20 Questions With: Ila Barker
Authentic lyrics, captivating vocals and magnetic stage presence. It’s a killer combination for any singer/songwriter, and for Winnipeg’s Ila Barker it’s just the beginning.
Ila first began making noise on the Manitoba music scene back in 2011, when the first song she ever wrote won her the NCI Jam competition. And although her career got off to a relatively late start, she had no problem making up for lost time. Thanks to her stellar self-titled debut EP, she scored airplay in Canada in the US (her song Home topped the NCI FM National Aboriginal Music Countdown) and landed gigs at The Pantages Playhouse Theatre, The Park Theatre, The Forks, and The Mod Club Theatre in Toronto. She also participated in Manitoba Music’s Galaxie Young Performers Program in 2013 and performed at the 2014 Winnipeg Folk Festival and Aboriginal Day Live 2014.
In addition to her solo career, Ila is one third of the Winnipeg super group Good Karma Co., and mentors youth in the Broadway Neighbourhood Centre’s Just TV program. Most recently she attended AMP Camp, a week-long residency designed to give emerging and mid-career Aboriginal recording artists an opportunity to develop their business skills and artistic abilities.
We recently caught up with Ila, who is currently studying conflict resolution at the University of Winnipeg and working on her second album. Here’s what she had to say about songwriting, success and more.
How did you get into music?
Music for me was, in a way, an accident. I had taken an interest in learning guitar, but had not yet gotten serious about it. One day I heard Bubbly by Colbie Caillat on the radio and was immediately overwhelmed with the feeling that I had to learn it!
I dusted off my mom’s old Yamaha and taught myself the three-chord song using the Internet. After I learned that song, I learned another, and then another. I was overcome with an absolute obsession with learning more and more chords and songs, and then eventually began dabbling in songwriting as well. I say that music was an accident because it was never something I intentionally pursued until recently. Many opportunities have fallen into my hands, and I am simply thankful that I took them, as they have led me to discover my deep passion for this life.
How would you describe your sound?
My sound is currently going through a bit of a metamorphosis. I have long been a folk-y singer/songwriter with ties to the country music industry, but recently I’ve started writing things with a bit more rock, pop, and roots vibes. I’m in the process of figuring out exactly what my brand is, and am having a fun time experimenting with elements from different genres.
Who are some of your influences?
I’m a huge fan of all things Jack Johnson. I have watched hours of his concerts online and pull a lot of inspiration from his work. I’m also in love with Amy Winehouse’s work right now. I get inspired by genres much different than my own.
Although I’ve been blessed with many music opportunities, I have also worn several other hats. I spent several years as a lifeguard, then a swimming lesson instructor. I have worked for the Government of Manitoba, and now am a server at Earls.
You’ve done quite a bit of traveling – where have you all been? Are all of your trips for pleasure, or have any been for your music?
Travelling has become a huge part of my life and is quickly becoming a second passion of mine. I have been to Cuba, Mexico, the Dominican Republic, Costa Rica, New Zealand, Australia, and almost all parts of Canada. So far I’ve been able to share my music on most of my trips, whether it be through impromptu jams or CD sharing. I have been able to travel to Toronto twice for professional trips; I was invited to perform at the 2014 Honey Jam Showcase at The Mod Club Theatre, and was invited back in 2015.
Tell us a bit about your involvement with Just TV. How and when did you get involved, and what is your current role with the program?
Just TV is an amazing program that I first got involved with three years ago, when Spatch Mulhall (of Winnipeg’s Eagle & Hawk) met me through a songwriting workshop that was being held at the Broadway Neighborhood Centre. It’s kind of funny actually; you’re supposed to graduate after a year, but they haven’t been able to get rid of me since I first started coming! I was totally elated when they asked me this year to join their team as a mentor. My time at JTV is now spent helping with other kids’ projects, and sometimes my own as well. I plan on running some workshops with the kids in the upcoming weeks, including a social media presentation in which I’ll show the participants tips and tricks to market themselves in professional and effective ways.
Favourite song of all time?
Jack Johnson’s All At Once. One of the best off-the-floor recordings I’ve ever heard. Best listened to in a good pair of in-ear headphones.
There are a lot of people making music out there. What separates a true musician from a hobbyist?
First off, I think a big difference is whether or not they create original music. Secondly, artistry is huge. There are tons of great singers and musicians out there, but unless you’ve got a brand, something unique and special about your sound and look, then I wouldn’t necessarily categorize you as a true musician. All that being said, I don’t think I can really make that distinction because there’s often a fine line between being a hobbyist and true musician, and sometimes I think you can float back and forth between the two.
What do you do when you’re not making music?
When I’m not making music I can be found with my nose in the textbooks. I am currently a third-year student at the University of Winnipeg in the faculty of Conflict Resolution Studies.
If you could collaborate with any artist, living or dead, who would it be?
Jack Johnson, hands down. Ooh, or Joni Mitchell. That’d be pretty cool.
How do you get ready for a big performance? Do you have any superstitions?
No, not really. (Laughs) I like to do some weird sounding warm-ups, and I usually won’t eat anytime around the performance … I’m terrified that I’ll burp during a song!
Do you remember the first song you ever wrote? If so, tell us about it.
When I was younger I used to write little songs in my head, but nothing that was ever finished. The first song I ever wrote that I finished and liked was called The Tree Song, which actually got me first place in the 2011 NCI Jam.
What’s the saddest song you ever wrote?
I think the saddest song I have ever written is I’m Fine. This one is the closing tune on my self-titled EP. I wrote it about my dad and how our relationship crumbled when I was a young teen. This song was a real source of therapeutic release for me and helped me deal with that loss.
The happiest song I ever wrote is actually a brand new one called I Do. It was inspired by my cousin’s wedding, and the pure joy and unconditional love that everyone could feel. It’s pretty sappy!
Where do you see yourself in five years?
Headlining folk festivals across Canada.
Beatles or Rolling Stones?
Beatles. I want to hold their hands.
Describe yourself in three words.
Unique, positive, and I guess I’d say weird. I was a home-schooled kid and definitely have some weirdo-ness (laughs). I tend to try to polish my stage self, but any one who knows me on a personal level knows I have a goofy side and an abundance of cheesy jokes.
As a musician, how do you define success?
Being able to quit my day job and rely on music full-time would be a huge success for me personally. That would be living the dream. The rest is all just icing!
What’s the highlight of your career so far?
I’ve had so many amazing and unique opportunities so far. One of the most memorable ones for me though was getting selected to perform the national anthem at a Winnipeg Blue Bombers home game alongside Ali Fontaine and Hera Nalam for 20,000 people. It felt so … right.
What’s coming up for you?
I’m really looking forward to the next year and a half of my career. I’ve started a second album to be released in 2018, and am spending my time right now writing and collaborating with artists and producers from around Canada. I’m finding so much joy in fine-tuning myself as an artist right now, and learning as much as I can about myself, my music, and the industry itself.
To connect with Ila, check out her social media channels below: