You cannot help fall in love with the voice of Emilie-Claire Barlow
To call it beguiling would be understating the fact that it will have you mesmerised with but a few syllables that grace her lips. Words, lyrically sung, come from a place where body and soul intersect. Such is the ethereal beauty and poetry of her vocalastics and the quintessence of its power that it is easy to be believe that while her art exists in the here and now, it comes from another dimension; a fourth spectral one where the muses exist. Ms. Barlow’s musical career has been a steady climb to the top of vocal artistry. Hers is a fairy tale story that was lit up in the lights of the recording studio, when she sang for an advertising jingle that her mother, Judy Tate was working on for Procter & Gamble. Her near-perfect pitch was discovered as early as that and it is easy to pass off the rest as history but the real story is much richer than that.
A ‘writer’ – that word that somehow gets lost in translation in the music industry when we talk of arrangers – with a gift for going deep into the heart of story and song, Barlow began to exhibit her ingenuity at making existing repertoire her own as early as when she was in college, it was not long before she made her first album. Emilie-Claire Barlow Sings was that album and the year was 1998. Ten albums later, an invitation to sail aboard the CCGS Amundsen through Canada’s Northwest Passage turned out to be an invitation to take life in her hands and change it around. While that might sound like a cliché, in the case of Emilie-Claire Barlow life was multi-layered and paved with many mansions, rooms with mirrors reflecting various facet of artistic and human endeavour. So it isn’t any wonder how such a voyage could turn into a look at the interior landscape of her life and art.
Barlow says that it was here and shortly after that Clear Day began to take shape. Naturally she was prompted to visit the touchstones in her life and look for ways to relocate them to the landscape of music. Joy and pain must have been the order of the day. There’s no escaping that. But Barlow also has a knack of dreaming big. This was a key element of the career that she appears to have fashioned out of her art. Throughout the 1990s Barlow has given no quarter in her search for perfection. Her previous recordings were a strong testament to that fact. Now she was faced with the birth of something big: the story of where life had taken her thus far. The grand scheme of Clear Day was born in her mind. She began her search for material matching up music written by composers whose work moved her, with events in her life that had changed her.
I caught up with Emilie-Claire Barlow, interrupting her busy schedule in November 2015. She had a window of about twenty minutes for me. Although I wondered what I might achieve in so short a time I decided to go ahead and wing it. She was, after all, one of the musicians I most admired for the pristine quality of her vocals. In fact, I cannot think of a female singer of this generation except perhaps the Philadelphia-based Venissa Santi who did more to the inner machinations of my heart than Emilie-Claire Barlow. Jazz FM 91 is locked onto the dial of the radio in my car and often I would hear a radio host there spin one of her records. Her music never ceased to mesmerise me. I had one shot at an artist who was breezing through town. I decided it was an opportunity not to be missed and that I had to make the best of my short time on board.
Emilie-Claire Barlow is as refreshing to talk to outside of music as she is to listen to on record
She is incredibly articulate. She says what’s on her mind, but her thoughts are fully formed as they reach her lips. The result is that you get the impression of someone who has worked things out before the words are even uttered. I told her that her music was like that. It seemed to be perfectly formed even before she sang a single note. In this regard she is unique unto herself. She also has an easy manner and an emotional directness also much like the manner of her music. You can see her even with your eyes shut. She pierces through your defences, cuts to the quick and makes conversation without the blather that many young musicians seem to indulge in pretty freely. There is no self-promotion and yet, like her music, what she says is full of nuanced meaning.
I hear about her trip through the Northwest Passage and how she got in touch with herself. She tells me this not in a confessional way, but still meaning to convey the depth of feeling. As the concept was taking shape, Barlow told me, she and her boyfriend and producer, Steve Webster were also dreaming this grand scheme of things. That would end up encompassing the entire production which eventually included Amsterdam’s premier Metropole Orkest under the directorship of Jules Buckley. But first she and Webster had to select songs that she would perform which had special meaning for the times in her life when the necessity of change could be reflected in the repertoire and her own impulse to adorn it with her special abilities. Digging deep once again she came up with repertoire that included Lennon-McCartney, Brad Mehldau, Joni Mitchell as well as the heft of standards from the pens of the Johnny Mercer among others. The story would unfold, as did the voyage of her own life.
Barlow and Webster retreated to Mexico spending the greater part of 2014 there as they crafted arrangements to the songs that she was going to make her own on the record. Moving between Mexico and Canada became a way of life as the project took shape. Webster arranged and Barlow did too, also writing lyrics again, together with Webster for some of the instrumental originals on the album. Barlow’s joy at making things come about was reflected in her voice as we spoke. She was reliving the precious moments in the making of Clear Day as if they were unfolding before our eyes. The full impact of the trials and tribulations, and the joys of making something truly beautiful was delivered in all of its finery. I heard all about how each song happened, the little things that made a difference to each and how what was conceived on the staves became this grand passion that finally exploded in the studio with Barlow’s group, getting the final treatment as Jules Buckley and the Metropole Orkest was plunged into the mix. I was enthralled.
And then I heard the album and my heart started to beat a little faster. Emilie-Claire Barlow is a truly enchanting artist. She begins her thematically-selected tales of ships and journeys and things that go bump in the heart with a challenge thrown at herself. There is no sentimentality, but great depth of emotion in the work. This is what steals your heart. Barlow leads you on a journey that you cannot pull out of, nor would you want to. The recital’s repertoire keeps up the narrative suspense while seeming to peel away at the onion of her life delicately. The foreign language songs that includes Si J’étais un Homme (French) and Mineiro de Coração (Portuguese) suggests time-travelled joyfully. Throughout these songs and in the mood portraits there is a fine use of dynamics with the barest minimum of melisma. And yet the profound beauty of the song is never lost as Barlow and Webster appear to have worked closely on the texts and their own interpretations in the form of original lyrics and arrangements.
Emilie-Claire Barlow is a musician who thinks through her material with nuanced gracefulness
She is a compelling story-teller as much as decorative word-painter. She also manages en route to completing a most beautiful album to make music that is remarkably clean and unhackneyed. Mind you working with a big band and/or an orchestra is not new in popular music. But Clear Day stands out as a most impressive record not simply vocally, but in terms of orchestral scoring as well. The re-creation of the songs in Barlow’s sound world strikes a chord in the listeners’ hearts and minds. For me it was just as beckoning. I could see why Barlow was so (justifiably) proud of the achievement. Despite its deep forays into her own experiences, this fine chanteuse had come to touch me in ways that I never thought possible with music that was not accompanied by pictures. Clear Day, to my mind, is an extraordinary, visual album with Emilie-Claire Barlow as its painter of songs. It’s going to be a long time before I or anyone who hears the album recovers from such abject beauty.
* Clear Day was nominated for two 2016 Juno Awards: Vocal Jazz Album of the Year, and the “Jack Richardson Producer of the Year” Award for Steve Webster and Emilie-Claire Barlow.
Track List: Amundsen; On a Clear Day; Midnight Sun; Because; Fix You; Unrequited; Under Pressure; Si J’etais un Homme; It’s Just Talk; Feelin’ Groovy; La Llorona; I Don’t Know Where I Stand; Sweet Thing; Mineiro de Coração.
Personnel: Emilie-Claire Barlow: vocals; Reg Schwager: guitar; Jon Maharaj: bass; Chris Donnelly: piano; Larnell Lewis: drums; Kelly Jefferson: saxophone (soloist on 3, 9, 11), clarinet, flute; Chendy Leon: percussion; Melissa Lavergne: percussion; John Johnson: saxophone; William Carn: trombone; Kelsley Grany: trombone; Jason Logue: trumpet; Kevin Turcotte: trumpet/flugelhorn (soloist on 5, 14); Melanie Doone: voice; Kathryn Rose: voice with the Metropole Orkest conducted by Jules Buckley; 1st Violins: Arlia de Reuiter; Alida Schot; Sarah Koch; Denis Koenders; Pauline Terlouw; Rami Koch; Ewa Zbyszynska; Casper Donker; Christina Knoll; Tinka Regler; Polina Cekov; Pauline Koning; Barbara Erdner; Jake op’t Land; 2nd violins: Federico Nathan; Hermann van Haaren; Wim Kok; Robert Baba; Coleman Willis; Feyona van Iersel; Gideon Nelissen; Francoise van Varsseveld; Marta Lemanska; Annerike Nentjes; Seda Erdem; Eva Lohse; violas: Norman Jansen; Iris Schut; Isabella Petersen; Aimée Versloot; Alex Welch; Adriaan Breunis; Marit Ladage; Maria Sofia espiga; Elazabeth Ralston; Maartje van Lent; cellos: Emilie Visser; Maarten Jansen; Annie Tångberg; Jascha Albracht; Diederik van Dijk; Charles Watt; Bas de Rode; Wijanand Hulst; doubla basses: Erik Winkelmann; Arens Liefkes; Tjerk de Vos; Annemieke Marinkovic; flutes: Mariel van den Bos; Liset Pennings; oboes: Sandra Zoer; Dorine Schoon; clarinets: Leo Jannsen; Marc Scholten; bassoon: Remko Edelaar; Janine Teepen; Kasper Snikkers; Tamara Smits; horns: rob van de Laar; Fons Verspaandonk; Elizabeth Hunfeld; Wim van den Haak; trumpets: Roy Bruinsma; Martijn de Laat; trombones: Bart Van Lier; Jan Oosting; Jan Bastiani; Timpani: Jeroen Geevers; percussion & mallets: Frank Wardenier; Joeke Hoekstra; Harp: Jake Schonewille.
Record Label: eOne Music
Release date: October 2015
Running time: 66:00
Buy music on: amazon