With a new muse, Emilie-Claire Barlow takes flight
By Brad Barker2023/03/28
Two-time Juno winner Emilie-Claire Barlow is about to release Spark Bird, her first full album in five years.
The vocalist’s 13th studio album was conceived during the dark days of the pandemic, when she questioned whether she would ever even want to make another record. But during that time, a daily visit from a yellow-winged cacique that is native to the southern Pacific coast of Mexico eventually inspired her to dedicate an entire album of songs to birds of all shapes and varieties.
So far, we’ve been treated to four singles from Spark Bird, with the album to be released on March 31.
She joined us to talk about the process of finding her new muse and making the new record.
You’ve been a bit of a mystery. Is that just me? You’d make a record, you’d tour that record, then you’d be talking about the next record, and that went on for quite a long time. And then that rhythm stopped, let’s say.
I looked back on some of those years, and I was pretty prolific. How did I find the energy and the time?
It was an album a year, almost.
Yeah, 2005, 2006, 2007, 2009, 2010, 2011.
I can’t imagine what goes into that, but at some point there has to be a reset or refuel.
Absolutely. When I did the Metropole Orkest album Clear Day in 2015, that was a huge undertaking — production-wise, time-wise, money-wise. I thought I was going to take a break after that, but I pretty quickly put out my second French album Lumières d’hiver. I started spending more time in Mexico, on the Pacific coast of Oaxaca, and I kept saying that I needed to take a break to regroup and reassess. What makes sense for me at this time? I had a side project that I was doing with my partner Steve Webster, the bass player, composer and arranger. He and I started working on our duo project called Bocana. We released seven or eight singles over the last several years, and it’s a little bit more electronic with some jazz elements as well. I turned my attention to that, and I actually did put out quite a bit of music — I had a James Taylor cover project and some Christmas singles — but I did question how important it was for me to release an actual collection of songs as an album in the era of streaming. I think listeners can imagine how much blood, sweat and tears, and money, time and effort, goes into making a whole album. I think sometimes in this era, some of the songs can just get lost, and that feels sad to me when you’ve worked so hard. You pitch a song to a Spotify playlist, and then what happens to the rest of the album? For me, to put a collection of songs together and to make an actual album, it had to make sense. These songs needed to be together as a collection. After questioning what my next move was, during the pandemic I ended up pretty much staying in Mexico, because it seemed like a better place to be. I had recently sold my place in Montreal, so I didn’t really have a home base in Canada. All of those circumstances led to me staying in Mexico. It was dark times for everyone, but I felt healthier, I felt safer, I felt happier. During that time, I got to know our cast of characters of birds that were in our backyard.
So you’re pivoting to the new album here. It’s high-concept, and it’s a direct result of the landscape and nature of where you were living.
It’s all of these things coming together — looking for inspiration, looking to find what my next move was. Where we are on the coast of Oaxaca is an area of incredible biodiversity. I’ve always liked birds, but I never really considered myself to be a birder or amassed any sort of knowledge about birds specifically, but I started to realize that as a musician, I tend to hear the music in everything. I hear the melody, I hear the rhythm, and I have an almost unstoppable urge to recreate a sound. If I hear a birdsong, I want to see if I can recreate it. So, I started to want to identify where the sounds were coming from. Who’s making that noise? I learned pretty quickly which one was making which sound. In the mornings, it was kind of like an orchestra warming up. We have a pale-billed woodpecker, and he would start things off with this little wood-block sound. Then you’d hear the kiskadees, and they go [imitates a kiskadee sound]. It’s got a yellow belly, looks like a tennis ball. Then there are caciques, and wrens, and they were like this cascading piece of music. Some birds are more diatonically musical, and with others, it’s amazing the vocabulary they have. So, I started to become kind of obsessed with these birds.
Without any intent at that point, right? You’re just interested.
Exactly. But what I did notice in coming out of the pandemic and feeling a little bit uninspired, a little blue, is that if a bird came to our birdbath or I would discover there was a bird’s nest nearby, it would transport me completely. Anything I was doing, I would drop and I would go and watch this. I felt so lucky and so grateful that I could witness this bird activity. Then I did a tour with Amanda Tosoff last summer and that ignited a spark to start performing again. I said, “OK, I’m ready.” Obviously, I’m not the first person to do an album about birds, but there was so much material to choose from. Spark Bird itself is a birding term. A spark bird is a bird that ignites a passion for learning more about them. Most birders will have a spark bird that they like to talk about, whatever it might be. I discovered that term and I knew exactly what my spark bird was, which is a cacique. It’s this beautiful, sleek, black and yellow bird. It’s endemic to Oaxaca. Where we were living at the time, this bird would come and tap on the window every morning. It was in the other room, though, so I would try to go in and see if I could catch it, and it would always fly away in this flash of yellow and black. Finally I set up a camera and figured out what it was, and we started seeing them everywhere. That was my spark. So, this album represents the reigniting of my spark of creativity and the desire to release an actual collection of songs.
Was it as straight of a line as writing a song that represents a particular bird, or was it more about the broader inspiration?
I wasn’t thinking specifically of each individual bird at the beginning. I was purely looking through repertoire and seeing what was inspiring me to do a new arrangement. I was on Instagram and came across Hannah Barstow, and she was playing this melody without words, playing it on the piano, and I was immediately struck by this melody. I couldn’t get it out of my head. I sent her a message and asked if it was a complete composition, and she said, “Yeah, I’ve just finished it right now.” I told her, “I don’t know if you’ve written lyrics yet, but this album concept is about birds.” And she said, “I can’t believe you’re saying that, because this song references birds.” It seemed meant to be. I got goosebumps at the time, and I still do. Steve and I did that arrangement of her tune, and I really love it. In choosing the material, first of all, a major piece of this project is the artwork. When I decided to make an album and manufacture a physical CD, I wanted it to be more than just packaging for the music — I wanted it to be a piece of art. So, I collaborated with Caroline Brown — who, we must say, full disclosure, is your longtime special lady. Caroline and I have collaborated on at least seven albums. She’s an incredible artist and graphic designer, and on this album, I really wanted her art to be featured. We started talking almost a year ago about assigning a signature bird to each song. We talked about the meaning of the song, and we were looking into the significance and meanings of each bird. She designed these gorgeous birds for each song. I wanted to release several singles, so that each song could really have its due. Each song has its own individual, special, custom artwork by Caroline Brown. It’s been an absolute joy.
You are obviously a Juno Award-winning vocalist and most people think of you as a singer, but it seems like most of what we’re talking about here is about concepts, about how to get things done, about the self-starter attitude that an artist has to have. You’re in Mexico, you’re trying to make a record — I’m guessing audio files are being sent back and forth. It seems like it’s a lot.
It’s a lot. But I’m extremely fortunate to be collaborating with Steve Webster. He co-produced the album, he mixed and mastered all the tracks, and he handled the sending and receiving of so many files. We had musicians working from Toronto, Montreal and California.
I see lots of familiar names, just like a regular Emilie-Claire Barlow record.
Yeah, there are some of my longtime [collaborators]: Reg Schwager, Jon Maharaj, Amanda Tosoff.
With this album, this is the first time you’re going to get to the United States with some kind of consistency to do a bunch of shows.
I guess it seems odd, partly because now that I’m able to see the analytics, [I know] my largest audience by far is in the United States, and I’ve never toured there. I’ve wanted to, but it just hasn’t come together. So I decided to book the tour myself.
Anybody who’s listening who’s a young musician getting started, this is my biggest piece of advice: Don’t be waiting around for somebody to do something for you. You need to do it yourself, or at least try. You’re going to learn so much, and eventually maybe you can have that perfect person to fill in that job. Or if you’re like me, 25 years later, maybe not. I’ve had some wonderful agents over the years, but for whatever reason it hasn’t come together. So, we have a U.S. tour coming up, and I’m thrilled that I’m going to be playing a lot of these places for the first time. I’m going to be making my debut in New York City at Birdland, of all places. Caroline calls that “avian serendipity,” by the way. The bird album at Birdland. You know, Austin, San Antonio, Minneapolis, Denver, Portland, Boise… I’ve never been to any of these places. It’s really exciting.