Emilie-Claire Barlow channels the spirit of the 60s on her latest album, The Beat Goes On. But that doesn't mean she's leaving the classics behind.
Emilie-Claire Barlow isn't trying to redefine jazz -she just wants to have a bit of fun. The Canadian jazz singer released her eighth album, The Beat Goes On last year.
It was a distinct departure from her earlier work.
“Having made several albums of (jazz) standards, I felt like I wanted to switch it up a little bit,” she admits, on the line from Toronto one blustery morning. “There's an endless supply of unbelievable standards that have withstood the test of time and they are beautiful -but I wanted this album to have a concept, a strong direction. That was important to me.”
Barlow follows a long line of sweet-voiced jazz chanteueses, her sound recalling both the girlish whimsy of Blossom Dearie and the steel-spined angel sound of Ella Fitzgerald. Creativity surrounded her childhood, with both parents professional musicians and grandparents in the performing arts as well. A young, talented multi-instrumentalist, she was singing radio and television commercials before her tenth birthday. Her first album, 1998’s Sings, featured many beloved jazz standards including “How High The Moon” and “I Thought About You” and it garnered swift public notice. In 2008, Barlow was awarded Female Jazz Vocalist Of The Year at the National Jazz Awards.
Seven albums and several tours later, Barlow was feeling restless. She loved the traditional jazz sounds that formed the basis of her singing career, but was looking toward something more modern if no less nostalgic. Her curiosity was roused by the peppy pop aesthetic of the 1960s, and subsequently The Beat Goes On reveals an artist confident in both vocal pyrotechnics and sonic rearrangement. As well as a sexy, swinging bossa nova take on the 1967 Sonny and Cher tune "The Beat Goes On," the album features Barlow's whimsical-meets-bitter take on Bob Dylan's "Don't Think Twice (It's Alright)" and a thoughtful version of The Shirelles’ “Will You Still Love Me Tomorrow.” There’s a mix of genres too, including George Jones' weepy country hit “(S)He Thinks I Still Care” and Donovan’s psychedelic-sounding “Sunshine Superman.”
“The goal was to challenge myself to take these songs that were in such different genres, with such different emotions -songs from singer/songwriter, country, psychedelic genres -and to break them down and rebuild them in a way that worked side by side on one record.”
Switching gears from jazz to pop wasn't too much of a stretch; in doing all the rearranging herself, Barlow brought a wide palette of favorite sounds including bossa nova, ballad, and soft jazz. The easiest part was the singing.
“There's a subtle leaning toward a more pop delivery, which is just influenced by the melody of the song,” she observes, between bites of bagel.
And while some jazz purists may make a face at the creeping pop influence popularized by performers like Jamie Cullum and Jill Barber, Barlow says it's a natural progression; the jazz-pop blend is a great way of introducing new audiences to fresh sounds.
“I always get a kick out of meeting people at festivals,” she says brightly. “They’re situations where (people) might not buy a ticket to see that one concert but it’s an outdoor show and there’s five different bands; they'll be introduced to a bunch of music they haven't heard before. People will say later, ‘I didn't think I liked jazz but I liked what you did!’ We can so limit ourselves but putting this label on things.”
For Barlow, jazz means many things, all at once - not just music from the 1930s and 1940s - but music that is growing and always expanding. “Jazz covers everything from extreme, out-there, free jazz with ten-minute long drum solos to what I do, which is very accessible, mainstream jazz. If you want to say it has pop leanings, I don't care -if you like how it sounds, that's great. The word 'jazz' covers a huge spectrum of music.”
Does this mean she sees herself as a kind of leader in the jazz world, busting out older definitions of a much-loved genre?
“I don't feel like a leader,” she says firmly. “There are many really wonderful and inspiring eras of music. And there is something great about being part of keeping (older) songs alive. It’s nice to introduce songs to someone who hasn't heard them before - I love that part of it. I’m also trying to honor and respect songs and I often think, ‘This is such a well-written song! It can be flipped upside down and done in a completely different groove and totally re-harmonized. As somebody who's not a songwriter, that's what I do: I interpret songs and I look for inspiration.”
Barlow will be inspiring live audiences through March 2012. Her tour swings through Southern Ontario this week with two stops, at Brampton’s Rose Theatre December 1st, and Markham Theatre December 2nd. She’ll be back in February, with dates in Oakville, Ottawa, Guelph and St. Catharines. For information, check her website.