You certainly can’t accuse siblings Matthew and Jill Barber of rushing into their first album as a duo. Between them, these two acclaimed singer-songwriters have a discography of 14 albums (Matthew eight and Jill six) as solo artists.
Fans catching their solo shows over the years have often been treated to guest appearances by the other Barber, and these isolated examples have proven that the pair of brother-and-sister voices can harmonize sweetly and smoothly.
The two Barbers finally decided to forge ahead on a full duo album last year. The result is The Family Album, released April 1, 2016. “We didn’t feel in any hurry to make an album together,” says Matthew. “We knew it would happen and that we had our whole lives to do it. The timing was right last year, in terms of our album cycles. Jill had just had her first child, her son Josh. She suggested the time was right, and my theory is that maybe having a baby was putting her even more in a family state of mind, perhaps wanting more family around.”
“It’s good for your creativity to write with something different in mind.” – Jill Barber
The pair decided a joint (and jointly-produced) album should be a combination of cover versions of songs that they both loved, plus new original compositions that they’d write specifically for the project. With Matthew based in Toronto and Jill in Vancouver, they grabbed chunks of time together in each city to sort out possible cover choices and share their new tunes. Three new Jill Barber tunes (“One True Love,” “Big Picture Window,” and “Today”) and two new Matthew Barber songs (“Grandpa Joe,” “Sweeter The Dawn”) made the final cut.
Jill found the challenge of writing for The Family Album creatively inspiring. “It felt a little different than writing for my own albums,” she says. “It’s good for your creativity to write with something different in mind. It puts a few interesting parameters in there. I know Matt felt the pressure to not just write another love song, as you’re going to be singing it with your sister. You can’t get too sexy with the lyrics!”
The choice of album title has a resonance beyond the simple sibling connection. “We wanted it to be like a family photo album,” says Jill, “full of nostalgia and stories, with a warm and comfortable feeling. I think we succeeded at that.” Themes of family dominate their original tunes, with “Grandpa Joe” being a tribute to the grandfather the siblings never met.
Whittling down the outside material to cover was a tricky process. “When you can choose any song in the world, it’s hard to figure out which kinds of sounds you want to focus on,” says Matthew. “It also meant that if either of us had any reservations about a song, we just moved on.”
The six cover songs comprise three written by Canadian songwriting greats (Neil Young, Gene MacLellan, and Ian Tyson), one tune popularized by Leonard Cohen (“The Partisan”), plus songs by ace Americana singer-songwriters Bobby Charles and Townes Van Zandt.
“We’re proud Canadians, but we didn’t want to limit ourselves to making a Canadian covers album,” says Matthew. “With the songs still on our short list, we realized that the sound that was emerging for the album was, broadly speaking, a Canadian take on Americana.”
In searching for material, Matthew fortuitously came across “Song to a Young Seagull,” a hidden gem in the catalogue of the late, great Canadian singer-songwriter Gene MacLellan. “Through the process of brainstorming songs, I spent time on YouTube scurrying down some rabbit holes and listening to things I’d never heard before,” says Matthew. “That song was on there in the form of a demo sung by Gene.” The Barbers ran the song choice by Gene’s daughter and fellow songsmith Catherine MacLellan, a friend of the pair.
Interestingly enough, the Barbers have never tried songwriting together. “I haven’t done a lot of collaborating in my songwriting at all,” says Matthew. “The closest I’ve come was in 2014, working with Justin Rutledge on songs for a theatrical adaptation of The Graduate. On this album, it worked out the way we did it, writing on our own and then polishing the songs together.”
“For some reason I’m not sure we’d be the best co-writers,” says Jill. “Sometimes it’s nice to have a little bit of distance in life from a co-writer.” Singing together is a different matter. “That does seem to come naturally to us,” says Matthew. “We’ve never really had to work hard to find a good blend together.”