For Juno award winning singer Emilie Claire Barlow, there never was a Plan B. No day jobs or fallback plans in case music didn’t work out. “I’ve always been a singer," she said. “I just knew that’s what I was, who I was and what I was always going to do." It has been so much in her blood from the start that the Toronto born jazz vocalist and arranger remembers that she learned to read music around the same time she learned to read words. “It was part of our language," Barlow said, remembering childhood trips to recording studios with her parents, drummer Brian Barlow and singer Judy Tate.
“I get asked all the time when I’m going to write my own songs," Barlow said during a 2012 interview. “Maybe I will, but I might not. It’s a completely different craft. I marvel at that skill, but I have a lot of ideas for repertoire and for arrangements. That’s my creative process. That’s how I get my creative kicks, how I express myself: by writing arrangements for horns and strings. That, to me, is a hugely important part of the process that I don’t want to give up." Nothing has illustrated that flair as much as Barlow’s latest musical journey, the daringly arranged and imaginatively chosen songs on her latest album, Clear Day.
The album, which ushers in a new phase of her career, began with her experiences four years ago on an icebreaker. Accepting an invitation to board the CCGS Amundsen as an observer and sailing through the Northwest Passage to Resolute in Nunavut led Barlow to take stock of her life and make significant changes, which included leaving her marriage. As personal revelations were gradually reimagined into universal ones, the ambitious Clear Day began to take shape. Era and genre spanning songs that seemed to tell a chronological story of her emotional journey were selected as the project morphed into a concept album with a narrative an almost revolutionary move in an age where the streaming single track rules.
Brad Mehldau, Paul Simon, David Bowie and Queen, Coldplay, Pat Metheny and Joni Mitchell are among the artists whose work was used as a foundation but certainly not copied. For six months, in fact, Barlow and collaborator Steve Webster, who is also her boyfriend, found themselves crafting fresh and unusual arrangements and orchestrations during virtually every spare moment. Lyrics were written for some pieces that had been strictly instrumental. A few of the album’s arrangements dated back to a concert with the Orchestre symphonique du Québec last October, an event that got Barlow and Webster thinking about writing for and recording with an orchestra.
John Metcalfe, whose work on Peter Gabriel’s Scratch My Back had impressed both of them, agreed to write orchestrations for two of the songs on the new disc, which also features the 70piece Metropole Orkest on most of the tracks. Even the recording of the project broke with the traditional process. With the arrangements written in Mexico, the orchestra recorded in Amsterdam, Barlow’s band adding its parts in Toronto and some of the final vocals recorded before a small audience in Montreal, it was an international project. Clear Day, coproduced by Barlow and Webster, is due to be released in October. “With this album, I’m reaching for something bigger, more challenging and more personal," Barlow said.