Canadian singer-songwriter Jill Barber’s Mischievous Moon features orchestral arrangements and songs that evoke an earlier era; she has more in common with Patsy Cline and Billy Holiday than Kathleen Edwards or Sara McLachlan. Kris Kristofferson is a fan; he calls her “a real songwriter, a damn good songwriter.” We chatted with Barber about her new album, her approach to songwriting and more.
Who are your songwriting heroes?
Cole Porter, Nick Lowe, and my brother Matthew Barber.
When did you start writing songs? Were they good right away, or did that come later?
At age 14 I started putting my “poetry” to music. Looking back, I’d say they were not very good. But at the time, I thought they were great. And that’s all that mattered.
What was the first song you ever wrote? Tell us about it.
I remember its title: “Basic Tragedy.” I wrote it on the electric guitar, and it was pretty angsty. I later recorded it on a 4-track recorder, using all four tracks: vocals, backup vocals, electric guitar, and drums… all performed by me. Those were my rock ‘n roll years.
What’s your approach to writing lyrics?
I tend to write stream-of-consciousness lyrics. I’m old fashioned. I like rhymes, and turns of phrases. I like words, and turning them on their heads.
What percentage of the songs you write are keepers?
The ones that I actually finish, I tend to keep. I’d say 9 times out of 10.
Do you have any standards for your songs you try to adhere by when choosing them for an album?
Yes. I always ask: a) does it sound like it existed before I came along? and b) will it stand the test of time?
What sort of things inspire you to write?
Great songs inspire me. I want to join the ranks of great songwriters, and I’m “paying my rent in the tower of song”, as Leonard Cohen would say.
What’s the last song you wrote or started?
The last song I wrote is this Roy Orbison-esque love song… I was thinking of him the whole time I wrote it.
What’s a song on your album you’re particularly proud of and why?
I’m proud of my song “Chances,” that I co-wrote with Ron Sexsmith. I’ve heard a number of different people cover it, and it always stands up. It’s still one of my favourites.
What’s a lyric you’re a fan of?
“I take advice like margaritas, with a heavy grain of salt.” by Joel Plaskett from the song “Lying on a Beach” from the album La De Da. For some reason that lyric speaks to me. It’s simple, and clever, and gives me something to imagine.
Is it easier, or harder to write songs, the more you write?
It’s easier one day, then harder the next. But my relationship to writing has become more complex.
Do you ever do any other kinds of writing?
Occasionally I write articles for newspapers.
What’s a song of yours that’s really touched people?
My song “Ashes to Ashes,” about losing my Grandma seems to touch a lot of people. Loss really unites us.
What do you consider the perfect song, and why?
The best songs for me are the ones that say a lot, with only a little. A brilliant example of this would be Nick Lowe’s “I Read a Lot,” a song about a breakup.