INTERVIEW: Matthew & Jill Barber: “We write new music, but in a way that goes back decades”

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By Jan Smit

The musical journeys of Matthew and Jill Barber

On their most recent European tour, Canadian singer-songwriters, brother and sister, Matthew and Jill Barber performed live at the Sugarfactory in Amsterdam, The Netherlands, on 10 October 2015. During the intimate concert, Matthew (solo) and Jill (with her band) played separate sets and did a couple of songs together. LLUID had the opportunity to talk to Matthew and Jill prior to their concert. In the interview they talk about touring, their musical backgrounds and influences, and they announce the release of their new album in 2016.

On their touring history and plans, Matthew and Jill point out that for Jill, the current tour is her third in Europe; for Matthew it is his second European tour. In the second half of October, Jill will be touring Québec, Canada; Matthew will travel to China in November.

What are your thoughts on touring?
Jill: “It’s inspiring. Every time I travel over to Europe and play here I feel like: wow! the world is both bigger and smaller than I thought. It’s really nice to come over and meet people that are fans, and to know that our music makes its way around the world and to people’s lives and then to be able to show up and perform live for people that have been supporters across the ocean. It’s really nice. It definitely causes mixed emotions. We’re at the very end of our tour, tomorrow is our last show. At this point I’m officially homesick. I love touring, I love being on the road. I think that I’m built for it, but I have a family at home, I have a two year old son and this is the longest that I have been away from him, so I’m pretty desperate to get back.”
Matthew: “I have a wife that I miss very much, so I do feel a little homesick, although with modern technology these days it’s easier to stay in touch with what’s going on back home. We’re all on our gadgets and checking in with people back home. But as far as inspiration goes, I definitely find travelling inspiring. I don’t find that I really ever do any songwriting while I’m on the road. It’s too much go go go, there’s no time. But when you come back home after all those experiences, usually a really fruitful time starts.”

Matthew Barber Quote
“What I love about songwriting, is you can cut right to the heart of the matter”

Can you tell a bit about your background: growing up in the eighties and nineties in the Toronto area, the musical tradition you were brought up in and inspirational figures that influenced you?
Matthew: “Musicians are very respected in Canada. The Canadian tradition is not as old as the tradition of European music, but we still have a rich tradition at least going back to the history of recorded music of Canadian songwriters that we look up to. People like Neil Young and Joni Mitchell are pillars of that and I think they were influences on Jill and I. As teenagers we were both into the independent music scene in Canada in the nineties. We really got a taste for what it was like to be in a band going out to all kinds of shows and stuff when we were teenagers. We were more on the indie rock side of things. That’s where we both started and then we both kind of developed an appreciation for older forms of music. For me folk and blues, and early rock ‘n’ roll. Jill discovered jazz and that sort of romantic chanteuse kind of aesthetic music. I would say she’s a great sort of modern example of bringing that kind of sound back.” Jill: “We’re both pretty nostalgic for older music and as contemporary singer-songwriters Matt and I each kind of wear our influences on our sleeve. We write new songs and create new music, but often times kind of in that tradition of songwriting that goes back decades.” Matthew: “Neil Young has lived in California since the sixties I guess, but he still has pretty strong ties to Canada and he’s still, I would say, an inspiration to most musicians that I know.”

You both went to Queen’s University, Kingston, Ontario. How did you both end up choosing musical careers?
Matthew: “It was a pretty natural thing. We don’t come from a musical family background. Our parents don’t play music. There was no expectation of us being musicians as we were growing up. I think it was something that we discovered as teenagers and fell in love with and probably for both of us took a while to even come around to accepting that this is something that we could actually do for a living.”
Jill: “Our father was a university professor and if there were any expectations it was that we would go to the university.” Matthew: “I started out in science, but I was not really cut out for it to be a scientist and I gravitated more towards philosophy. I ended up getting my degree and doing grad school as well and Jill also got an undergraduate degree in philosophy. We’re both interested in just ways of processing and making sense of the universe, not necessarily in a technical scientific sense, but more in addressing the questions that have no real answers and now we sort of address it through music.”

Matthew, on your website it says in relation to your latest album The Big Romance that it ‘can in one sense be understood as an intimate exploration of the intertwined themes of emptiness and fulfillment, death and vitality, science and myth and right and wrong, filtered through the personal lens of a narrator still searching for what it is to be a man in the 21st century.’ Do you use songwriting as a means to explore the big philosophical themes?
Matthew: “Yeah, I think so. Writing a philosophical paper is often very technical and very logical and you can get bogged down. What I love about songwriting, is you can cut right to the heart of the matter. Part of what makes a great song is simple ideas really, but eloquently expressed. So I think that’s what I like about songwriting.”

Jill Barber Quote
“The more I collaborated with other people, the more I found my own niche in music”

Jill, your latest album Fool’s Gold is mainly vocal jazz, but your earlier work also has folk and country elements. How would you describe your musical journey through these genres?
Jill: “Folk and country are still present in my songwriting. I think that my musical styles are reflective of my musical tastes. I have a broad range of tastes in music. I guess I really show all of those dimensions in the music that I make. In terms of the evolution, it all happened really naturally and over many years and I chuck it up to the fact that I started playing more and more with other musicians. In the beginning it was just me and acoustic guitar and it was very folky. And then as I started collaborating more with other musicians, some great kind of jazz players, it allowed me to paint with a broader stroke the kind of music that I could make. Right around that time I was listening to a lot of older records – jazz standards – and it started to become clear to me that I didn’t have to just write folk songs and I could write grand sort of torch songs if I wanted to with other musicians who could help me realize that sound. The more I collaborated with other people and experimented with different styles of music, the more I found my own niche in music, which is a kind of a jazzy place, but it is not strict jazz, it has folk and singer-songwriter elements, it has old time country elements, it is a mix of a bunch of different influences and it’s a blessing and a curse that it doesn’t easily fall into one genre.”

Jill, you sing in English as well as in French. In your Twitter profile you describe yourself as a Francophile. Do you actually prefer to sing in French rather than in English?
Jill: “I love to sing in French. It’s a beautiful language, it’s such a pleasure for me to sing in French, but I have yet to write a song in French. I have been saying a few times on this tour we’re a bit ashamed compared to Europeans that can speak all these different languages. We’re English speakers and we’re really privileged to be, because everyone seems to be able to accomodate us in our language. My French is not perfect by any stretch, but I think that I come at my connection to the language through French music. What I would say is that I love to sing in French and it’s a pleasure to sing in French. I love that I can do both. I wouldn’t become strictly a French singer. I do usually throw in a French song during a live concert. And when I’m in Québec I sing mostly in French. So it’s depending on where I am.”

Matthew, Big Romance is a country rock album. Your earlier work is more pop/rock. Can you tell a bit about the choices you make between genres?
Matthew: “I don’t really think about genres. A few albums back, maybe my audience at the time was still a younger audience and I was playing clubs and liked the idea of a rock show with people who could be dancing right up at the front of the stage. As I’ve gotten a little bit older and my audience has gotten a little bit older, I like a different kind of show now. I like more of a listening show and I like the lyrics to really come through. I think it is a natural evolution. I still have some fairly rocking moments, on Big Romance too. I like rock ‘n’ roll. That’s what first got me really excited about music. The Beatles are pop I guess, but they’re also great songwriters, they’re also early rock ‘n’ roll, they have folk and country influences too. A band like that, I mean, it’s a bit of an oversimplification just to call them a pop band too. I have always been interested in all of those things. I was a big fan of Gary Louis of The Jayhawks, with whom I worked with on Big Romance. I’ve loved their music for a long time. There was already a little bit of a connection. Gary Louris had produced a couple of albums of another band on our label, The Sadies, a sort of a country rock band from Toronto, and so we just figured, well, we will reach out to him, because we were not that far removed from him and we have friends who worked with him and he was great. He came up to Toronto for a couple of weeks. We made the album in Toronto. I went to Minnesota for a little bit to work on the songs with him. I really learned a lot from him. It’s great when you can work with people who you really respect.”


Your latest albums Fool’s Gold and Big Romance are quite different from each other. Now you’re touring together. Where is the overlap between your musical styles? Are you going to cooperate more in the future?
Jill: “I’m happy to tell you we just spent this past summer making a record together. We each contributed some original songs to the project and also recorded some interpretations of favourite cover tunes, a Neil Young song’s on there: Comes A Time.” Matthew: “We tried to avoid covering really popular songs. We found some more hidden gems by people that we like.” Jill: “We’re calling the project The Family Album. I think in a lot of ways we each go back to our roots in terms of kind of doing what we used to do way back when we were teenagers: playing songs for each other on acoustic guitars and maybe singing along back up with each other and so there’s lots of harmonies. The theme is one of nostalgia. I think it’s a really warm album. There’s something about the fact that we are family, we are brother and sister. That kind of warmth and love that comes across in the music. It’s a bit different than our respective solo careers. There’s something special about this project. That album is going to be coming out in the new year.”
Matthew: “In genres we would probably put it in the folk genre. Our inspiration is a little bit sort of the Everly Brothers: tight simple harmonies. So watch out for that one!”

So, what are your aspirations for the longer term?
Matthew: “I love opportunities like this one that’s coming up where I’m going to China. Just getting to travel to new territories and play music is great for my personal life experience. Professionally, I don’t really know beyond the release of this album that we made together, what the future holds for me. I know I’m going to make another album, but I have not really even got to the point of conceptualizing what it’s going to be like.”
Jill: “My long term aspirations are to keep getting to be a musician, keep writing songs, keep performing. Keep creating as long as people keep listening to what we create, I guess, but it’s hard to say. I had some time on this tour to look out the car window and think a lot, and think about my next creative moves. I’m just trying to find time and space in my life in which to write and be creative, but it’s hard to know what the next musical chapter will be. We’ll see.”

The most recent albums by Matthew (Big Romance) and Jill Barber (Fool’s Gold), both released in 2014, have been reviewed by LLUID. Click on the titles to read the reviews.

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