Making it big: Vocalist Barbra Lica reworks her songs for the orchestra

Barbra Lica got some creative benefits from being locked away in a basement for a good part of the pandemic.

The latest creative pursuit for the Toronto singer-songwriter is a project that’s been in the works for the last two years. In collaboration with trombonist and composer Anders Azzopardi, Lica took on the lengthy, arduous task of creating orchestral arrangements of a selection of songs from throughout her decade-long career — along with a couple of new tracks, too. On Wednesday, April 6, she’ll be performing those songs with the Toronto Chamber-Pop Orchestra at Flato Markham Theatre, finally marking the culmination of all that work.

Lica joined us to talk more about that project.

We haven’t had a guest in here for so long. It’s so good to see you.

I’m so excited to have pants. It’s so great. I’ve perfected the “half and half.” Only the top half of your body is clothed and only the front half of your hair is combed, you know? You can never turn your head or stand up. It’s the Zoom ‘do.

So this is an orchestra project you’re launching. Let’s go back to the very beginning. How did it come together?

It was March of 2020, and everything was getting cancelled one by one. I got a call from my friend Anders Azzopardi, a trombonist and arranger. He said, “Bud, bud. All my gigs got cancelled, and I don’t know what to do. You want to maybe start arranging some of your stuff and make it big?” I said, “You mean an orchestra or something? Sure, Let’s do one and see how it goes.” We started picking the tunes that had the most plays, and we started doing one and then another and another, and the pandemic wouldn’t end. So, we had two years of arranging. Now, two years later, we have 16 orchestral scores.

There’s a lot of work that goes into this. Who was involved in doing what?

It was super collaborative. We would pick a tune and start with an open score. We had our strings, our woodwinds, our brass, our rhythm section. We plugged into the software and counted the number of bars, and then we would go through the recording and decide together what the form was going to be — who was going to come in where, what was going to happen. I would literally sing things into my phone, and then he would go and orchestrate it. We would have a meeting where I’d look through all the voicings, edit it, look for mistakes. After that, we’d go back to the beginning and put in all the rhythm section parts. And then we’d go back to the beginning and put in all the dynamics and articulations. And then we had to send it to our violinist and get her to mark the bowings. I didn’t know about that. And then we had to format every part for each of the 14 instrumentalists. And then you’d think that was it! But we hired a backing vocalist [Sammy Jackson], and we forgot to write any of the vocal parts!

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So you’d open a door and there’d be another door.

Finally we were able to get together and have a reading session in February, so we edited and cleaned things up. [We’ve had rehearsals, and] it’s really coming together. It’s really, just… big.

It’s a big project. There are a lot of moving parts. And you had to do it while there was a pandemic, when you couldn’t get together with musicians — and having a baby.

I did. I was pregnant for a good chunk of this project, and then also with a newborn for a good chunk of this project. That was interesting.

What can people expect from the show? 

We looked at a lot of what JAZZ.FM91 is playing a lot. We have songs like Because I Say So and Scarlett O’Hara. I have Don’t Get Around Much Anymore, my big New Orleans funeral march version of it. Coffee Shop is in there, because that’s the one where we got a Korean boy band doing a shoutout for us. I even have a few tunes that haven’t come out yet — one is about my fantasy about what I want my life to be like in 40 years. And we’re going to do Hello From My Basement, of course.

This interview has been edited and condensed.