Jill Barber is well acquainted with risk. “It’s what I find thrilling about being an artist,” she explains, “both when I’m on stage and when I’m deciding what I want my next artistic move to be.”
Her fearlessness has served her well. More than a decade into her career, Barber, 34, has sold more than 100,000 genre-straddling albums, been nominated for more than 30 awards, and had her music featured in commercials and television shows, including the Netflix hit Orange is the New Black. She recently signed on to be an ambassador for the Save the Children charity, and just published her second children’s book, Music is for Everyone.
It was her decision to pursue motherhood, however, which finally gave her pause. “My big fear in deciding to have a child was that after 10 to 12 years of trying to gain momentum in my career, I would have to put on the brakes,” she admits. “That really scared me.” Determined to keep things rolling along, Barber made a promise to herself: before her baby was a year old she would put out an album. “I decided to be a working mom,” she says, “but of course, I felt a bit like I was rolling the dice, because I really didn’t know what it would be like.”
“I can’t follow the muse because I’m chasing my baby.”
It was a gamble that paid off. In September 2013, six weeks after the birth of her son Joshua, Barber was back on stage, performing at the New York City premiere of the American television series, Masters of Sex. Staying true to her word, she released her sixth full-length album, Fool’s Gold, in June 2014. Produced by longtime collaborators Les Cooper and Drew Jurecka, and engineered by Stu Young, the album sees Barber musing on both love and heartbreak in a series of new songs touched by jazz, blues, Motown and country. “I feel really proud of this record,” she says. “I feel like it’s really clicking with people, which is really nice.”
While she now takes Joshua on the road with her with when she performs, the Vancouver-based Barber is quick to point out that she couldn’t do it alone. “There’s no secret!” she laughs. “It only works because I have a lot of help.” Her husband, CBC Radio 3 personality Grant Lawrence, took a paternity leave to join her on the road for the first six months, and she now travels with a nanny. She also credits Joshua for being an easy baby. “He just goes with the flow. He’s a really good traveller.”
Barber says motherhood has also required her to take a more disciplined approach to her songwriting. “None of the songs on this record were written at midnight when I was struck by inspiration,” she laughs. “The way my life is right now, I can’t follow the muse because I’m chasing my baby.” Instead, she carves out regular time for writing, and to work with her collaborators.
As she matures as a musician and performer, Barber – who won the SiriusXM 2012 Jazz Artist of the Year award as well as the 2013 Western Canadian Francophone Album of the Year for Chansons, an album recorded entirely in French – says she’s also getting more comfortable saying no when she needs to.
“Because as musicians we love what we do so much, it’s easy to exploit that love,” she says thoughtfully. “I want to be a nice person, but I’m also realizing that I don’t have to be quite so accommodating. I still want to work hard for opportunities, but I would like to not have to hustle for them all the time.”
Still, Barber is grateful for everything she’s been able to accomplish since she cashed in her savings bonds (all gifts from a grandparent) more than a decade ago in order to try her hand at making music full-time. “That was a risk, I guess,” she laughs, “because up until that point, that was my life savings!” But Barber, who ended up recording her first full-length album, Oh Heart, at CBC’s Studio H in Halifax soon after, also knew it would be more of a risk not to try. “My ultimate goal back in 2004 was to not have to work a day job,” she recalls. “To me, that was success.”
Looking ahead, Barber says she hopes to be able to collaborate more formally with her first musical inspiration, older brother Matthew Barber. Refusing to let fear keep her from pushing her own musical boundaries, she also has plans to work towards making what she calls a “full-on country record” at some point down the road.
“When I look at my record collection, it crosses a lot of genres, so why as an artist should I be expected to represent just one?,” Barber muses. “I write all the songs, and for me, that’s what ties them together.”
Discography: A Note to Follow So (EP) (2002), Oh Heart (2004), For All Time (2006), Chances (2008), Mischievous Moon (2011), Chansons (2013), Fool’s Gold (2014)
SOCAN member since 2003