Jill Barber is making another record.
She's been shacked up in a Toronto studio working on the ground tracks for the album — an all-French covers album that, Barber says, will contain none of the orchestral flourishes that characterized her 2011 release Mischievous Moon or its 2009, critically-lauded predecessor, Chances.
After the grand-hall daydreams of those previous two albums, Barber says it's time to "scale back" and try something new.
"I have a great awareness when I make a record, like I better like it because it's going to, y'know — it's the very definition of making a record," Barber says by phone, a few hours before playing a free show at Toronto's Dundas Square.
"You're making a record of a time and a place. It's going to, well into the future, sound the same. It's going to reflect that time and place forever in an unchanged way, so I don't really look back too much at my albums."
Where Canadian music in the 2000s has been defined by sterilized corporate rock, roots-infused Americana, psychedelic experimentation and everything in between, Barber had set out to make Mischievous Moon a record that the Queen of Jazz, Ella Fitzgerald, would have been proud of."I wanted to make an ambitious record that just didn't hold back. (Fitzgerald) wouldn't have any issues with standing in front of an orchestra and delivering songs. I just went for it."
Born in Mississauga, Barber moved to Halifax after college and spent six years working the coffee-shop-and-pub circuit, gaining a steady following with low-key, guitar-plucking folk rock. Her 2006 album, For All Time, marked maturity in her songwriting, with clever arrangements that practically begged for the swell of brass and strings that would follow in albums to come. The album earned her two East Coast Music Awards for Best Album and Female Artist of the Year, along with two more nominations.
By 2009, she'd been nominated for a JUNO (New Artist of the Year) and made the Polaris Prize long list for 2008's Chances, an album that would have seemed more in place in a 1950s jukebox than a CD crate at Zulu Records. She had also moved to Vancouver to be with her now-husband, Grant Lawrence of CBC Radio 3.
That was very much the intention.
While critics praised Barber for taking a bold stylistic leap, she says Chances was a natural evolution. The songs were written in the wake of a series of collaborations with other musicians following the success of For All Time, which she says broadened her imagination in terms of what kind of music she could make.
"I've been really inspired by older records, timeless music that's kind of stuck around, like classic jazz standards that I've loved to listen to. As a songwriter, I've wanted to use those as a benchmark to aspire to. It's all evolved really naturally."
She took it further with Mischievous Moon: the orchestra is bigger, and so is the budget. The arrangements are bolder, and so are the lyrics. Barber has never seemed quite as comfortable or as in control of the mic as she does on these 11songs. It's one of the more overlooked Canadian albums of 2011.
Not that she minds, necessarily. Albums are merely the "tedious, expensive" mechanism that allows her to play new towns and meet new people. She wants to play shows, pure and simple (Barber will play a free show in Whistler Olympic Plaza on Saturday as part of the Whistler Presents concert series).
It just so happens she makes really, really compelling records.