Frequent visitor to Australia (Woodford, Port Fairy, BluesFest – she’s ready for your call), current Commonwealth champion Scrabble player and a woman who may or may not know more about Nova Scotia than you will ever need, Vancouver’s Jill Barber has never been afraid to change direction.
But this may be the most striking one yet and she declares herself “giddy as a schoolgirl about this record”. In this interview Barber explains why “people will still recognise it as me, but maybe a more bold and grown-up, slightly slicker version, and maybe a more fun version of me.”
You might get a pretty good idea from the high gloss, high concept pop sound of,Girls Gotta Do, the first single from her eighth album, Metaphora. You could make some assumptions seeing the abstract and provocative videos for the first two songs released from that album.
But to hear Jill Barber - always sweet natured, accommodating and classy – declare with a mix of forcefulness and amusement that “I need a way to say I give less fucks now”, is to really grasp that some things have changed.
The clips, the sound, the whole new roster of collaborators – from producer Gus Van Go and production/musician team Likeminds. to co-writer Ryan Duildemond and Australian singer/guitarist Liz Stringer in her touring band - there are many decisions made on the multi-lingual Metaphora that suggests a willingness to take risks by a Canadian who has recorded folk songs, pop songs, swing, French standards and songs in the style of the golden years of popular music.
Naturally that attitude turns up in the lyrics as well where Barber, facing a #metoo world, a neighbouring country’s president with particular attitudes to women, and overdue upheavals in society’s treatment of women, declares “the rules are not the same”, and stakes out her position with “I’m not scared, I’m bigger than you”.
It’s a straightforward message: challenging yourself can actually be fun it says; pushing out can be rewarding. And there wasn’t really an option to avoid this, Barber says, because “this record, I had to make. I had to have something fresh and energetic, and a change for me, because I needed something more powerful to get inside”. And eventually you can’t say no to such an internal imperative.
“I feel like I’ve tapped into my power as a woman, and an artist. I need a way to say I give less fucks now, but haven’t quite figured it out,” says Barber. “I am bolder, I am more courageous, I am more unafraid of trying new things and exploring my own power as a writer and as a person.
“I really wanted this record to be powerful and to have an energy to it, because I feel like I am moving through my life with a different energy and I want to move with my music with a different energy, and I want to move on stage with a different energy.”
What’s changed since her last solo album, 2014’s Fool’s Gold (there also was a Juno Award-winning album with brother Matthew in 2016 called The Family Album), or for that matter in the five years since she was last in Australia? For a start, marriage to CBC radio personality Grant Lawrence, two kids, two children’s books, and roles with activist groups such as Girls Action Foundation and Save The Children.
“I am more empowered as a woman now, and proud as I am of my catalogue and a lot of my songs that I still perform and enjoy performing, there was a certain quality to them it was a little bit like demure, a little bit like an old-fashioned kind of gal and I really wanted to embrace the fact that I now feel like a modern woman and I want to express that,” Barber says.
“I want to use the power that I feel I found in my life for good, and to help empower other women. I think it’s definitely a result of what’s happening in the world today that I feel invigorated as a woman, a person, about the needle shifting a little bit on our role in society, our power and our ability and society to change the status quo and be more present in equal terms in industries like the music industry.”
And the vehicle for this is a mix of her older styles and a bold push into contemporary pop sounds, joining a wave of adult female artists reclaiming pop as a style and sound available to those past their teens, and capable of presenting adult concepts alongside rhythm and fun.
“Any young person who wants to listen to this record would be wonderful,” Barber says cheerfully. “But what we kept saying in the studio is we are making a pop record, but we are making a grown-up pop record. I’m a songwriter who wants to have a message and is using a more contemporary musical vehicle to get that message out. And it’s really fun too.
“Maybe contemporary pop music is better now than it used to be but I find myself listening to mainstream pop radio and I am more curious now than I ever have been before because I think it’s better.”
Metaphora is out today on Outside Music