Jill Barber does not fit the standard girl with guitar mould. Although her early career began in a similar singer-songwriter vein to that of her older brother, roots musician Matthew Barber, her propensity for old-timey folk and jazz standards eventually led her down a very different path. When the former folkie stepped away from the coffee houses to search for her true voice, she discovered the perfect fit for her trademark warble in the swooning glamour of a more genteel era.
While attending Queens University, Jill Barber became a member of the now-defunct band Bent Ivy before setting out on a solo career. Her independently released 2002 debut EP, A Note to Follow So, was well-received by critics and audiences alike, praised for its surprisingly assured delivery and depth of emotion.
After university, Barber relocated to Halifax. She began to attract local attention with the playful little girl timbre of her voice, establishing a reputation as an Atlantic sweetheart of song. Her 2004 EP, Oh Heart, garnered an impressive handful of accolades, including 2005 East Coast Music Awards nominations for Female Artist of the Year and for Folk Recording of the Year.
Barber's first video – “Oh Heart”
In 2006, Barber released her first full-length album, For All Time. A beguiling mix of country-tinged folk and torchy jazz that hinted at a chanteuse in training, For All Time boasted an impressive line-up of backing musicians. Guitar virtuoso Luke Doucet, Blue Rodeo's Jim Cuddy and big brother Matthew Barber all lent their musical chops to the album.
For All Timeswept the 2007 East Coast Music Awards, taking home Best Album of the Year and a nomination for Folk Recording of the Year. Barber herself snagged the Female Artist of the Year award and was nominated for Songwriter of the Year for the song “Don't Go Easy”. By this point, she had also racked up numerous readers' choice awards in the Halifax weekly newspaper, The Coast, winning four times for Best Local Solo Artist (Female) and once for Best Canadian Solo Artist (Female).
Jill Barber – “Don't Go Easy”
In early 2007, Barber toured eastern Canada with Dan Hill, as part of the travelling CBC Radio program, Vinyl Cafe. Her signature style of nostalgic musicality was particularly suited to the old-timey vaudeville review feel of the show and news of the songwriter with the whimsical charm began to spread beyond the Atlantic region. She toured again with the Vinyl Cafe in 2009, this time crossing the country as part of a tour with Matt Andersen.
It was at the Dawson City Music Festival in 2007 that Jill Barber becoming inexorably linked—in a hopelessly romantic fashion—with author and CBC Radio personality Grant Lawrence. Vancouverite Lawrence and Haligonian Barber began racking up air miles and no doubt cursing this country's insanely huge landmass, to maintain their bicoastal romance.
Barber took a stylistic departure with 2008's Chances, fully embracing the cabaret-style of romantic jazz that was hinted at in the previous album. Sweeping orchestral arrangements defined the album's ten tracks, most of them co-written with Barber's long-time producer Les Cooper and masterful songwriter Ron Sexsmith.
Chances earned Barber a 2008 JUNO nomination for New Artist of the Year and the album was long-listed for a 2009 Polaris Music Prize. Critical reception of the album, followed by an international tour, enhanced Jill Barber's growing reputation as a soulful chanteuse and cemented her new musical path.
Jill Barber – “All My Dreams”
In 2010, Jill Barber published a children's board book, Baby's Lullaby. The story was based on the song “Lay Down” that she wrote for the Nova Scotia early literacy program, Read to Me, whose mandate is to provideevery newborn in the province with a literacy bag containing books and a CD of children's songs and rhymes.
Jill Barber – “Lay Down” TVO performance
Trading trans-national flights for love, Jill Barber made the move to Vancouver in 2010 to marry Grant Lawrence. Along with her transformation from east-coaster to west-coaster, she also completed the transformation that had begun with Chances, from sweet folkie to jazz crooner. With the release of Mischievous Moon in 2011, Barber completely embraced the torch singer persona, at least onstage. Complete with upswept do, vintage baubles and femme fatale gowns, Barber personified the sultry nightclub look that her songs evoked.
Several of the songs on Mischievous Moon were written in collaboration with Les Cooper and violinist Drew Jurecka, during Barber's second stint as artist-in-residence at The Banff Centre. In keeping with a full-hearted embrace of romance in her music, Barber started to explore singing in the language of love. Mischievous Moon contains an English (“Tell Me”) and a French (“Dis-Moi”) version of the same song. Shortly after recording the album, she enrolled in a French Immersion school in the south of France.
Jill Barber – “Dis-Moi” video
In 2013, Barber unleashed her inner chanteuse by recording Chansons entirely en français. An album of francophone covers from the 40s, 50s and 60s, Chansons debuted in number one spot on the Canadian jazz sales charts. The album garnered a Francophone Recording of the Year win at the 2013 Western Canadian Music Awards, as well as a nomination for Jazz Recording of the Year.
Jill Barber – “La Javanaise” TVJazz performance
After the birth of son Joshua in the summer of 2013, Jill Barber stepped briefly out of the limelight. Not one to keep her voice silent for too long, she headed back out onto the road that Fall for a short tour of Quebec and will resume touring in the Spring with a swing through Ontario.
Barber plans to debut a new album at the Vancouver International Jazz Festival in June 2014. Promising a funky Stax rhythm mixed with a sophisticated Philly soul backbeat, this new offering seems like both a departure and a natural direction for the glamour girl of Canadian jazz. When Barber unleashes her new sound to the great outdoors during an upcoming stint at the Calgary Folk Music Festival this July, chances are very good that everybody will be dancing.