Toronto chanteuse Barbra Lica serves up vocal jazz that effortlessly shifts from seriously sensuous to quirky and Lauper-esque charming. Lica's delicate phrasing offers a promise as if she's unwrapping a sweet gift, slowly revealing the song to the audience. Her voice, the way she works in and out of a song, and her sense of mood ties it all together.
Lica sings from her own original, clever catalog as well as select re-tooled send-ups, like the Jenkins and Mercer's 1934 beauty, "P.S. I Love You," which she delivers with a sultry coo. There's wisdom and history lurking in her voice, and it's enchanting. Her third and latest album, "I'm Still Learning," won a Juno Award this year for Best Vocal Jazz Album. You'll see why.
CITY shot Lica some questions, and she gave us a crash course in vocal jazz and walking in high heels. An edited transcript follows.
CITY: Give me a little background. What lit your fuse?
Barbra Lica: My parents were both professional musicians, so growing up, there was music and singing around the house 24-7. My parents were so terribly insistent on extracurricular music education that it sometimes felt like musical boot camp, and I remember singing in secret in my room. Anyway, it was a losing battle the moment I popped in a recording of Ella and Louis singing "They Can't Take That Away From Me." Here I am years later, a professional musician ... and magically not a rebel.
I love your voice. How did you develop your style?
I really enjoy listening to classic jazz vocalists like Nat King Cole, Doris Day, Ella Fitzgerald, Peggy Lee. I've always felt that listening and internalizing music that speaks to you is the best way to develop a sense of musicality, or if you're singing jazz specifically, a sense of swing. I'm also big on lyrics. I always try to understand the story behind a song so that I can swoop and sink at the right moments. As much as I adore Nat King Cole, he's just way too happy on "Don't Get Around Much Anymore."
Do you consciously keep the pop aspect of your music separate from the jazz?
Not really. I'm always trying to play somewhere in the cracks between genres. I feel like the one good thing about there being no more record stores (and I do truly miss them) is that there are no more bins. Now you look up an artist online by name and you don't necessarily know if it's pop or jazz or country — you just like it or you don't. Sometimes I veer more one way, sometimes the other, but I'm always trying to combine more than separate.
Which do you prefer: a large concert hall or intimate nightclub?
It's hard to say. It's never about the venue for me — it's about the people who show up. I love smaller towns where there are often less shows throughout the year and people really come together as a community for the event. There'll be a tangible positive feeling in the air from the get-go. Other times you'll go someplace where people seem stern and hard to read and it'll still be fine, but maybe you have to work a little harder to earn their respect. I call those "third tune" shows, cause you seem to get them somewhere in the middle of the third tune.
What can other musicians learn from you?
How to wear high heels. I'm a serious pro at it. Sometimes I think I should teach walking in heels as a side career.
How do you write?
I usually hum some words up while I'm running or eating cake, and then I hurry to a piano to develop the idea further. I'll write the first set of chords, words, melody simultaneously and then retire to bed with a notebook for more lyrics. More recently I've done a few co-writes with instrumentalists. I'll sing words over whatever they're doodling on their guitar and we'll write a song that way.
What is it about somebody else's tune that makes you want to interpret it?
As I said before, I like to understand the story behind a song before I sing it. I find this process very visual. I'll see myself as the star of a classic black and white film, or the song will hit so close to home that I'll have a powerful memory overcome me. "How Insensitive," for example, sounds like a slow motion recollection of a break-up I had several years back. When I sing that song, I can still see his confused face like he's standing in front of me.
What's the funniest thing that's happened to you on stage?
I was playing at a theatre in Truro, Nova Scotia, and a few songs in, I asked the audience, "How is everybody doing tonight?" They started talking back at me like we were all at a dinner party: "How are you doing, dearie?" "We love your dress." "The boys treating you well, then?" I swear they didn't care that they'd paid for tickets to see a show. They just wanted to hang out and talk ... and it was tempting.
Barbra Lica plays Friday, June 23, at Max of Eastman Place, 25 Gibbs Street. 6:15 p.m. and 10 p.m. And again on Saturday, June 24, at Montage Music Hall, 50 Chestnut Street. 6 p.m. and 10 p.m. Each show is $30, or you can use your Club Pass. barbralicamusic.com.