Juno Award-winning jazz vocalist Emilie-Claire Barlow was sailing aboard the arctic icebreaker “Amundsen” when she had what she describes as an “epiphany.”

“I felt like I needed to see what I was capable of if I really put the time and energy into it and took some risks,” she explains. The result was Clear Day, a deeply personal jazz album that garnered two nominations in this year’s Juno Awards (Producer of the Year and Vocal Jazz Album of the Year).

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Barlow speaks to reporters after her 2016 Juno win.

The songs chosen reflect specific moments in her life and are arranged chronologically, a process she likens to scoring a film: “We’re trying to score my personal story.” Along with co-producer Steve Webster, Barlow wrote all of the arrangements and many of the orchestrations for the album, which featured around eighty musicians. Having produced or co-produced all of her own albums, it was an imposing task but not a new challenge. “For me, producing was a natural offshoot of being an arranger and a singer and having very clear musical ideas and a very clear sense of direction.”

Barlow is one of only eleven women to be nominated for a production Juno, but she doesn’t put much stock in notions of glass ceilings. “I grew up in Toronto in the studio scene, and I spent a lot of my childhood in studios – both my parents were studio musicians. It is true that, for the most part, the engineers and the producers were male, but honestly it’s not something that ever occurred to me as a problem or an issue, it’s just the way it was.”

She adds, “There are many jobs and careers that are primarily female in this world.”

She attributes the lack of representation to the narrow range of awards categories and the dominance of rock and pop at the Junos. In contrast she cites the Grammy Awards, which feature separate categories for classical and non-classical music and are able to recognize more female producers: “It happens to be in categories that are outside pop and rock.”

In terms of representation, Barlow is more concerned about genre than gender.  “I think the thing that I’m really proud of is that this record has been nominated in the production category, and it’s a jazz record. That’s actually probably rarer than the fact that I’m a female.”

With classical and pop influences, she acknowledges that Clear Day doesn’t fit preconceived notions about jazz music. “I didn’t want to feel hindered by what a jazz record was supposed to be.”

The album features an eclectic collection of songs, including surprising covers of David Bowie, Coldplay, and others. Translating iconic rock songs to a jazz format is a challenge, she admits, but one that inspires her: “I’ve always taken other people’s songs and tried to reinvent them.”

Barlow relishes the opportunity to transgress genre boundaries, stating, “What I hope is that people are open musically, to listening to music that doesn’t have to fit in a certain genre.”

Originally published on Music Vice as Emilie-Claire Barlow interview: on Jazz, the Junos, and Genre-Bending; March 31, 2016

Bonus Quotes:

  • The album, which she describes as “a very international project,” was written in Mexico, recorded in Holland and mastered in Cleveland, and features around eighty musicians.
  • In addition to being a musician, Barlow is also prolific voice actress, which she calls “a very complimentary job to being a musician [and] being a vocalist.”  She adds,  “It’s a creative experience and its enabled me to use every part of my range, which as a vocalist is very interesting to me. It’s probably enabled me to broaden my voice as a singer.” Her voice can be heard in a variety of cartoons including Total Drama Island, 6Teen, and Sailor Moon.
  • Barlow is one of the few women to be nominated in the Juno Awards production category; however, she doesn’t put much stock in the idea of glass ceilings:“I’ve never encountered any barriers at all. I grew up in Toronto in the studio scene, and I spent a lot of my childhood in studios – both my parents were studio musicians. It is true that, for the most part, the engineers and the producers were male, but honestly it’s not something that ever occurred to me as a problem or an issue, it’s just the way it was. There are many jobs and careers that are primarily female in this world. It is true, looking at the nominations that there are definitely more male nominees than female. I’m not sure how many women are actually submitting music…I hope that women aren’t feeling unwelcome in these jobs, I guess the question is, are they drawn to these roles?”
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