The business of being Emilie Claire Barlow

Emilie Claire Barlow. Photo: Melany Bernier Photography

Emilie Claire Barlow knows that to keep going forward as a singer and a musician she need to take care of business — her business.

“I have always had the attitude of not taking no for an answer, of not waiting around for the phone to ring and of creating opportunities for myself.

“Once I realized I needed that mindset to approach my career in music as a full-time job, I would get up every morning, open up my computer, get a coffee and get to work.”

That work could be emailing venues, developing a budget and making a long term plan for an album release. Or it could involve researching festivals, working on a grant application … whatever. “There is no shortage of things to do to keep ball moving forward.”

Her goal, after all, is to get on stage or into a recording studio and sing her heart out.

“Whatever I need to do to get closer to those goals, that’s my job. You have to have a combination of drive, talent and luck. You have to be ready if the right door opens.”

She is a problem solver, for herself and others.

“If I can’t find someone to distribute albums in a certain territory, I open a spot on my website.

“Someone asked me if they could buy a copy of one of my arrangements” and now she has turned that into a business as well. She’s even selling personal greetings to fans on special occasions. You can book a birthday wish for a special friend on her website.

Barlow set up all this online. It was a huge learning curve, but it was certainly worth it.

The result is a durable audience of fans who love her versions of jazz and pop standards and original tunes that she creates with her partner Steve Webster.

She tours a lot and she likes to return to some places including the Babs Asper Theatre at the National Arts Centre on Dec. 6.

One place that she likes to go is on the other side of the world. Every 18 months or so, for the past 13 years, you’ll find Barlow in Japan, singing at the Tokyo Cotton Club. She was there recently.

“It’s a beautiful venue. It’s modelled after the original in Harlem. It’s a beautifully appointed supper club that seats about 200. The sound is pristine.”

It is a treat, she said, “to settle in for three, four or five nights at a time in a club of this calibre in front of an audience full of sophisticated jazz fans who are also great listeners. It’s usually a quick trip but we also have time to explore the city. Every time we go we see something new.” To top it off the club flies her and the band to and from Tokyo, so it’s well worth the occasional bout of jet lag.

She started the relationship when she released her first Christmas album called Winter Wonderland. She has a licensing deal with JVC. The album was being distributed in Japan and a promotional tour was arranged. One of the stops was the Tokyo Cotton Club.

Another place that Barlow likes to spend time in is Quebec.

She may have a French-sounding name but she’s Toronto born and bred and an Anglo.

Her breakthrough in French Canada came at about the same time as her trip to Japan.

“When I released Winter Wonderland 13 years ago I started doing a lot of touring in Quebec.”

At that time, her French wasn’t great. But, once Barlow puts her mind to something, she gets to work.

“It was born of desire to communicate with an audience, I did my best to speak as much French as possible.”

Now she’s released an album in French and regularly includes French songs on her records.

She’s also been going to small towns across Quebec performing in, she said, beautiful theatres to audiences who were warm and receptive.

Her French album, Seule ce soir, proved to be a great way to learn the language.

One thing that does exist in Quebec still are live music variety shows. Those have disappeared in English Canada.

“That’s where I discovered many Quebec artists like Marie-Pierre Arthur, Ingrid St-Pierre, Annie Villeneuve and Bruno Pelletier. I follow their careers and listen to their music.”

When she lands in Ottawa this week, Barlow and her band will be performing a selection of songs from both Christmas albums. The second one, Lumières d’hiver, was released in 2017.

“I like to think — hope — that the music on these albums is timeless.” Lumières d’hiver differs from Winter Wonderland which was packed with classics from the American songbook. It also included an original song called Angel’s Lullaby written by Barlow’s mother Judy Tate.

Lumières d’hiver is half French and half English with three originals by Barlow and Webster. There are also duets with Ingrid St-Pierre and Mitsou. Barlow has become friendly with the Quebecois star over the years.

“Mitsou was very kind when we both were at the Felix awards when I was honoured with an award for Seule ce soir” which also won a JUNO in 2013. Barlow won a second JUNO for her record Clear Day (2016).

Recently Mitsou told Barlow that, while she didn’t sing much any more because of a slew of business interests, she wanted to sing with Barlow.

Barlow seized the offer and ran with it. They recorded the vocals in Barlow’s apartment in Montreal and they have performed it live together.

As her parents were both musicians (her dad is Brian Barlow) “music was all I knew. I grew up with the studio and the stage being a normal part of our lives. There is nothing ho hum about those experiences for me. I still get same thrill when I walk into a recording studio — the smell of the gear and the coziness of being in the studio.

“I learned to read music at a young age and thinking music was something we did.”

She studied arranging and composition with Shelly Berger at Humber College.

“As a musician I think it is important to be able to express ideas to other musicians; to get ideas out of my head and onto the page.”

Holly Cole was an influence for her when she was starting out.

“She was releasing some of her early albums with her trio and taking jazz standards and making wonderfully inventive arrangements. I was inspired by that.”

Her jazz side was where she started but she says she listens to all kinds of music.

Her current Christmas album walks the line between jazz and pop and “I feel comfortable in that place.”

She is working on a new project called Bocana with Webster which will “lean in a much more pop, lounge, chill, think Imogen Heap way.” Expect that in the spring.

She knows that may not please jazz purists, but “I can’t please everybody. I have to do what I want to do musically. I want people to enjoy the of course, but if the music is satisfying for me to create and I am reaching people that’s enough. I’m trying to make music that feels good and that is timeless.”

Emilie Claire Barlow
Where: Babs Asper Theatre
When: Dec. 6 at 7:30 p.m.
Tickets and information:

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Peter Robb began his connection with the arts community in Ottawa in the mid-1980s when he was the administrator and public relations director of the Great Canadian Theatre Company. After a long career in journalism with the Ottawa Citizen where he served in a number of different posts he returned to the arts when he became the Citizen's arts editor.