Emilie-Claire Barlow has been thinking big lately – both for her recently-released album, and for her upcoming Ottawa concert.

Emilie-Claire Barlow (photo by Yasushi Yoneda, provided by the NAC)
Emilie-Claire Barlow (photo by Yasushi Yoneda, provided by the NAC)
The Canadian jazz vocalist will be singing in front of about 70 musicians when she performs with the National Arts Centre (NAC) Orchestra on Friday, December 18, for a “Holiday Sparkle” concert. But it's only one of a series of orchestras she's been performing with, arranging for, and recording with since last fall.

Her latest CD, Clear Day, was recorded with the Netherlands- based Metropole Orkest – with 69 musicians in that session, plus another 13 back in Canada. And that doesn't count the many musicians, including Barlow, who arranged and prepared the music for that album.

“It was a very, very ambitious undertaking. It was an international project of a pretty grand scope.”

Barlow's previous 10 albums, which garnered her five Juno nominations and a Juno win in 2013, featured her with standard jazz groups. But she's been shaking up her personal and musical life over the last four years – a process chronicled by the musical selections on Clear Day.

Personally, her marriage broke up, and she moved from Toronto to Montreal. Musically, instead of her normal solitary planning process, she collaborated on an album with a musical partner for the first time, and she wrote for the much larger musical palette of a symphony orchestra.

Falling in love with the "thrilling" orchestral sound

Two concerts with the Quebec Symphony Orchestra in October 2014 made all the difference. It was the first time she'd ever performed with an orchestra.

She was hooked.

“It's a thrilling experience, to have that sound behind you. All those colours. And when you have a large string section and they're all playing these big melodies, it's so inspiring and it's so easy to just get lost in it. Also, having a conductor is an interesting experience. I'm very much used to conducting my bands. And there's a little bit of a wonderful letting go, you know, that allows me to just be in the moment and hear all of these beautiful counterpoint melodies behind me.”

“It really makes me sing in a different way! I'm able to actually discover the songs again.”

Deconstructing and reimagining a song

Barlow may be best known as a vocalist, but she has been creating the instrumental arrangements for her albums from the beginning of her career. That was another factor that attracted her to working with orchestras: the opportunity to arrange on a much larger scale.

For her, arranging is “a major part of my creative process. I love the process of taking a song and deconstructing it and reimagining it. And the challenge of staying true to the song, but maybe offering it to people in a way that's surprising, or just fresh and new. It evolves – I wrote for strings on three of my records and for horns. There's a lot of composition involved in that particular part of the arranging.

“I think with Clear Day, I really took it to a new level – first of all, deciding to work with a orchestra, such a large musical palette to work with, and also I took the compositional element further in that there were some original lyrics written to songs that were originally instrumental. Just a tremendous amount of melodic writing for the instruments in the orchestra.”

Barlow grew up in a house full of music. Both her parents are musicians: her father is Brian Barlow, a drummer, big band leader and arranger, and artistic director of the Prince Edward County Jazz Festival; her mother is vocalist and composer Judy Tate.

“I spent a lot of my childhood in the studios with them because they were Toronto's first-call session musicians. There was an era of time in the late 70s and 80s when they were in the studio every day working on various musical projects, other people's records, jingles. I spent a lot of time in the studios, absorbing and hearing all kinds of music.”

She studied jazz at Humber College, “with the intention of having a vocal major – it seemed the obvious thing to do – but that very quickly changed when I met a bass player and an arranger by the name of Shelly Berger.”

She ended up in a class Berger was teaching at Humber on how to arrange music – and “that changed my whole perspective of the reason that I was there. I said, 'OK, this is what I'm here for'. And I went back for the second year and another half-year and I only took theory and arranging. I just focused on that. My primary focus after high school was writing arrangements.”

Her father heard some of her arrangements, and was impressed enough with them to get a band together: “a lot of his peers, really the best of the best jazz musicians in the city. And we started to play some of my arrangements and some of his arrangements and that evolved into us playing at a local jazz club which evolved into us making the first of the three records that he and I made together.”

Barlow said she has kept in touch with Berger – and when she was offered the concerts with the Quebec Symphony Orchestra, she asked him to be part of the team doing the orchestrations of her material for that show. He also arranged several of the pieces on Clear Day, she said.

“So that was a really nice full-circle moment for us to have him on board as a orchestrator for that show, and then also for the record.”

Collaborating was "the best experience of my life musically"

Emilie-Claire Barlow and Kelly Jefferson demonstrate the vibrancy of jazz ©Brett Delmage, 2011
Emilie-Claire Barlow and Kelly Jefferson demonstrate the vibrancy of jazz ©Brett Delmage, 2011
The record was released in October, and took almost a year of work, Barlow said – and a very different approach than her previous records. After her first three records with her father, she said, she did the next seven “on my own, and I really tended to work in a solitary way. I would sit at the piano and work at the arrangements and then when I thought they were good and ready, I brought them into the studio and recorded them with the band.”

But this record was a collaboration: with long-time bassist, composer, and producer Steve Webster. “It was a really scary process for me, because I'm not used to sharing unfinished or un-fully-formed ideas. It was really a feeling of being exposed and it took me a while to find the groove of it.”

In the end, though, it was “the best experience of my life creatively, because he's such an open person musically and he's got so many ideas, and he's very excited about exploring ideas.”

“We went about writing the arrangements in a really fascinating way. We would take some of our melodic ideas and we just had a microphone set up for six months to record all the time. I would sing ideas into the microphone, and we would listen back and cull the best ideas, and then we would orchestrate some of those ideas. So a lot of the orchestrations I could hear were born out of my vocal improvisations. It was a really different and inspiring method of arranging.”

Creating arrangements for more than 80 musicians

She picked the Grammy-winning Metropole Orkeste to record with for several reasons: their long history as a jazz orchestra, and her impression of them as a “very modern orchestra. They've got an exciting young conductor named Jules Buckley, and they collaborate with a really interesting variety of contemporary artists like Laura Mvula and Gregory Porter – people that I guess could be considered to be jazz but kind of cross-over jazz.”

“They also have an incredible facility just outside of Amsterdam. It's like a one-stop shop. They have a beautiful studio, and an engineer that is used to working with the orchestra. We felt that that was going to allow us the most streamlined experience, and also aesthetically the orchestra had the sound that we were looking for.”

Nine of the fourteen tracks on the album were recorded with the Orkeste. But preparing all the charts needed for that size of orchestra “was a tremendous amount of writing and certainly nothing that I could at this point have taken on on my own”. Her team consisted of herself, Webster, Berger, Toronto guitarist Reg Schwager (a long-time collaborator), and UK arranger John Metcalfe, who had orchestrated several pieces for Peter Gabriel. Along with three or four people preparing and proofreading the music, they worked for “the better part of six months”.

“And then we spent two days in Amsterdam in June, recording the orchestra.”

Barlow deliberately picked a traditional symphony orchestra instrumentation: “a harpist, and flutes, clarinets, bassoons, oboes, trombones, French horns, trumpets, and then the whole string section, and then percussion: marimbas, timpani,” so that she could perform the arrangements with other orchestras.

Back in Toronto, she also recorded her jazz musicians: Chris Donnelly on piano, Jon Maharaj on bass, Larnell Lewis on drums, Schwager on guitar, Kelly Jefferson on tenor sax. Two tracks also included a six-piece horn section, Kevin Turcotte played trumpet solos on two more, and she had Latin percussion overdubbed on one track. And she added two back-up singers on several tracks.

She recorded some vocals live with the Metropole Orkeste “because I couldn't pass up that opportunity”. Others were recorded in Montreal – in a session designed to simulate a live concert. “Steve and I were talking about the kind of magic that happens when I'm singing in front of an audience, and when you have that connection with the audience, and the story-telling aspect of it is really present. And we said, how can we recreate this for the album?”

They invited listeners into the studio and placed Barlow in a large vocal booth with a glass door, “so the audience could see me and I could sing to them and be with them, but we had sound isolation. So it's not like a live recording with audience where you're hearing the audience. But it was a really interesting experiment to see if we could try to recreate the feeling I have when I'm actually communicating with an audience. Because the concept for this album is very much about telling personal stories.”

A "once-in-a-lifetime experience" led Barlow to change her life

Barlow described the album as the story of a period in her life, in chronological order – “basically me reflecting on the past four years”. It began with her being invited to sail in the Arctic on the Coast Guard icebreaker, The Amundsen, on one of its scientific research voyages.

“I received a very special invitation to spend a week on board the Amundsen, and I brought my guitar player, and we were able to play a couple of little shows for the crew and the scientists and the other guests, and to experience that part of the world. So we sailed through part of the Northwest Passage and anchored off the coast of Resolute and it was such a unique and extraordinary experience – probably a once-in-a-lifetime experience.”

“It really prompted me to reflect on where I was in my life, and the path that I was on, and it prompted some major life changes. Nothing that many people haven't been through, but the end of a marriage and the beginning of traveling to new places around the world, and learning new languages, and just a different path in my life. So the album goes through the important moments along that journey up until where I am now. I pinpointed certain milestones or turning points, and I chose repertoire to tell the story of those moments or to convey the emotion of those moments.”

For each point in the story, she looked for a song that would fit, and then did “a brand-new interpretation of it.” The songs come from both popular music (Paul Simon, David Bowie, Queen, Coldplay, and Joni Mitchell), and jazz (Brad Mehldau, Pat Metheny, and Lionel Hampton and Johnny Mercer). The title tune is the Broadway number, “On a Clear Day”. “Mineiro de Coração”, the last piece on the album, is an original by Toronto pianist Gord Sheard.

Although the lyrics were very important in fitting each point in the story, she said, many songs “can be open to interpretation, lyric-wise. You can have a new twist on them if you are very sure of what you're trying to say through the song.”

Our entire philosophy of our collaboration and our life together – because we are a couple now – is what we call 'Yes, and'. If you've ever taken improv classes, let's say at Second City, that's the philosophy of group improv. You receive what someone says, and then you build on it.
– Emilie-Claire Barlow

She and Webster also wrote lyrics to “Unrequited”, by Brad Mehldau, which was originally a solo piano piece, as well as to the Pat Metheny instrumental “It's Just Talk”, and to “Mineiro de Coração”.

Again, it was a “true collaboration. Steve would start with an idea; he's very good at starting ideas, and I'm very good at taking them and running with them. He could throw something out there and I would grab onto it and riff on that.”

“In fact, our entire philosophy of our collaboration and our life together – because we are a couple now – is what we call 'Yes, and'. If you've ever taken improv classes, let's say at Second City, that's the philosophy of group improv. You receive what someone says, and then you build on it. You don't say 'No', because as soon as you say 'No', there's nowhere to go from there. So the whole concept of “Yes, and' was just something that we want to have in our musical collaboration, and just in our life in general.”

“Part of what I think I was afraid of, too, in the beginning was that I didn't know how to collaborate. I don't really know how this works – like how do we start? What do we do? He really was good at just jumping into something and getting us rolling. I remember specifically the lyrics for 'It's Just Talk'. We went through many, many revisions on that song. He was in Mexico and I was in Toronto and he would write stuff and send it to me via email, and then I'd work on it and send it back, and we just had this email thread of about 27 emails.”

And when she tried singing those lyrics, they changed radically again, eliminating about half of the words, “because we realized we needed to pare it down to the cool, slinkier approach.”

Exploring French repertoire - in person in Montreal

Three of the songs have lyrics in French, which isn't unusual for Barlow. She started recording French songs with her second album in 2001.

Emilie-Claire Barlow connects with her audience ©Brett Delmage, 2011
Emilie-Claire Barlow connects with her audience ©Brett Delmage, 2011
“I find many French lyrics to be extremely poetic and they're really fun to sing. As a singer, it's interesting because it brings out another element of my voice, I think, because the sounds are different.”

For the last seven or eight years, she said, she's been working to improve her French. Her Juno-Award-winning album, Seule Ce Soir, is a collection of songs in French, because “I wanted to create my own kind of French immersion. It seemed like a good way of doing it!”

She wanted to explore more of the French repertoire and to be able to communicate with her audiences in Quebec, she said. “I do a lot of touring in Quebec, and I feel like I've been very much accepted and embraced by the musical community there. And I had, over the last seven years especially, a lot of opportunities to promote my music, and in the province of Quebec, they have music television shows. Which it sounds funny for me to say that, but it doesn't exist anywhere else in our country! There's no other show like "Belle et Bum", for example, which is an hour and a half live music show, with five different artists and running for 13 years. The fact that we don't have anything else like that in the rest of our country is kind of crazy to me.”

This fall, Barlow moved from Toronto to Montreal. “I still feel the sense of a home base in Toronto because my family is all there, and I have a lot of friends there, and I have a lot of work there. But again I wanted to see what it would feel like to live in a city that I really love, and I've spent so much time there as a visitor. And I just found a place. It's in a great neighbourhood and I made a somewhat-impulsive decision to just buy it and move!”

But mainly lately, she said, she's been travelling and living out of a suitcase. Last week, she said, she had a different orchestra show on three nights, with different set lists.

With the NAC Orchestra, making holiday songs sparkle

At the NAC Presents show on Friday, she'll share the stage with the NAC Orchestra (conducted by Alain Trudel), and with singer-songwriter David Myles. The Orchestra will perform Vaughan Williams' “Fantasia on Greensleeves” and selections from A Charlie Brown Christmas.

Barlow will sing several pieces from Clear Day, as well as Christmas/winter material, including new orchestrations of songs from her 2006 Christmas album, Winter Wonderland. Besides the orchestra, she'll be supported by a jazz quintet: Schwager on guitar, Maharaj on bass, Jefferson on sax, Fabio Ragnelli on drums, and Amanda Tosoff on piano.

The set list will include “Winter Wonderland”, “The Christmas Song”, and a version of “Sleigh Ride” that's “like a samba; it's like a sleigh on the beach!” She'll also sing a duet with Myles: “What Are You Doing New Year's Eve?”.

How does she keep these familiar songs fresh?

“Some of them I took more liberties with than others. With 'Christmas Song', I decided I wanted to keep it simple in terms of what I'm doing. I don't want to mess with it. I want to sing the beautiful melody. And Shelly [Berger] wrote this absolutely lush and beautiful orchestration around it.”

“ 'Winter Wonderland', we had more fun with it. It's a really playful orchestration. Different percussion sounds, and it's really utilizing the instruments to create this playful score. With “Sleigh Ride”, it's much more of a re-imagination of the song, because it's taking this song that we all know as a bouncy [she sings the melody], and it's given it this samba groove. And it's fast, and it's fun, and at any moment it feels like it's just a little bit going to be out of control because it's too fast. But that's kind of being on the edge of too fast. It's fun and it's like a romp!”

She hopes she'll surprise the audience. “I don't like printing a musical programme for the audience because I want to start a song and for them not to know what it is, and then for them to hear the first few words for the first bit of the melody, and to have that moment of realization. 'Oh! This is this song!'

“Because I love that as an audience member. So I like it when someone comes up to me after, and says, 'Wow, I really was not expecting that!', or 'That was really interesting!' ”

    – Alayne McGregor

Emilie-Claire Barlow wlll perform with the NAC Orchestra and David Myles in "Holiday Sparkle", in Southam Hall at the National Arts Centre, on Friday, December 18, 2015, at 7 p.m.

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