'Canada's Sweetheart' Builds On American Standards

Apr 28, 2012
Originally published on April 30, 2012 11:31 am

"Canada's Sweetheart," otherwise known as singer-songwriter Jill Barber, is full of surprises. She crafts songs inspired by a collection of decades and styles — everything from doo-wop to lounge music. Despite the temptation to perform covers, all of Barber's tunes are originals, and all are as surprising as how she came to be known as Canada's Sweetheart.

"I confess I gave myself that nickname," Barber says. "For press purposes, people want to know where I'm from, and there's been a lot of confusion because I've built my career in different parts of Canada ... so to avoid the confusion, I said, 'Look, let's just call me Canada's Sweetheart.' It solves the problem."

Barber describes her music as "nostalgic," incorporating her love for old music and influences from the Great American Songbook to create something new.

"There's absolutely a retro feel," Barber says. "But by virtue of the fact that these are all new songs, I do feel that it's contemporary, but with a lot of influences from the greats that came before me."

Barber says it seems natural for the records she loves to become a part of her production process, and that her musical integrity comes from the personal aspects of her original songs.

"I wear my influences right on my sleeve, and I'm not afraid of that. I suppose I feel that the integrity comes from the fact that I'm a songwriter; I'm creating songs from my imagination," Barber says. "I'm not singing old covers, somebody else's feelings. I'm really singing from my own experiences, and I'm singing songs I wrote."

Barber says she hopes her music will serve as a contribution to the songbook that inspired her — and a way for her favorite music to find new life.

"If somebody doesn't start writing more songs in the tradition of that great songbook, what's going to happen? They're just going to get older and older and dustier," Barber says. "So I just want to make my contribution to the 'tower of song.' I'm doing my best."

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Now, it's not often you get to talk to someone who is known as Canada's Sweetheart.


JILL BARBER: (Singing) As long as this world keeps on spinning around, I'll keep hanging on to this love that I've found. I won't let go, 'cause I know I have something that is true, and I will never, ever quit loving you...

GREENE: That's the voice of Jill Barber. She's out with a new album, "Mischievous Moon." It's a collection of songs from a collection of decades - from doo-wop to lounge - all originals and all as surprising as how Jill Barber came to be known as Canada's sweetheart.

BARBER: I confess, I gave myself that nickname.

GREENE: OK. We know where it came from, then.

BARBER: It was - I've built my career in different parts of Canada. So, just to avoid the confusion, I said, look, look, just call me Canada's sweetheart.

GREENE: It's a lot catchier.


GREENE: You know, listening to your music, I want to try to avoid using the word retro. I mean, that seems a little cliche. So, I'll put the onus on you. Describe the genre you're trying to capture to it.

BARBER: I like the word nostalgic. I love old music and have obviously been greatly influenced by the American songbook. But as a songwriter and a singer, I want to kind of try to write new songs, brand new songs, that carry on that tradition of greats that came before me.

GREENE: You say you were really struck by the American songbook. I mean, was that natural for a young girl growing up in Canada or did that make you sort of bit different in the styles that were drawing you?

BARBER: Well, I suppose I came to discover a lot of older music by the time I got to university - that's Canadian for college. Yes. So, as a girl I listened to everything that my friends listened to, which we won't get into.

GREENE: Get into it, get into it.

BARBER: Paula Abdul was my absolute hero as a young woman. "Forever Your Girl" - I'm forever your girl, Paula. No, it was in university, in my, I guess, in my late teens, early 20s when I first bought a record player. And that is when I started to become kind of obsessed with vinyl. And I really kind of discovered music that way by just kind of thumbing through crates of records, dusty records.

GREENE: What was the first record that really spoke to you?

BARBER: I would say Etta James. Etta James, "At Last," you know, there's something so powerful, especially as a woman. I was really attracted to this voice, the way she delivered a song. It was so kind of ballsy - can I say that on the radio?

GREENE: You can.

BARBER: But I would say, you know, Nat King Cole too. The warmth of his voice kind of wrapped me up and I really fell for him.


GREENE: There was a review that described your style as unabashedly imitative but also utterly honest. How do you pull that off?

BARBER: I read that. I read that too. I am unabashedly - I wear my influences right on my sleeve and I'm not afraid of that. And the honesty part just comes from the fact that I'm not singing old covers, you know, somebody else's feelings. I'm really singing from my own experiences. And the temptation to sing covers is great, and certainly a lot of people encouraged me to do it, but I really feel like I want to make a contribution, you know. Because if somebody doesn't start writing more songs in the tradition of that great songbook, what's going to happen? They're just going to get older and older and older and dustier.

GREENE: This album, I mean, it clearly has a lot of range. There's a lounge song, "Be My Man," that made me think of a Woody Allen film.


BARBER: Honestly, I sit down when I begin to make records and I say I want this record to sound like a Woody Allen film. And...

GREENE: Is that true or are you just flattering me here?

BARBER: No. I'm a huge Woody Allen fan. I also, I think that I think of my records as soundtracks in a way. You know, if I had to have someone direct the movie of my life it would be Woody Allen.


GREENE: You have clarinet, you have xylophone in these songs. I mean, I wonder if clarinetists and xylophones are just smiling everywhere because they feel like you've made their instruments in a way hip again.

BARBER: I noticed you didn't mention the accordion.

GREENE: We can add that.


BARBER: 'Cause, you know, I've never really had a good sense of what's in style and what's not but I've always loved the clarinet. And I do feel that they're instant transporters for people. As soon as they hear a clarinet, it takes them to a certain place. And I like living in that place. I like musically living in that place, and I like to bring my audience there with me. That's fun for me. So, I think that's where the nostalgia comes in or the retro. People feel as if they're stepping back in time. For me, it's not at all stepping back in time, it's just keeping alive the tradition of great music of the past.

GREENE: One of the songs on the album, "Oh My My," has this totally different sound to it, especially as it opens.



GREENE: You know, in talking to you, Jill, one word that I read describing your early career in the coffeehouses was shy. You don't strike me as very shy. Was that fair at that point?

BARBER: Absolutely. I think, I mean, I still have shy moments. But when it comes to my career, I feel I've stepped up and I've been encouraged enough along the way that it's allowed me to become more confident. I am not one of these people that was born to live on the stage and to be in the lights. That was, you know, my parents are the opposite of show biz parents. You know, they're - my dad's a scientist and my mom is a teacher and neither of them are at all musical. So, it's very interesting that they happen to have two professional musicians for kids. My brother, Matthew Barber, is also a professional musician, so - yeah, we've both worked through our shyness.

GREENE: You can certainly hear that. Singer-songwriter Jill Barber. She just finished her tour in the United States. Her new album, "Mischievous Moon," is available now. Jill, thanks so much for joining us.

BARBER: Thank you very much, David. It's been a pleasure.

GREENE: And Jill, I understand there's a song that you wanted to perform for us today.

BARBER: Yes. This song is one that I wrote. It's kind of an homage, a thank you, to all the men I've loved before. I thank you for all the inspiration for the love songs over the years. It's called "Old Flame."


GREENE: You can hear more from Jill Barber's new album at NPRMusic.org. This is WEEKEND EDITION from NPR News. Rachel Martin is back here next week. I'm David Greene. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.