Photo: Steve Webster
Photo: Steve Webster

A Conversation With ... Emilie-Claire Barlow

Emilie-Claire Barlow started her career as a singer and voice actor at the age of seven. Since then she has lent her voice to television spots, radio jingles, and voice-overs for  Rescue Heroes, Martin Mystery, 6Teen, Sailor Mars, Stoked, Almost Naked Animals, Fugget About it, Total Drama Presents The Ridonculous Race

She spent five years at the Etobicoke School of the Arts studying music theatre, and dance, and continued her studies at Humber College, focusing on music theory and arranging.  During this time, she put a jazz quartet together and began performing in and around Toronto. In the fall of 1998, Barlow released her first CD, Emilie-Claire Barlow Sings. Over the next nineteen years, she has played consistently to sold out shows at top jazz clubs and festivals. She’s also a two-time Juno Award winner, in the Best Jazz Vocal Recording category.

Coming soon, you have a Christmas concert, December 17, Koerner Hall.

Yes, we are very excited about it. It’s going to be like three weeks into the tour too. We will be tight.

The new album Lumieres d'hiver (Winter Lights) is out, and the tour starts in Quebec.

The title, Lumières d’hiver, translates to Winter Lights. We are actually starting the tour in the Maritimes. We have a launch event in Montreal and then we go to St. John’s and Fredericton, Halifax, and come back through Quebec and then we have a couple of Ontario dates before we go to Japan.

You’ve played there before, at the Cotton Club.

Exactly! This is my sixth or seventh tour of Japan and a lot of those dates have been playing the Cotton Club in Tokyo's Marunouchi district. So, we will be there over Christmas.

And you’ve done well in Japan.

It’s been amazing to go every eighteen months or two years. I like going there and playing a club date and as you know I got my start playing the Montreal Bistro and Top of the Senator in Toronto. To settle into a club and play for four or five nights straight is luxurious. There’s no tearing down and setting up every night.

Who are you taking as your band?

The whole tour will be my band of Reg Schwager on guitar, Kelly Jefferson saxophone; we’ve been working together nearly fifteen years, Daniel Fortin bass, Amanda Tosoff piano and Fabio Ragnelli on drums. Other dates including the Koerner Hall date will have a string quartet and backup singers.

The album is said to be about your love affair with Quebec winters. You wrote some of the material and there are also holiday standards. Much of the work is between you and producer/writer Steve Webster.

The last album, Clear Day. was a step in this direction. I’ve always done the arrangements and there’s a certain element of composition in writing a horn line or string line or bass line, but I never plunged in and wrote a whole original song. On Clear Day we wrote original lyrics to a couple of instrumental songs. There’s a Brad Mehldau song calledUnrequited” and a Pat Metheny tune, “It’s Just Talk,” and a Gord Sheard song. This was taking a bigger step. Steve and I wrote three originals.

What was more difficult, writing the lyrics or melodies with harmonies?

That’s a really good question. If you take the title track for example, Lumieres d’hiver, I had the idea and concept of this song first. The idea was you can take a person like me who doesn’t like winter and be completely transformed and see the magic of winter in a place like Quebec City, for example. Anyone who has been to Quebec City in the winter knows it’s like a magical fairyland. It is so beautiful.

I had these little vignettes in mind instead of ‘the warm summer breeze’ and ‘leaves on the trees’ or ‘the days are short’ and ‘nights are long’. The lyrics started to come first but I had the main melody of the chorus and we just collaborated and it’s hard to remember how it unfolded.

When recording are there moments where you listen to the previous one and say, I can surely improve on that?

Totally! I try to avoid that.

I don’t make a point of sitting down and listening to the old record, but I will hear something on the radio sometimes or have to go back and listen to something and you know when you record a song and play it live a bunch of times, it evolves. I guess the word I would say is, interesting. I always want to improve as a musician and vocalist and to always push myself and challenge myself. That’s really what Clear Day was all about. How do I push myself, and what would I do if I wasn’t afraid? What if I take a risk musically?

Part of that was a change of direction; what it meant to fit in a certain genre of music. I’m known as a jazz singer, and I am a jazz singer but I’m also a singer who loves all kinds of different music. I listen to a lot of different kinds of music and I listen to pop.

What I love about a pop song is the chorus or refrain. You don’t always get that in jazz music. The song form is different. I’m obviously making a generalization because there are a lot of AABA jazz songs, blues or modal songs that aren’t constructed like you would a typical pop song. You have a verse, a chorus and another verse and you get that feeling when you are about to hit the chorus again – I love that feeling!

I wanted to explore that more in my own interpretations. For instance, we created a chorus in "The 59th Street Bridge Song (Feelin' Groovy)". It doesn’t have a chorus. On Lumières d’hiver the songs have choruses – that feels good to me.

You are never averse to taking risks, are you?

I’m comfortable with the unknown. And not knowing what’s coming next in my life to an extent.

It’s a tricky thing. People say, well how big of a risk is that really? It’s difficult in the music business finding that balance and making the music you feel good about and that represents you as an artist. You also want people to like it, listen to it and buy it. Ultimately, that’s why you are putting it out there to the world.

I like having a career and playing shows and want to continue and want my listeners to like it and it is impossible to please everyone. No matter what I do, I can’t do that. In fact, I made a video and posted on YouTube recently where I addressed some of the negative comments I’ve received. You can’t take those to heart.

It’s a difficult position. How does an artist push back against the negative stuff and how do they receive criticism and let this stuff slide?

Check out the video. It’s called “Nasty Comments and Bad Reviews”. When someone is just being mean for the sake of being mean; I guess you say trolls – Internet trolls hiding behind the safety of their anonymity. I don’t understand what’s going on in their lives and wonder why they want to be mean and just put negativity out there and insult somebody. It’s baseless and not coming from a place I take seriously. Those ones easily roll off my back. I’d be lying if I said none of the negative comments ever affected me – of course they do. You take the good, you take the bad. If someone has a really constructive well thought out comment or criticism, I’ll listen to that.

I’m sure there are a portion of listeners out there that would be happy if I made the same record over and over, like The Very Thought of You – a collection of standards and some bossa novas. I get that as a listener and there are certain artists I love like Alison Krauss and Union Station for example. I absolutely love everything they do and they could make the same style of record over and over and I would love it.

I want to do music that represents my broad tastes.

As an independent artist you can make decisions about where you go musically, and change is inevitable. Too many recordings show up everyday at radio stations that say the same thing.

I’m hoping each album reflects my life and where I am musically. That they are authentic and very true to where I am.

And stand alone!

As a listener, I favour records from a long time ago and even though I admire and appreciate some of the newer stuff. I always go back to that one record that was meaningful to me in a certain time of life. People are always going to do that. Hopefully, they will come along for the ride.

If you are looking at it as a career, there are risks to changing your musical style.

How’s the French coming?

It’s pretty good. You reach plateaus. Learning a second language as an adult for me will probably be a lifelong challenge. Every once in a while I will recognize I’ve broken through some sort of plateau and it’s a good feeling.

I love the language and singing in the language and writing original music in the language. In fact, I’ve written original songs in French and not English. It’s kind of interesting. Maybe I can be braver in French or something.

I love to be able to communicate with the audiences and be able to do a bilingual show. When I'm in an Anglophone area I cater the show to my audience; the same with my French audiences.

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