Tuesday, 11 March 2014

Barbra Lica, The Interview

In days past, female jazz vocalists ruled the airwaves. That trend is re-surging, and one of the brightest lights on the horizon is Barbra Lica. I recently caught up with Barbra. We talked about her past, the future, marathons, Peter Appleyard and the ‘Scarlet O Hara life’ of a full-time jazz singer.

Who is Barbra Lica?

Even at a very young age, Barbra KNEW she should be on stage!

Barbra, her brother and grandmother. Music is in the genes!

Barbra was destined to be a jazz vocalist. Her mother is a professional Romanian singer, and music permeated every aspect of Barbra's life. At the age of six she discovered her father’s jazz LPs and a lifelong love of the genre was born. Barbra’s vocal stylings combined with a charming stage presence and a professionalism lauded by all who work with her are harbingers of a very bright future. Lou Pomanti, on a recent JazzFM live to air, labelled Barbra ''a fully realized artist'' who creates ''exceptional arrangements''. Ori Dagan, in his own interview with the E-Mag UnVailed gushed ''(Barbra) is absolutely incredible and very precocious. She’s in her 20s and sounds lush and beautiful''. CBC2's Tim Tamashiro, host of Tonic, has listed Barbra as one of the top five female Jazz vocalists in Canada. Joe Sealy,  when asked about Barbra, avowed ''in the classy world of jazz, she has the potential of Ella Fitzgerald and Peggy Lee''.

High praise indeed.

I just had to chat with her!

The Interview

Barbra and I both have very hectic schedules! But we WERE able to find time to chat, while Barbra rode the streetcar home from Pilates! The entire interview was chock full of laughter, spot-on imitations of the Eastern European accents Barbra grew up hearing, and a candor I was thrilled with. I hope you will be too!

photo courtesy of Janet Jardine

JAZZBRAT  Hi Barbra! How about some background. Where did you grow up?

BARBRA LICA  I was born in North York then my first home was Thornhill (Vaughan side). Moved up to Richmond Hill in Grade 1 then back down to Thornhill in grade 7 (Markham side this time) until I was in University when I moved to Trinity College for a year and a half, couldn't stand the silverfish on the ceilings, moved into my own apartment downtown T.dot and BOOM! Here we are.

JB   Barbra, music, Jazz in particular, has been  an integral part of your life for as long as you can remember, and musical talent runs in your family. You received formal Jazz education in the world-renowned University of Toronto Jazz Program. It is often said that Jazz cannot be formally ‘taught’ , that it needs to be organic. How do you feel about that, and your time at U of T?

BL   At The University of Toronto, I had amazing teachers. For combo I had Alex Dean first year, Sean McCloud second year and Dave Young for third and fourth years. Heather Bambrick was my private vocal teacher first year and Sienna Dahlen for a while in fourth year. Amazing faculty. I learned arranging from Terry Promane, the  program director. That was the class you needed, in order to be a band leader, to put together and arrange your charts.

Its not that you have it, or you don’t have it. I think the biggest thing you can do is listen. My biggest teacher was probably all the records I put on the player on a regular basis since I was a kid. You have a feel. Then going to U of T, teaches you what it is you feel, what its called. You get to hang out with your combo, and have a band, and learn to communicate with the band properly. To this day I still say: do the thingy thingy on the thing thing Which is not good, because singers already have a reputation. People ask: are you a musician or a vocalist. Thanks to a class like Terry’s, if you have an interesting idea on how to arrange something, how to make it a little bit different, its saves a lot of time to be able to make up an arrangement, or chart and just hand it out to the band. Unfortunately, with the money from gigs these days, time is everything. You only have 15 minutes before the gig  sometimes to hand out arrangements. You can’t really afford to pay people anymore for rehearsals. It’s at the point where it’s almost unprofessional to have a rehearsal now. I just had this big Valentines gig (Rose Theatre, 850 seat venue) and we had just 2 hours to go through everything. So everything has to be readable. You have to get most of the information on the charts. Really, before gig, you are only going over intros and outros. That’s where music school definitely helps you, gives you the professionalism.

JB   You have participated in some incredible music competitions. The two largest were Canadian Idol and The Sarah Vaughan Awards, the Sassy’s, where you came in first runner up. Huge achievement. What are your memories from those experiences?

BL  Canadian Idol was more about pop, It wasn't really a place where jazz was welcome at all and I was very stubborn about it. Since I was a kid I always had this line, I would rather lose as me than win as somebody else. Canadian Idol didn't work out, me doing my little jazz tune was kinda corny next to everybody else’s big pop tunes . Sarah Vaughan was the opposite experience as Canadian idol where it was hard core jazz and everybody was super hard core bebop , and I said, I’m not going to scat, and the producer of the show Larry Rosen said well, you know, I would like it if you scatted, and  I said well I’m not gonna . He's not the kinda guy used to people saying no. He had a laugh and said at least do some kind of paraphrasing  so I did a chorus of paraphrasing and they let it fly and I came in second. Funny story, at the Sassy’s they make a video of you to play before you go on. One of the questions they ask you is what would it mean to you if you won the competition, and that’s so obvious a question, but I had been so busy working out how I was going to sing and just practicing the music that I didn't even think of questions they would ask. I knew there was going to be an interview, and it was the most obvious question. They asked me: what would it mean to me if I won the competition. I started babbling and I said I hadn't thought about it that way and I’m just happy to be here, its just a great experience , on and on.  They stopped me and said can you just give us a single sentence. I said: ok well, if I won the competition I guess it would be a bonus. I was thinking about that one stupid line the whole way up to my performance. They show the other girls videos as they’re about to perform , they show the video right before you sing, so the others are saying if I won I could put money into my charitable organization to help other musicians. Great, the charity angle. Another, who had been at the competition before but didn't win, said if I won it would mean God gives second chances, great, a religous angle. So then I go up and I hear myself saying , if I won it would be a BONUS. People were laughing at my video as I’m coming on to sing a ballad, PS I Love You . I was actually slapping my forehead while I was walking on stage

JB   Is PS I Love You a special song for you?

BL  Phil, who I’ve been with for five years, when we first started dating he went for the whole summer to be in the Ceremonial Guard. He was dressed up in his army uniform while I’m seeing him off. Watching black and white movies growing up, I saw this way too many times! There’s my boyfriend going off in his uniform, and me the Jazz Singer writing him letters, and we wrote back and forth a lot. Then PS I Love You just fell in my lap and I got melodramatic. So, yeah, I love PS I Love You

JB   You have been compared repeatedly to Blossom Dearie and Stacey Kent. How do you feel about that?

BL   A lot of people get offended by that kind a thing (being compared to another singer) but first of all when people say that they don’t mean it as an offence. They’re just saying there's this great person and I think you’re like them. I don’t think its said like an accusation . I actually hadn't  heard either singer until I went to university. I listened to a lot of Ella Fitzgerald, Doris Day, Peggy Lee, some Billie,  I REALLY liked Doris, and a lot of singers from old movies. Betty Hutton. But I’d never listened to Blossom Dearie. When I did the Bob Dorough show  it was the fist time I really listened to her stuff. I wish I had  now that I know how amazing and great she is. So if anything its now a bigger compliment,  when people think I’m like her. I’m not worried about copying either of them because its not the basis of what I grew up with

JB   Speaking of Bob Dorough. You were chosen to perform Bob’s music with him at the recent JazzFM Composers Series held at JazzBistro here in Toronto. Tell me about the show, and Bob

BL   I spent so much time with his music because we put on a whole hour show, that ended up being an hour and a half. I just got a new appreciation for some of that fast poppy music I’d avoided a lot of. I always listened to easy swing or  laidback lyrics and he’s very bababababa (imitating fast horn sounds) I hadn't given that style much of a chance. When I got to sing it I learned how fun that could be. A different kind of phrasing. Bob’s hilarious. He's very lively and smiley and just loves music.  We were hanging out at Jaymz Bee’s loft the day before the show and I played some of my own tunes for Bob on the piano. Then I looked up and I never saw anybody look so smiley. I don’t know if he liked it or what, but I didn't even care. He was just in such joy that music was happening. Bob has an amazingly infectious smile, very genuine. He’s really fun and I've been enjoying some of that kind of music a little bit more

Photo courtesy of Janet Jardine

JB   You likened Bob Dorough’s music to fast horns. Some of the major female jazz singers throughout history have used horns as the basis for their phrasing. Is this something you feel that you do as well?

BL   Part of the reason I love jazz so much is because I love the words. It comes from a time where silly

things existed , like love. Secretly I’m a romantic. I want the really good things to be real. I just love the lyrics.When I sing, if anything I’m just trying weave these pleasing words.  Like poetry.  If you've ever heard a performance poet, well I’m trying to do that. Its all about the words, all the time. Even when I pick my set  its never the same 2 days in a row because my mood’s never the same two days in a row. I only pick songs  the day before, or two days before, so I can pick the tunes that I feel I can sing genuinely. I’ll have a fight with Phillip and I’ll take a love song out of my set because I feel like I can’t sing this one without feeling like a liar cause I’m angry. Then I’ll put in an angry tune.  I just want to really feel every word I sing

JB   When you write your own music, with the words being so important, are you a lyrics first, then music
type of composer?

BL   I do both at the same time. I have a lyric that goes through my head and I sort of sing a melody on those words. Once I have an idea, and once I finish one verse or one chorus , then I do only lyrics, on a notepad,. I can only do it by hand on paper. So I get a first line, match it up with a second line that goes with the melody I just had

JB   I've heard you have Stage Fright

BL  Oh yes, I get so sick , its not stage fright, it’s a fear of failure, I have this fear, I don’t know where it comes from, but I feel like, what if  at the end of the show, or even after the majority of the show everyone walks out and they’re like we want our money back, you know.  I feel like I have to justify whatever good hard earned money they've spent that night. It must be an Eastern European thing. I tell people and they say stop being so insecure, but you know, its not insecurity, its that that I want them to be happy so badly.  They got dressed up they went out with their friends and family, they came out. They’re set to have a magical great night and I want that for them so badly that it physically hurts me

JB   When I search your name, what comes up more often than your incredible musical history is your marathon results! Both running and being a professional jazz singer take a lot of commitment, focus and perseverance. How do you feel about the fact your running is more associated with your name globally than your music, and how do you believe your approach to your two passions is similar?

BL   I get in trouble a lot for that from my parents and people I work with. That I should put more effort into advertising my gigs. I don’t know, maybe its that Eastern European thing again. I’m shy about talking about ME. Its kind of like this: (said in a Romanian accent) I have a gig, you know, and if you wanna come, ok,  if you don’t is ok, I buy you beer. It always feels awkward for me to talk about my gigs, promote myself. But with running, I really suck, so there’s no danger of a lack of modesty there! I’m never going to be good at it, but I love doing it. (Music and running) are so similar. When you are doing some difficult musical thing or you have some difficult musical goals, the skills you need are the same as in running.  The difference is in the amount of time. You reach the top of the hill in running in minutes. The nice thing about running that music never has is you do end up crossing the finish line. I want to be a really successful singer. I can’t ensure that. But I can run 43 km

You hit the wall in running, and break through it. The thing you’re always waiting for in your professional life is harder to define. I don’t think I've gotten there yet (the wall) but there are a lot of mini things that have happened. I’m so focused on the next goal musically that I forget what goals I had and already accomplished. I got radio play, released a CD and got to play with all these great people I looked up to as a kid. It takes an interview like this for me to say I guess I did something.

JB   One of the goals you mentioned already reaching is releasing your own CD. Tell me about how you met, and collaborated with Joe Sealy and Paul Novotny of Triplet Records

BL   I met Paul Novotny in my 3rd year at U of T. He was subbing into our combo for day. Dave Young always had another amazing bass player sub in when he couldn't be there , so Paul subbed into our combo. There was this big, embarrassing thing where he pulled me out in front of everyone and said ,do you guys
know what singer you have here singing with you? Which I just loved. I don’t like talking about myself so its nice when someone else does,  and plus I had a crush on the drummer at the time! Shortly after Paul subbed with the combo he sent an email and asked if I wanted to demo a song for he and his music partner Joe Sealy. I did a demo and that’s where I met Joe. I think it took a year in all but they ended up releasing songs that I rerecorded , they produced my CD,  That’s What I Do

JB   You are the darling of the airwaves here in Toronto. One of your original tunes I hear most often is Scarlett O’Hara, a fun take on the life of a full time artist, the chorus being as God as my witness I’ll never go hungry again . So I wonder? With all the accolades, awards and airplay, are you still leading The Scarlet O' Hara Life?

BL   I’m more Scarlett than I ever was! I had a REAL job for two and a half years. Bookkeeping for a small company that became family friends, ancient accounting. My dad gave me a crash course in ancient bookkeeping, and it was great supplemental income. The environment was great because they were so supportive if I wanted to go do a gig . And that was from day one. In the interview I said I’d never be late, would always get my work done on time, but if I had a gig, well.... They were impressed with my honesty. Then the company got bought out by a much larger company, and everything I did became automated and modern, so I left, and that’s when I became full time music. And full time music is SCARY man! I’m super Scarlett O' Hara now, because I have the same urges I had back then, when I had an income. I still shop way too much, I still cut my hair and colour it every month, and I'm still a terrible person with money. But it was a good thing. A good time to move on. You know, you can get seduced by having an income, not that I was truly seduced. Towards the end I was literally getting up on my desk, standing on top of my desk, singing to the empty spaces around me. They were literally clawing me down from my desk.  I just wanted to sing!

JB   You've been a full time Jazz singer for a while now. You have been featured in festivals, several live to airs on both CBC and JazzFM, your name is showing up everywhere! Can you tell me about some of your live performances?

Reg Schwager, courtesy of Janet Jardine
BL  I have some horror stories. This one time I was doing a duo gig with Reg (Schwager) in a dj type of
dance club. So much work went into it, they requested so much and very specific. They sent 10 pages of paper work, three times, for one set! They specifically wanted to make sure all the music was from movies made in the '20s and '30s. So when I got all this paperwork and these requests from the booking agent I thought, I going to do this! I went and did research and I started studying as if for a music history test. I memorized all the dates , names of movies and names of the original European movies. I was listening to Marlena Dietrich  and learning about her history as well. So I had all these interesting facts, cool things to say, for my set list. I had a page full of notes that I had made. I don’t know why I did this, I’m a little bit crazy. After all that, we get in there and everybody is networking,  its a wall of sound. Reg and I couldn't hear each other at all. We were stuck in a corner, no stage. They had said we would have a green room a place to put our things. When we got there the green room was actually the staff washroom , and they told us to put our stuff on the floor next to the toilet!
My favourite gigs are the small festivals. I like when you go into a town and there’s well not necessarily a festival but a series of shows. Some of the best are the smaller towns outside of Toronto. I feel like there’s a big sense of community so when the series comes up everyone in town goes. There was one in Ancaster that was in the forest glade and everyone around the area just comes out to it, free concerts put on by the town. St Catherine’s has the twilight series, and no matter what the weather, they come out. I was in Ancaster on February 1 and there was a blizzard, but the place was full. If that was in Toronto nobody would have shown up.  Everybody was smiling, involved. It was less like a show and more like hanging out with new friends you just made. You felt like you were standing a little taller

Jaymz Bee & Lou Pomanti, courtesy of Janet Jardine
JB   JazzFM has been singing your praises for quite some time now. Not least of which is radio personality Jaymz Bee. When I told him I was interviewing you he said: Barbra has the voice, looks and personality to make it big. She’s the kind of girl everyone wants to be friends with. I couldn't agree more with Ross Porter (CEO of JazzFM) when he said at a very young age , this singer has already found her sweet spot. Jaymz has been instrumental in many aspects of your career. How did you meet?

BL  I met Jaymz when I was in 3rd year at U of T. My single You’re Gonna Miss Me was getting airplay. He sent me a message saying I’m Jaymz from the radio and I’m going to do a show tonight in Oshawa at a new restaurant opening up, Cuisine N’ Jazz (now closed). The club was sending a limo to pick him up, so I met him and went along. In the Limo he told me his entire life story and we bonded over the time he watched an obscure Japanese movie. It was the beginning of a long friendship.

JB  You mentioned bonding over a Japanese movie, which segues nicely into the Japanese release of your CD. Is there a Japan gig on the horizon?

BL  It was just released, January 2014 with Universal Japan . I would love to play Japan, maybe it’ll happen, but I haven’t actively perused it.  The Universal deal fell into my lap. We’d been selling some copies of the CD to another company , to sell as an import in Japan, and Universal approached us about an actual Japanese release. I would love it (a Japan gig), I’m so open to it, but don’t know how it will happen.  I have a habit of not wanting to think too big. If it happens I’ll be excited , but I’m not waiting for it. I just sing and  everything else that happens is a bonus. See when you say that and it ends up in a video, its not a good thing!

JB  What else are you working on? A new CD?

BL   I've recorded two singles with Lou (Pomanti), actually working on a third right now. You need a CD to
be recognized as an artist, a calling card. And I have that. But what Lou and I talked about doing was recording a lot of singles, then at the end picking what we like and compiling it into a new CD. I don’t want to sit down and think, well, I’m making a CD now. When you’re making a CD you know there’s about five tunes that you want to record and beyond those five tunes you know that you need twelve tunes or so to make it a complete CD. So then it’s a game of what else should we put in instead of putting it together from what you really like. Really making it the best of the best from your recent work. I’m not going to do a CD just for the sake of doing a CD

JB   Speaking of Lou Pomanti, he has called you a fully realized artist. Where does that leave you in terms of your professional goals. Where do you go from here artistically?

BL I just want to get out there and collaborate more. I love Canada, but I want to get out of Canada a little more. I love Europe. I’d love to play Paris, or Romania. Meeting cool people and hearing different kinds of folk music, get all kinds of different influences from different parts of the world, and mix that in. Its not I sing and that’s what I do. Its about what will come from working with different people.

JB  Barbra, you are one of the late great Peter Appleyard’s Sophisticated Ladies. How did that come about?

BL  Jaymz Bee was doing a gig at The ROM (the Royal Ontario museum) and he was hiring the All-Canadian Legends featuring Terry Clarke on drums, Dave Young on bass, Joe Sealy on piano , Guido Basso on horn and Peter Appleyard on vibes, all true legends and everybody had received order of Canada. Jaymz asked me to sing with them. But it was another one of those wall of sound gigs,. Before the show everybody went to eat out except for Peter, so I didn't get to talk to him then.  At the gig I couldn't hear any of the other people play. It was worse sound than the dance club gig.  You couldn't hear a thing,. People were not paying attention to this band, and I told you who they were. All legends. They didn't care. That was the first time I played with  Peter Appleyard. The second time I met him he didn't remember ever meeting me at all! He had never even heard me sing because you couldn't hear anything on that gig. Much later, when Jaymz was having lunch with the Anthony Montano producer for Sophisticated Ladies. Anthony was telling Jaymz that he had all these great singers lined up, and Jaymz said: well you know who you don’t have, you gotta listen to this! Jaymz is always saying stuff like that but he didn't actually expect anything to come of it. Next thing I know Anthony was actually sending me an email! Jaymz thought this was hilarious at the time. He said: you know I’m always dropping names and I never think its actually going to go anywhere! So they gave me a choice to do either Love for Sale or Satin Doll,the one I actually did . I didn't actually get to work with Peter for that recording. All Peter’s tracks were pre-recorded, so I didn't see him in the studio. Its funny because we crossed each others paths a lot after that but he’d never heard me sing, because everything was under such weird circumstances, and Peter didn't like listening to his own recordings.  So then, not long before Peter died, he phoned me. He called me on my birthday and said: you know we're always crossing each others paths and I never even heard you sing on my album. Then he heard it on the radio. He heard JazzFM playing Satin Doll.  He said happy birthday to me and: I really love the way you did that tune! And I was like thanks Peter! He was gone just a short while later. I was so glad he finally got to hear me sing!

Barbra, thank you for a wonderfully fun and informative conversation!!