Music is important, sport is important, but some things are even more important.
In 2009, a year after Canadian Jill Barber had been ambushed in a quiz masquerading as an interview (as recalled in an earlier Wind Back Wednesday ) she was in Australia and itching for revenge.
As there was no way to best her at singing, and she was not prepared to take me on in an Elvis Costello trivia challenge, we settled on something she boasted was her special skill – Scrabble. The gentle art of making words, how sweet. So, hands across the Pacific? Like hell. Scrabble was a full contact sport for Jill Barber and this was serious.
Stay tuned to Wind Back Wednesday later this year for the final leg of the Commonwealth Games Challenge, though in the mean time you can also read about her latest project, Metaphora, as discussed here.
For now, start your letters ….
SAY THE (TRIPLE) WORD AND YOU’LL BE FREE
Today we face a trans-Pacific Scrabble play-off in the Sydney suburbs, a tense fight to the last letter between a deadly serious competition player from Canada, Jill Barber, (who also writes and sings songs) and a Sydney journalist who hasn’t played in years, is making cups of tea he doesn't drink and has given over his dining table to the battle (and as you can guess, is preparing his excuses early, just in case).
Barber, 29 but dressed as usual in an elegant spin on post-war clothing, cedes the opening move to Australia. I open solidly but unspectacularly with hook and she responds with hedge. Quietly, the fight is on.
We’re evenly matched for several rounds, with the sound of accordion player Robbie Grunwald practising on my front lawn as the backdrop. Then I hit open air (and double word score) with guava, the 30 points stretching my lead dramatically and gaining the approval of The Scrabbler. Which is not a given in the circumstances.
"I'm fairly competitive,” she chuckles mirthlessly. “And I'm not happy that you are in the lead."
Why so serious about Scrabble?
“My fiancé, [Grant Lawrence, a Canadian broadcaster] his family has a cabin up on the Sunshine Coast of British Columbia so we spend a lot of time up there,” Barber says, looking up from her letters. “It is totally remote, no electricity, water access only and so we spend a lot of time playing parlour games."
Which is in keeping with the retro stylings of Barber’s latest album, Chances. A collection of original songs in the style of music popular before Elvis shook a hip, with strings, woodwind and vibraphones to sweep your dress along in the first dance of the night, Chances is neither sticky sweet nor too knowing but instead elegant and melodic.
Like Barber’s 1940s/1950s clothing, it comfortably sits alongside the image of families gathered around playing parlour games in a more relaxed age. And it is decidedly, unapologetically romantic as she had explained to me in a previous conversation.
"I'm a romantic person so I've always been attracted to a lot of the old classic romantic songs,” she said then. “In a sense I'm nostalgic for a time that I never knew where it was acceptable to be unabashedly romantic."
Today, as she begins to chip away at my lead on the back of words like yew (a type of evergreen tree don’t you know) she says that while the songs were written after she met Lawrence, some of them were written to create a mood in us rather than send a message to or about him.
“When people come to see me play or put on my record I want to make them feel a certain way. And the way I want them to feel is romantic,” says Barber. “Not just romantic about another person, but romantic about life."
A one time wearer of combat boots and flannel shirts as an earnest teenage fan of Pearl Jam and Nirvana ("They were angry and I was angry, they were frustrated and I was frustrated.") this daughter of a scientist and a teacher from outside Toronto, isn’t here for the irony, though she knows some will hear the out-of-their-time songs and assume that.
"We felt like we were walking a fine line of kitsch, of over-sentimentality, but the way I feel about that is anything that is done with conviction but others find it cheesy or overly earnest, then that's their problem,” Barber say firmly. “I can't worry about that."
For now her worry is about the game which is nearing its end. My run of high scores and proud words is dribbling away in single figure scores from mingy vowels but Barber is powering home with words like quire (one 20th of a ream of paper, though she admits “I’m not sure what a quire is”) and zee (allowed in this international competition).
Tellingly perhaps the music has stopped outside. Grunwald has put down his accordion and is leaning against the tour manager’s car while guitarist/orchestrator/producer (“my co-conspirator”) Les Cooper is sprawled on the ground attending to a laptop. Even the birds have gone quiet.
With three moves left she takes the lead and then pummels me to win by a comfortable 17 points, leaving me whimpering in her wake and barely able to raise a hand to shake across the packed board.
Barber is smiling as she explains that Chances does not feature heartbreak or pain because that’s not where she’s at these days. (Certainly not after this game anyway.)
"It can be harder at times to write a happy song [but] I turned a corner in my life where the opposite happened,” she says, reminding me that her fiancé will be joining her midway through this five week tour of Australia.
“Now I have to make an effort to write the sadder song. As soon as I found I had a knack for writing a happy, positive love song I couldn't stop."
Her two-piece band, having patiently waited for two hours are joined again and they continue their drive north of Sydney. You might have expected a bigger band, if not an orchestra, but as she’d shown the night before at a private gig not that long after landing in Sydney, Barber and her buddies can do elegant and charming without the strings, and without sleep.
And of course you can’t fit an orchestra into the back of an F3-bound sedan.
Anyway, she’ll be back here for gigs soon enough. And maybe a re-match. If she dares.