Q&A: Jill Barber creates a Greek goddess on ‘Metaphora’

Jill Barber

Seven albums in to her songwriting career, Jill Barber became known in her native Canada for jazz-inspired love songs. But for her new record, Metaphora, she was motivated by the inequality and injustice she saw worldwide, but specifically in the U.S. What she saw also informed a new pop-oriented sound.

Jill Barber
June 22

Metaphora tackles female empowerment, and while the themes carry parallels with the #MeToo and #TimesUp movements, she started writing her new songs earlier.

“Up in Canada, in some ways, we’re kind of cushioned from the political climate in the U.S., but in other ways we’re really affected by it,” Barber said. “Certainly as a woman I felt affected by it. I personally had a lot of Trump nightmares. The American political climate of your last election was really affecting me. … The amount of support he was getting kind of activated me.

“Then the #MeToo movement happened. I was marching with women in Vancouver in support of Americans. The whole state of mind that I’ve been in since the #MeToo movement has helped inform me, creatively. To me, it’s not a perfect movement; it’s messy, there’s lot of collateral damage, it’s depressing in lots of ways. But it’s also moving the needle and that’s really invigorating to me as a woman.”

Jill Barber, who’s been known to release her songs both in English and French, heavily leans on the need for more respect for women and their accomplishments. Metaphora is a tale in two halves: the first one bold and the second vulnerable.

Relying on metaphors and allegories to tell her stories, Barber named the album for the original Greek definition of “metaphor,” which is translated loosely as the passing over of ideas, something she hopes she’s able to to accomplish with listeners. She added the “a” at the end to feminize the word.

“[The album name] is a method for me to carry over, or get across, my internal struggle to hopefully connect with somebody else,” she said.

RIFF: How did you go about writing these songs, and did you decide in advance to make pop for the first time?

Jill Barber: Process was a big part of this album. When I set out to start writing for my new album, I had no idea what direction I wanted to write in. I didn’t even really know exactly what it was I wanted to say. I sat down with a collaborator, someone who I’ve never worked with before, and all I knew was that I had more to say than on the previous record. I feel like the political climate, combined with my own emotional, personal, inner climate as a woman in her 30s and a mother; I feel like I had a bit of a feminist fire burning within me that I needed to get out a little more in my music.

In the past, I’ve written a lot about love and romance, and I was starting to feel like it wasn’t fulfilling me as much anymore. I kind of wanted to get a little bit more real in my music, with what was happening with the world and what was happening internally for me.

I did not know that I was going to write a record that sounds like a pop record, but I did want to write a record that had a certain energy and had momentum. So it’s not really surprising that given this material, I needed a more contemporary vehicle to deliver the message, and I also just kind of wanted to groove and shake and dance. That’s kind of where I was at when I started writing this record. I wanted to get more physical in my music.

You wrote a lot about the struggle of women, with subjects of abuse and inequality. Are those personal to you?

For a long time I didn’t want to believe that I was a victim of sexism in my industry. What the #MeToo movement brought up is a lot of self-examination for both men and women. Stuff that I used to think was just normal, I look back on now as totally unacceptable. … Once, after a show, somebody grabbed me and aggressively kissed me; a complete stranger. That was definitely sexual assault. It wasn’t a deep trauma for me, so it’s not something that I hang on to. But, basically, bullshit like that I have had to deal with—like fans thinking they can kiss me or touch me in ways that I think are inappropriate.

Also, I have had veiled threats and things like that I’ve experienced from more powerful men in my industry. I think men have taken advantage of the fact that I am a woman to spend time with me to help me with my career. I’ve gone out for drinks that didn’t need to be hours long. I consider myself pretty lucky, and I hate to say lucky—there have been women who suffered a lot more trauma then I have.

I definitely relate to #MeToo. Every woman experiences this. Especially as a white woman, I feel like [I’m] in a place of privilege that I can speak about my own experiences, but I can also sing out and support other people who have had worse experience than I have.

What was the most difficult song for you to write, especially with the subject matter being new to you?

This is the thing about making a record that’s a little more personal; it is harder to answer truthfully. A lot of this record was challenging to write. A lot of songwriting sessions felt like therapy. Some of them were really emotional for me. Some tears were shed, which is a good thing. It’s a good sign that I’m hitting my own nerves and being vulnerable. “Mercy” was … painful for me to write. “Cage Without a Key” is a really emotional song for me. [They] felt like I was exposing raw nerves of being a songwriter. My job as a songwriter is to be vulnerable in the songwriting process and expose myself in the songwriting process, and hopefully the songs will reach somebody else and speak to somebody else’s experience.

“Cage Without a Key” is the gloomiest song on the album. You sing “set me free” like a plea. Who are you singing to?

It is like a plea. That song is about being a woman and our bodies and the extra weight of responsibilities women bear, no pun intended. Men can’t possibly relate to what it is to be the sex in change of having children. It’s a very different weight of responsibility. … When women are in desperate situations, who are they pleading to? I don’t know—the stars, or God or something. … If they are feeling stuck or in a cage; that’s definitely the emotion I was trying to express; of being stuck or pleading to the stars, or into an empty vacuum.

The album starts off very bold and fierce, but there’s a transition halfway through to a softer and more vulnerable side of the album. Where did this second narrative of forgiveness originate?

Isn’t there always a vulnerable side behind the fiercest of fierce women? Nobody is bold and fierce without having a vulnerable side. I think they’re very complimentary forces. I think the more vulnerable a person is, the fiercer they become, in a way. Even in the first few lines of the first song, “The Woman”: “She’s the woman/ The darkness and the light.” I view myself as having those two sides. I’ve exposed more of the lighter side in the past. … Lightness and darkness play and dance together. So do the bold and fierce with the vulnerable. Together, that’s what makes us human.

How has motherhood informed your musical journey?

It’s made me a way more dynamic person, and it’s made my life a lot more complicated. [Laughs]. I don’t sing about motherhood on this record, or [have] any songs about my kids. But for me, almost every aspect of what I’m singing on this record relates back to who I am and such a huge part of who I am is the fact that I am a mother. And I think that’s also some of the fierceness that comes out.

I feel that since becoming a mother, I have developed almost super-hero-level abilities. Anyone who is a mother has to be part super hero. It has given me a newfound sense of power. … It’s helped me tap into my crazy, incredible feminine power–like the power to give life. It is very empowering to give life. Becoming a mother has helped me tap into my power as a woman, and I think you hear that power all over the album.

Do you think people need to be more accommodating of women being parents and musicians?

A hundred percent; I absolutely think there needs to be more support for working mothers across industries. … A woman that I worked with … with my last record, she petitioned one of our local funding organizations in Canada, called FACTOR, to include on-tour support funding for parents that want to tour with their children and have a nanny on the road. … I’ve toured with them with my kids until they were both 2. I’ve done a lot of touring with babies and nannies. I credit her hard work to change the system for the better for women working in Canada.

Follow writer Tarandeep Kaur at Twitter.com/TarandeepKaur8 and Instagram.com/tokyotara.

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