Songwriter surfing wave of emotion on sophomore album
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Ila Barker found some catharsis while pretending to drown in the ocean off the coast of Mexico.
In a music video for Fool Under Water, the title track of her new album that comes out Oct. 28, the Anishinaabe folk-pop singer from Winnipeg walks into the ocean surf wearing a wedding dress and holding a bridal bouquet, and later struggles against the surf.
She has been able to confront a tidal wave of hurtful emotions from a past marriage, and she addresses those feelings fully in the songs on her record, which gets a launch party Friday night at the Good Will Social Club with performances by Métis singer Andrina Turenne, indie band Stellar and DJ Boogey the Beat.
“I ended up in a really unhealthy marriage, a relationship that I was very much drowning in, and luckily I was able to get out,” says Barker, 27. “I felt for a long time very secretive and shameful (about) where I had been and what I had gone through, but I decided in this record I wanted to tell my story, my side of what had happened.
“It is very much my journey that I’m sharing.”
The trip to Mexico to film the videos — two of which, Intuition and the bluesy 25, have been released to promote the album’s release — helped her relive some of the early moments of the troubled marriage, which began with a destination wedding in the Central American nation.
“I think I was surprised by it. It took me back a little,” she remembers of retracing her steps. “I’m a chatter — I’m always talking, I’m always chirping about something — and I noticed on that trip that I was so quiet, and I had to stop and really ask myself, ‘Why am I so not like myself?’ “
Barker’s new collection of songs also reveal a wiser songwriter and performer when compared to her teenage debut in 2013, a self-titled EP that rose to No. 1 on the National Indigenous Music Countdown.
“Some folks maybe will have known me for my cute little EP I released almost 10 years ago, but Fool Under Water, I want it to be seen and understood that here is my professional launch. This is the artist who I want to be.
“Here is the adult version of Ila Barker. I’ve went through some stuff and picked up the pieces and picked up myself and let’s go. I’m ready.”
Barker enlisted two Winnipeg music veterans, Sierra Noble and Rusty Matyas, to help produce the album, and Barker says they helped her convey her emotions in the music.
“The title track was written eight years ago, and I’ve been working on this vision for a very long time,” she says. “That vision coming to life is special, because it’s even a bigger thing than I could have imagined in my head, and having (them) on the project with me put that spark into all this.”
While Barker has spent eight years on the album, she shifted the project into a higher gear in the early months of the COVID-19 pandemic in 2020.
That summer, Barker released a video for Let’s Go as part of the First Up with RBCxMusic program that supported emerging Canadian musicians and recording artists affected by the COVID-19 pandemic.
It was part of Barker’s renewed focus on herself and her performing career that she took a job at a First Nations school in Quebec, where she taught songwriting and music production.
“I know some people were able to lean into the flow of the pandemic and step back, but I felt that pressure, that I better be ready when things open back up,” she says. “I worked pretty hard that whole time, working on a concept for a long time.”
Difficult emotions weren’t the only thing Barker had to confront when making the record and videos. A portion of the Fool Under Water video is, aptly, filmed underwater; she didn’t use a stunt double when she’s shown struggling in the waves wearing a wedding gown.
“I’ve been a swimmer forever and even a lifeguard. I’m a really big fan of water and I swim really well, but oh my God, it was so hard,” she says. “For each video we spent about two days filming, pretty heavy days. It was exhausting, especially the underwater one.
“We had jellyfish attacking us at one point, the videographer and me, but it was so fun and very necessary to the vision of this song, the metaphor of drowning in a relationship and I’m this fool that’s trapped underwater in a relationship.”
Alan Small has been a journalist at the Free Press for more than 22 years in a variety of roles, the latest being a reporter in the Arts and Life section.