Though his latest album of original compositions, Fou (Crazy) goes back to 2005, Dan Bigras has been active as an actor in the 30 Vies television series, as a film director for La rage de l’ange (2006) and, more recently, as Éric Lapointe’s mentor on La Voix. This past February, he resurfaced as a singer-songwriter with Le sans visage [Faceless].

On the other end of the line, Bigras took time from his Dominican Republic vacation to answer our questions – the first one being, why had there been such a long break between his last two album releases?: “Having adult attention deficit disorder,” Bigras replies, “the concept of taking a break is alien to me. In fact, I have the opposite problem. I have to jot down all my ideas right away because I know they’ll be gone in three minutes flat. I get back to all of this stuff later on and pick what I need.”

“As a creator, you must involve yourself to the point that there is no bloody difference between you and your work.”

We also wonder how difficult it was, for a creator who had accumulated 50 new songs over the past few years, to make a meaningful choice among a varied output dealing with such diverse topics as contented love, lustful relationships, society’s forgotten people, powerful, life-long friendships, social networks and their opinion overdose, and so on – and to turn this into a coherent album.

“Saying that I wrote 50 songs just to keep 15 in the end makes it sound like a lot of work,” Bigras explains, “but the truth is, you write 10 songs, then 10 more, and the second batch makes the first one sound like shit! So you keep going and, three years down the road, you’re up to 50 tunes. Once you realize you’ve been writing the identical same song three times, you know it’s time to quit. You’re there. All that’s left to do is clean things up here and there, cut off the dead wood and keep the good stuff for an album.”

How, then, can he manage to put both dark and upbeat songs back to back on the same album without making it sound unbalanced? Bigras’ answer to that is tied to his own definition of what balance is: “I learned a long time ago that balance does not mean steering a middle course. Balancing extremes means playing both ends against the middle. It’s the story of my life. Toeing the line has always made me miserable, ever since I was a small boy. That’s what got me attracted to extremes. In my songs, it’s the same thing, I need contrasting feelings and moods. That’s how I was able to find a balance on Le sans visage.”

Bigras freely admits that, as he gets older, he’s more likely to spend time by himself when he gets into a creative mood. Alone in his home studio, he talks to himself, laughs out loud, curses his equipment and generally has a great time doing it all. Since he’s quit drinking, these moments have become his favourite way of letting loose.

Isn’t there a risk, at some level, of a lack of oxygen while working in isolation without a fresh pair of eyes helping you see things differently? “Claiming that a creator has to distance himself from his work is a serious mistake,” Bigras corrects, with the authority of one who’s been there. “That’s what many producers will tell you to justify their big fees… As a creator, you must involve yourself to the point that there is no bloody difference between you and your work. Later, you can take some time to think. Besides, I have a record company with a staff, I have friends I can involve in listening groups along with industry people. But I only do that once I’ve reached a certain stage, not while the creative process is in full swing. I couldn’t work with a producer who would ask me to put in a little bit of this and take out a little bit of that. I couldn’t stand it.”

Another thing Bigras couldn’t stand for a long time was the sound of his own singing voice, a very distinctive instrument he has learned to accept for better or for worse. “I’ve long since stopped complaining that I’ll never be a great singer,” he explains without any false modesty. “I somehow realized that, of all the instruments I was playing, my voice was the only one conveying words, and that these words originated from deep inside me, straight from my heart. I was able to see that this is what matters in the end. I am old enough now to be able to start listening to my own voice. And a good job it is, too, because let me tell you, when you spend the whole day listening to yourself at the mixing stage, if you hate that voice, you’re in for one hell of a time… I’ve created albums where I’ve cut corners just because I could no longer stand the sound of me. Now I can. I suppose you become more fatalistic over time, and you can accept that what there is, is all there will ever be.”

“There’s a way of playing safe, there’s a way of using tricks and there’s the way I like to play, which is dangerously, where you’re going to take a chance on making mistakes in order to create something you haven’t created before.”

The late Dave Brubeck wasn’t Canadian, nor was he a SOCAN member, but the quote attributed to him could easily describe a number of SOCAN members who are exploring jazz and taking the genre in bold, innovative new directions.

Canada has been blessed with pioneering artists like pianist Oscar Peterson, arranger Gil Evans, guitarist Lenny Breau and big band-leading trombonist Rob McConnell forging trailblazing reputations in the past, but 2014 has its own share of groundbreakers: bands like Bad Bad Not Good with their hip-hop sensibilities; composers like soul-jazz experimenter Elizabeth Shepherd; Kellylee Evans, whose breathtaking interpretations of rap have been eye-opening; The Heavyweights Brass Band, who put an old-time spin on contemporary standards and new originals; and adventurous trio Myriad3, who are forging their own lexicon.

“I placed myself in that tradition of people who have found ways to hack the big band.” – Darcy James Argue

And there are these four: Darcy James Argue’s Secret Society, Christine Jensen, Colin Stetson and Jane Bunnett’s latest project, Maqueque (pronounced mah-KAY-kay).

On the big-band front, Vancouver-born Darcy James Argue and Montreal’s Christine Jensen each offer their own distinctive takes on the 18-member format with their recent efforts Brooklyn Babylon and Habitat, respectively, both to international critical acclaim.

Argue, who has been twice nominated for Grammy Awards for 2010’s Infernal Machines and 2013’s Brooklyn, takes credit for self-labeling his music “steampunk big band,” a sound that references everyone from the Thad Jones/Mel Lewis era to Monty Python faves John Philip Sousa, and veers from minimalism to a full funk blowout.

“I was taking some pretty old-school musical technology full of brass, hijacking it, and making it do something it wasn’t originally designed to do,” Argue explains from his New York home. “The big band is so strongly associated with a particular time and place in history, but there have always been the freaks and weirdos of the jazz world who have clung to, and have found innovative usage for, this particular instrumentation that is wildly divergent from the sound of the big band era. By claiming that label, I placed myself in that tradition of people who have found ways to hack the big band.”

Argue, who spent time studying music at Montreal’s McGill University, was invited by trombonist Bob Brookmeyer – “a great mentor of mine and a master of big band writing,” says Argue – to study at the New England Conservatory of Music.

“They had something totally unique – a student big band, devoted entirely to student compositions, that meets every week,” Argue recalls. “This was a great opportunity for me to hone my skills.”

Argue admits that he never intended to specialize in big band, but his time at the New England Conservatory helped focus his sound.

“I really became enraptured with the possibilities of writing music on a larger scale, having the ability to have dense harmony and counterpoint, and wider tone palettes than you have in a small group,” says Argue. “There’s also the kind of intricacy and raw power that comes from having 14 brass and wind players blowing right in your face. It’s an experience you can’t really duplicate. It became something that I couldn’t live without.”

Christine Jensen has a similar tale in terms of unexpectedly tackling a larger ensemble, although the alto saxophonist prefers the term “jazz orchestra” to “big band.”

“It’s my music and it’s a bit contemporary,” she explains. “It’s not easy listening – there are challenges in the composition for the listener to hear new ideas.”

Scoring rave international reviews and a JUNO Award for her latest album Habitat, Jensen – the sister of renowned Canadian trumpeter Ingrid Jensen (who plays in Argue’s Secret Society) – says the album’s inspiration grew out of her prior small ensemble release,

Jill Barber is well acquainted with risk. “It’s what I find thrilling about being an artist,” she explains, “both when I’m on stage and when I’m deciding what I want my next artistic move to be.”

Her fearlessness has served her well. More than a decade into her career, Barber, 34, has sold more than 100,000 genre-straddling albums, been nominated for more than 30 awards, and had her music featured in commercials and television shows, including the Netflix hit Orange is the New Black. She recently signed on to be an ambassador for the Save the Children charity, and just published her second children’s book, Music is for Everyone.

It was her decision to pursue motherhood, however, which finally gave her pause. “My big fear in deciding to have a child was that after 10 to 12 years of trying to gain momentum in my career, I would have to put on the brakes,” she admits. “That really scared me.” Determined to keep things rolling along, Barber made a promise to herself: before her baby was a year old she would put out an album. “I decided to be a working mom,” she says, “but of course, I felt a bit like I was rolling the dice, because I really didn’t know what it would be like.”

“I can’t follow the muse because I’m chasing my baby.”

It was a gamble that paid off. In September 2013, six weeks after the birth of her son Joshua, Barber was back on stage, performing at the New York City premiere of the American television series, Masters of Sex. Staying true to her word, she released her sixth full-length album, Fool’s Gold, in June 2014. Produced by longtime collaborators Les Cooper and Drew Jurecka, and engineered by Stu Young, the album sees Barber musing on both love and heartbreak in a series of new songs touched by jazz, blues, Motown and country.   “I feel really proud of this record,” she says. “I feel like it’s really clicking with people, which is really nice.”

While she now takes Joshua on the road with her with when she performs, the Vancouver-based Barber is quick to point out that she couldn’t do it alone. “There’s no secret!” she laughs. “It only works because I have a lot of help.” Her husband, CBC Radio 3 personality Grant Lawrence, took a paternity leave to join her on the road for the first six months, and she now travels with a nanny. She also credits Joshua for being an easy baby. “He just goes with the flow. He’s a really good traveller.”

Barber says motherhood has also required her to take a more disciplined approach to her songwriting. “None of the songs on this record were written at midnight when I was struck by inspiration,” she laughs. “The way my life is right now, I can’t follow the muse because I’m chasing my baby.” Instead, she carves out regular time for writing, and to work with her collaborators.

As she matures as a musician and performer, Barber – who won the SiriusXM 2012 Jazz Artist of the Year award as well as the 2013 Western Canadian Francophone Album of the Year for Chansons, an album recorded entirely in French – says she’s also getting more comfortable saying no when she needs to.

“Because as musicians we love what we do so much, it’s easy to exploit that love,” she says thoughtfully. “I want to be a nice person, but I’m also realizing that I don’t have to be quite so accommodating. I still want to work hard for opportunities, but I would like to not have to hustle for them all the time.”

Still, Barber is grateful for everything she’s been able to accomplish since she cashed in her savings bonds (all gifts from a grandparent) more than a decade ago in order to try her hand at making music full-time. “That was a risk, I guess,” she laughs, “because up until that point, that was my life savings!” But Barber, who ended up recording her first full-length album, Oh Heart, at CBC’s Studio H in Halifax soon after, also knew it would be more of a risk not to try. “My ultimate goal back in 2004 was to not have to work a day job,” she recalls. “To me, that was success.”

Looking ahead, Barber says she hopes to be able to collaborate more formally with her first musical inspiration, older brother Matthew Barber. Refusing to let fear keep her from pushing her own musical boundaries, she also has plans to work towards making what she calls a “full-on country record” at some point down the road.

“When I look at my record collection, it crosses a lot of genres, so why as an artist should I be expected to represent just one?,” Barber muses. “I write all the songs, and for me, that’s what ties them together.”

Discography: A Note to Follow So (EP) (2002), Oh Heart (2004), For All Time (2006), Chances (2008), Mischievous Moon (2011), Chansons (2013), Fool’s Gold (2014)
SOCAN member since 2003