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Juno-winning jazz vocalist talks arctic voyage and gender disparity in music

By Jarrett Edmund, April 5 2016 —

Inspiration can be hard to find, but few search for it aboard an icebreaker in the Canadian Arctic. Jazz vocalist and producer Emilie-Claire Barlow did just that.

“That was a part of the world that was not on my radar at all,” Barlow says. “Being in a remote, exquisite and dangerous place had a profound impact on me. It was a moment of reflection and clarity.”

After returning from her stay on an arctic icebreaker, Barlow broke some ice of her own, ending her marriage and embarking on a journey that culminated with Clear Day, her 11th studio album.

Clear Day tells the story of the impact that this trip had on my life, the subsequent fallout and the beginning of a new chapter,” says Barlow. “It’s in chronological order. The concept was to pinpoint pivotal moments on the way and find the perfect song to tell that story.”

The album features covers of a wide array of musicians, including Van Morrison, Joni Mitchell and David Bowie.

“It’s an international project,” says Barlow. “We wrote orchestrations for a 70-piece orchestra and brought them to Holland. Then we worked with [composer] John Metcalfe in England, came back to Toronto and recorded the rhythm section. I recorded my vocals back in Montreal.”

The combination was a success —  Clear Day earned Barlow the “Vocal Jazz Album of the Year” Juno award this past weekend in Calgary. Barlow was thrilled with the win.

“To have it recognized in the “Vocal Jazz Album of the Year” and also [nominated] in the production category was really important and special to me because I know how hard we worked.”

Despite Barlow’s two nominations, the Junos were met with controversy when nominees were announced in February and the ‘JunoSoMale’ hashtag blew up on social media. Barlow is the 11th woman to be nominated for production work in 38 years.

The Junos are run by the Canadian Academy of Recording Arts and Sciences (CARAS), whose directorial board currently consists of 15 members. Only two of whom are women. But Barlow isn’t buying the controversy.

“I’m officially rolling my eyes at the ‘JunoSoMale’ hashtag,” she says. “I think it would be unfair to blame the Junos for the ratio of men to women in the music industry.”

A number of artists, however, voiced their displeasure with the gender imbalance of the nominations, including Vancouver’s Grimes, whose critically acclaimed album Art Angels was shut out of the Junos across all categories.

CARAS president Allan Reid dismissed the controversy, noting that only eight women submitted to the “Producer of the Year” category, and only two for “Recording Engineer of the Year.” These numbers reflect the proportion of female producers and sound engineers in the industry, which is around 95 per cent male. Timing may have also been an issue.

“The challenge that Grimes had is that her record came out right at the end of our eligibility period,” Reid said in a recent interview. Both the producing and engineering nominations were determined by judges.

Barlow produced 10 records before earning a production nomination. The artist has little sympathy for Grimes, who has said that if she collaborated with a man, listeners would assume the man did all the work.

“To forego a collaboration because you need to ensure that you get the credit? To me, it goes against the reason for making music,” Barlow says. “It’s problematic. It speaks potentially to a feeling of insecurity, but hopefully she’ll shed that. She’s going to have a long career in the music business.”

For women interested in the music industry, Barlow feels there are a number of role models.

“Passion knows no gender,” says Barlow. “It is only a problem if women are not being welcomed. I’ve never experienced that. I’ve always felt supported and welcomed.”

Barlow believes her perseverance helped her find success and thinks other young women can do the same.

“I would do my best to encourage [women] to do any role in the industry that they want,” she says.

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