Published Apr 08, 2016Singing and performing together is not a novelty for siblings Matthew and Jill Barber. Both highly regarded as solo singer-songwriters, they've frequently guested on each other's recordings and shows, but only now have they collaborated on a full record, The Family Album, out now on Outside Music.
Responding to the inevitable query as to why a duo album took so long, Jill tells Exclaim! that "we were both so focused on our solo careers. It takes up a lot of energy being a solo artist, figuring out who we are respectively as artists, making our own careers, making our own records, and building our own audiences. We both kind of knew there would come a day when it just seemed to make sense that we'd collaborate."
That day came around a year ago. Both Matthew (with Big Romance) and Jill (with Fool's Gold) had released solo albums in 2014, so there was space to work together.
"We did a fair bit of pre-production before going into studio," recalls Matthew. "We'd grab four or five days at a time in the six months leading up to the recording. I'd go to Vancouver [Jill's home base] or we'd meet up in Toronto or some neutral location, trying out different songs and sharing some of the originals we'd written."
The Family Album is a mix of six cover songs and five originals (three by Jill, two by Matthew). "We didn't want to use old songs that hadn't made earlier albums. We wanted to be writing with this project in mind," says Matthew.
Choosing outside material to cover was a lengthy process, and the duo finally settled on tunes by Canadian songwriting greats Ian Tyson, Neil Young, Gene MacLellan and Leonard Cohen, as well as Americana faves Bobby Charles and Townes Van Zandt. Jill explains that "we didn't set out to focus on Canadian music, but I think this is a fair representation of how we listen and enjoy music. A lot of that does tend to be Canadian." As these song choices would indicate, The Family Album falls in the folk/roots camp, as opposed to the jazz and pop sound of Jill Barber's recent albums.
The duo demoed the songs with just voices and acoustic guitar, prior to setting up shop in Toronto studio Union, owned by noted engineer Chris Stringer (Timber Timbre, Ohbijou, Luke Doucet). "We were pretty prepared in terms of singing the songs together before going in, but the arrangements came out of the sessions," says Matthew. Adds Jill, "We had a luxurious schedule in the studio, taking our time working on the songs."
The Family Album is co-produced by Jill and Matthew Barber, with plenty of input coming from the A-list band they assembled. That grouping comprised Julian Brown (Feist), Dean Stone (Apostle of Hustle), Joey Wright (Sarah Harmer), Drew Jurecka (Stevie Wonder, Dave Brubeck) and Robbie Grunwald (Doug Paisley), some of whom the Barbers had previously worked with extensively (Jurecka co-produced and co-wrote some songs on Fool's Gold, for instance).
Stringer engineered, and the album was mixed by Grammy Award-winning Michael Piersante (Willie Nelson, Robert Plant and Allison Krauss's Raising Sand, Elvis Costello, O Brother Where Art Thou OST). That choice was no accident, for the hit Plant and Krauss collaboration, Raising Sand, was something of a template for The Family Album.
"That's an album we both love, and it was an inspiration," says Jill.
Matthew adds, "It also has a mix of covers and originals, with a more traditional sounding production. I'm a fan of Michael's work, and he was really great to work with. I'd never worked that way before, sending files over the net. I'm usually in the room or doing it myself, so it was kind of nice to just send it off to someone I trusted."
After completing the album, the Barbers performed much of the new material together, solely as a duo, at some Canadian folk festivals last summer. It will be a combination of band and duo shows for the touring they now have planned after the record's official release.
"It seems we do have our 2016 mapped out, with lots of dates going right across the country," adds Jill. "On some of the smaller fests it will be just the two of us. It is very intimate, but I do miss the band."
Matthew explains that "we will throw in a few of our solo songs, as well as featuring the new album. We do want to give the ticket-buyers some of the songs they know and love and want to hear from the both of us too. The shows are going to be a lot of fun. Our mom is going to be on the road with us a little bit, to provide childcare, so it will truly be a Family Album tour!"
Scroll pass the Family Album tour dates to check out the video for "I Must Be in a Good Place Now."
04/15 St. Albert, AB – The Arden Theatre
04/16 St. Albert, AB – The Arden Theatre
04/17 Banff, AB – Eric Harvie Theatre
04/21 Regina, SK – Casino Regina
04/22 Winnipeg, MB – West End Cultural Centre
05/28 Toronto, ON – The Great Hall