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)
Visit www.jillbarber.com
SOCAN member since 2003

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.”

Born in November 2011 of a chance encounter between three hip girls – Vivianne Roy, 22 (guitar), Katrine Noël, 21 (ukulele) and Julie Aubé, 21 (banjo) – at New Brunswick’s Accros de la chanson competition, Les Hay Babies have taken the music scene by storm. After releasing their first EP, Folio, and opening for Lisa LeBlanc in 2012, the dynamic singer-songwriter trio garnered six Music New Brunswick awards and won top honours at the 2013 Francouvertes festival. Just like that.

“We didn’t know it was a competition,” Roy admits, referring to the Accros de la chanson (or “Song Addicts”) contest. “We thought it was a festival. Once we found out, we went ‘Wow, OK,’ but we weren’t expecting anything. We were based in New Brunswick and had to make the trip each time to play. So we didn’t have much of a chance to see other artists perform, but the whole thing was a big help, for sure. It really was a springboard for bookings in venues and festivals, as well as for the release of our album. That’s definitely what kick-started our career.”

Out of sight, but not of mind

Last April, the first Hay Babies full-length album, Mon Homesick Heart, hit the stores. Produced by François Lafontaine (Karkwa, Alexandre Désilets), it contains 11 indie-folk-country-psyche original songs written on the road, far away from family and boyfriends. “You can hear it in our songs,” Aubé points out.

While “J’ai vendu mon char” (“I Sold My Car”) explores the Hay Babies’ playful side, songs like “La toune du soundman” show a more vulnerable and moving aspect of their personalities. As Noël explains, “this is the most personal song I’ve written so far, and one of the first where I talk about myself directly. I had been away for a month and a half, and I was homesick, hence the album’s title. I don’t always draw inspiration from the same sources, though. Some of my songs refer to things I didn’t go through myself, others are pure fiction.”

As a songwriting collective, the Hay Babies are a democratic team trying new approaches as they go along. “We’ve never had a specific working method,” says Noël. “Sometimes I’ll write a song from start to finish, or just about, and I’ll bring it to the band for us to work it as a group. Sometimes we’ll work on another girl’s composition. Other times, we’ll start with a scrap of text we can’t fully develop for some reason. The three of us can also sit down start writing a new song from scratch.”  “We all get to give our two cents worth about each song,” Aubé further explains. “That may give rise to a jam, but there’s no set formula.”

Acadian talent

While artists like Lisa LeBlanc and Radio Radio have loomed large on the Quebec music scene for a few years now, Acadian musicians have tended to shy away from the limelight. “I think we all suffer from some sort of an inferiority complex,” Aubé explains, “because we have  no structures back home to help us to succeed, and you can’t make a living just playing gigs around New Brunswick. You have to go to France or Quebec. You’ve got to export yourself. And not everyone is ready to do that. It means getting out of your comfort zone, and it isn’t easy.”

“The fact that many young Acadian artists are beginning to make a living with music is encouraging others to try their luck,” Noël adds. “There’s always been talented musicians here, and lots more are waiting to be discovered.”

Overnight sensations

Have the Hay Babies found it hard to adapt to their instant fame after two critically and publicly acclaimed albums and many sold-out shows? “No,” Aubé replies. “You know, as we live outside Quebec, there’s lots of things we aren’t aware of. There are tons of articles written about us that we never get a chance to read. Each time we get there, we’re shocked to realize how well-known we’ve become. We played for 700 people as part of the last FrancoFolies Festival in Montreal, and we were expecting nothing!”

“Initially,” Roy recalls, “I had planned to work in music, but I had no idea you could make a living with it. I was going to be a journalist or an album cover designer, but not up front. This whole thing pretty much caught me unawares.”

“From the word go,” adds Noël, “we forged ahead without taking the time to look back and take it all in. We’re spoiled, and happy that our work is being appreciated, but I don’t think we’re able to appreciate how huge what’s happening to us is. We’re just grateful to be able to make a living in music and have a good time.”

On the road (again)

After spending a “laid-back” summer, the Hay Babies are gearing up for a tour of France, and  appearing in the ROSEQ Fall showcase program, the Coup de cœur francophone festival and various other events. “Each of us also has small individual projects on the side,” Roy points out. “Then, next year, it’s back to songwriting for a new album of English-language songs. We’re also planning to spend more time on the production side of the next album than we did on the last one.”

Aubé sums up: “For us, performing in English is a creative choice. We’re all bilingual. We’ve played lots of English songs that have not yet made their way to an album. I think it’s a sad thing when you create something you’re proud of, and you can’t release it. Besides, performing in English could bring us closer to our American country roots and, who knows, maybe help us tour south of the border or in other more Anglophone places. It would be a bit crazy not to try to get people to hear our songs. In music, you can’t set limits for yourselves. You’ve got to keep exploring and looking around.”