Barber takes a chance on romance

Kingston’s sweetheart channels whimsy and nostalgia into a new, hopeful sound

Wide-eyed and ever-so-sweet, Jill Barber plans to charm the audience at The Grand Theatre on Valentine’s Day.
Wide-eyed and ever-so-sweet, Jill Barber plans to charm the audience at The Grand Theatre on Valentine’s Day.
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The first thing you realize about Jill Barber is that she’s overtly and self-admittedly a romantic.

“I like to think of myself as a hopeful romantic rather than a helpless one,” she said. “I have hope for romance.”

Conceptually, this is a difficult notion to grasp for one whose heart is as withered and cynical as my own, but Barber does this funny thing: she infects you. And not in the 21st-century-gonorrhoea kind of way, but in a classical, old-fashioned style that makes you long for a time when life was almost definitely lived in black and white and romance was about Hollywood kisses and drive-in movies.

Especially captivating about Barber is that her musical approach is just as stylistically amorous as her approach to life. Her latest album, optimistically entitled Chances, evokes a musical ideology reminiscent of a more romantic age; a construct Barber openly admits was completely intentional.

“I love a strong melody and music that transports me to another place,” she said. “I love romantic music. My romantic heart loves it.

“The album harkens back to the golden age of music. It is this very classic sounding and romantic album of original songs with an almost vintage quality to them because we really produced them in a classic style. There was a live orchestra and we then filled the songs out with instrumentation. It is a record that dabbles in different genres but mostly I just really wanted to make it sound like some of my old records. I wanted to create an album that was really focused and could transport you to a different time and place—a more romantic, whimsical place.” One senses that Barber sees much of this fantastical romance within Kingston. Barber is a Queen’s alumna and, whilst completing her degree in philosophy, she spent four years of her life living in, and being inspired by, the Limestone City.

“I had my first break performing in this town,” she said. “I loved it. It was a wonderful time in my life. Coming back here always feels like a homecoming.”

Fittingly, Barber’s next homecoming is on Feb. 14, and it seems only appropriate that she will be playing a special Valentine’s Day concert at The Grand Theatre. The concert is a prospect Barber seems genuinely ecstatic about.

“I never imagined that I’d be playing in a venue like The Grand Theatre ... especially on the most romantic night of the year,” she said.

“Kingston is a town that is very dear to my heart. It’s almost like an old lover that I’m returning to. I lived in Kingston for four years, so it is near and dear to me. I can’t tell you how thrilled I am to be returning to it.” Barber’s love for Kingston doesn’t stop at the University doors, but extends throughout the entire city.

“I loved Queen’s and I had a great time. That being said, my education was divided between two institutions—and only one was Queen’s. The other was the live music scene in Kingston. Kingston is where I first started performing live and where I was first given the opportunity to pursue a career in music.”

Despite her transatlantic success, Barber seemed to be genuinely excited about her trip down memory lane and acutely humble about her mainstream success, preferring to discuss her favourite former haunts rather than her own achievements.

“I will definitely stop into the Sleepless Goat, I used to work there and it is my favourite café. I will have to make a point of going for a pint in the Grad Club as well. I’ve played there many, many, times, more than any other place. It’s the place where I specifically got a lot of my interest in music and had my first musical opportunities.”

Barber’s utterly idealistic approach and the romantic dreamland of her imagination is certainly a very appealing prospect, and will undoubtedly be infused into her return to Kingston. Yet, when asked about her own romantic plans for the day of hearts and flowers, Barber suddenly turned uncharacteristically bashful, cleverly deflecting from any focus on her own love life by joyfully announcing her intention to make the entire audience her date.

“I will be romancing the whole audience,” she gushed. “They will all be my Valentine’s!”

Whether or not Barber has any plans for romance aside from her audience is unclear, but what is sure is that an evening spent with the vintage vocals and cheerful pop harmonies of the eternally optimistic singer will certainly be a romancing to remember.

Jill Barber plays Feb. 14 at The Grand Theatre.

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