In the history of popular music, only a small percentage of performers have left behind a memorable body of work. While there are a few artists, albums and singles considered classic, most recorded music is inevitably lost in time, relegated to dusty attics, mouldy basements, or, if lucky, the occasional spin on the oldies station. It’s a testament to our disposable culture, and also a glimpse into our own mortality.
So when an artist strives to create enduring music, it is no simple task. Most people can’t remember number one hits from six months ago, let alone songs that were written before they were born. In order to resonate through the ages, a song needs lyrics that remain relevant for generations, and music that defies the flavour-of-the-month mentality.
Jill Barber is up to the challenge. “I try to write the kind of songs that will have a life beyond whatever craze or band that is hip,” she says of her new album, the aptly titled For All Time. “I am not arrogant enough to think that I will write songs that people will listen to and appreciate in my grandchildren’s generation, but it’s not going to stop me from trying.”
Timelessness is a reoccurring theme on the album, with notable appearances in “For All Time,” “Ashes To Ashes” and “Legacy,” Barber’s ode to Rebecca Cohn (the patron of the arts, not the venue). When Jill Barber sings, “And whether I write three chords or a symphony/at least I’m gonna try to leave behind some kind of legacy,” it’s not a throwaway lyric, it’s a statement of intent.
“I’ve been trying to study how some songs can live forever, and be as meaningful to a person hearing them for the first time today as they were when they were written 70 or 80 years ago,” she explains. “I find it fascinating, and I want to know how it’s done.”
Barber approaches songwriting one song at a time. “I don’t look at an album as a whole, I work on a micro level and draw out the essence of the song in the production,” she says. “It’s a concern working that way that you might get an album that’s all over the place, but it’s an eclectic album and doesn’t follow the same set of production themes.”
Barber’s evolution as an artist can be traced throughout the album, from the cabaret stylings of “When I’m Making Love to You” (with a sound that harkens back to her Oh Heart EP), to the simple elegance of newer tracks “Don’t Go Easy” and “Hard Line.”
“There was no conscious decision to go into a new direction with these songs, but I felt myself stretching my songwriting muscles a little bit more,” says Barber. “I don’t have great perspective on how this record sounds from my last record, but I’m trying to write songs that each have their own voice.”
Barber will spend the next three months promoting For All Time, crossing Canada, England, Scotland and Ireland in the process. Les Cooper will accompany her for the UK dates, and she’ll probably bring a full band for her Canadian tour with renowned troubadour Ron Sexsmith. For someone who usually travels solo, it’s a welcome change.
“I played with some incredible musicians on the album I am kind of addicted to it,” says Barber, who worked with Cooper, Blue Rodeo’s Basil Donovan, Luke Doucet and Blake Manning on For All Time. “But I’d like to think that I can stand alone as a solo artist. I either want to go the whole 10 yards with a band or keep it intimate, because there’s something gained and lost with playing with a band. It’s a trade-off I would only make if I felt like I was playing with a stellar lineup of people.”
If there is anything that will help Barber create her legacy as an artist, it’s her acute self-awareness. Songs aren’t just written, they’re analyzed. Performances are studied, to give the audience the best show possible. They’re small details, ones other musicians forget, but they can make the difference between a short career and a long, illustrious one. So far, she’s not missing a beat.
“We’re all trying to leave behind something of substance, and have some sort of purpose in what we do in life,” she says. “Even the most obscure artist has an ego-driven desire to communicate with your art. We all want it to be good, and on some level we all want it to last.”
Jill Barber CD release w/Matthew barber, September 30 at St. Matthew’s United Church, 1479 Barrington, 8pm, $12 adv/$15 door, 494-3820, www.sonicconcerts.com