her big brother and biggest fan, Matthew Barber, Artsci’99. Probably because of her bluesy contralto, fellow musicians and the friendly experts at Zap Records – the Kingston vinyl albums store – soon pointed Jill toward jazz masters such as Ella Fitzgerald, Billie Holiday, and Nat King Cole. An obsession was born.
“When I listen to that music,” says Jill, “it transports me from the everyday to the extraordinary … to a world where everything is a little bit dreamier, more whimsical, and more romantic. Suddenly I’m starring in my own film, and that’s the soundtrack.”
That buoyancy helped shape the romance-laden songs Jill is known for, as well as the velvety, honey-sweet voice with which she sings them, nicely displayed on such signature songs as “Chances,” which she co-wrote with Ron Sexsmith.
These days she’s challenging herself to bend that wonderful of hers voice around another language. In 2009, Jill sang at the Montreal Jazz Festival, where in a bid to engage the largely francophone crowd, she sang a friend’s translation of one of her songs. The surprised audience roared its approval.
Of course, the pairing feels natural: why wouldn’t the country’s most romantic songstress sing in its more romantic language? Newly inspired, Jill dived headlong into francophone music and into a French-language immersion program in the south of France.
But it’s not as easy as simply translating. To perform in French Jill must adopt a completely different stage persona. “I actually have to move my body differently, have to channel Edith Piaf, not be afraid to have that French moxie,” she says. “That, and a little wine.”
Although she’s made great strides, Jill knows bilingualism, like motherhood, is a long journey. But in both cases, she welcomes the trip. In 2014 she’ll return to the studio to record – in English – the songs she wrote during her pregnancy, and she has plans for that concert tour in Germany.
As for son Josh, Jill’s hopes are simple. “I hope he gets to be as lucky as I’ve been, which is to do what he loves for a living,” she says. “That’s the ultimate goal for anyone.”
Vancouver freelance writer Grady Mitchell is the son of Teresa (Flood) Mitchell, Artsci’73, Law’76, and Senator Grant Mitchell, MA’76.