June Garber: Hitting it with a hot note

June Garber. (Photos by Anna Boyes)

June Garber. (Photos by Anna Boyes)

June Garber’s charismatic persona surpasses the culturally imposed understanding of what it means to be a woman over 40 in the music industry. The South African-born singer glows with an enthusiasm for her craft that cannot be denigrated by time or societal pressures. 

But there is still a lack of women of her age group in the music industry. 

According to a 2014 statistics report by Women in Music Canada, the number of women aged 60 and older in the industry stands at a startling two per cent. This is an immense contrast compared to the 41 per cent between 18-29 years old. Garber started her singing career at the age of 25 – just a tad short from where the numbers soon begin to drop by today’s standards. 

Garber says that an issue in our society is the value placed on physical beauty. We often judge this before we ever get to hear someone’s voice. That in no way means that she feels threatened by society’s value for youth. Garber works with a lot of younger musicians, but says she’s maintained her voice and (perhaps most importantly) can still rock her red-bottom stilettos. 

But how do we allow women in the industry to age? How do they in return break the barriers of what a woman should look like?

“I never dyed my hair. I just let it go white. It’s a part of who I am. You know I have it, but that’s just how it is,” Garber says.

That doesn’t mean she’s not saddened that people lose opportunities to hear amazing voices.

“There are a lot of musicians who are around my age who are phenomenal and have so much left to give and so much mastery to teach,” Garber says. “As long as they are vibrant and passionate and have a voice then, yes, why shouldn’t they (have a spot in the industry)?” 

June Garber

Reflect upon experience and not the mirror

When it comes to the factors of looks and age, Julia Train, senior manager of communications at Musicians’ Rights Organization Canada, says she avoids the term ‘older musician,’ which carries a certain stigma. Instead, she uses the phrase ‘legacy musician,’ which pays respect to musicians who have maintained a career in the industry while not referring to looks or age to define the person.

So is it age or appearance that weighs more in the industry?

Beverly Kreller, publicist at SPEAK Music (who prefers not to share her age) says that while maintaining status in any industry is difficult for older women, it becomes even harder when looks are placed at such a high value –– like the music industry.

“Media and venues’ booking artists are always looking for the newest thing,” Kreller says in an email interview with ALTo.

“Everybody wants to be the first to have discovered the newest, freshest talent. And also for the youngest.”

Ros Jennings, professor and director of the Women, Ageing and Media Research Centre at the University of Gloucestershire, would like to ban the phrase “she looks good for her age.”

Instead, Jennings stresses we should celebrate musicianship instead of purely being physically attractive and then talented. 

But jazz is different

Jennings explains that jazz is an industry that is very much about the inheritance of style and honouring the ones that came before you.

Ageism is then largely genre-specific, where musicians in pop and rock have a harder time as they get older because they are branded by a certain image.

“This industry is like any industry and doesn’t treat women well,” Jennings says. “The women who have got the stamina to survive and the courage to take control of what they’re doing (is where) we get some really inspirational moments.”

Jennings says that the confidence of living a full life will transmit to confidence on stage.

Some stars play with images from their history, through pictures during performances or even through new music, which Jennings says opens the conversation about age while leaving the audience spellbound with the talent that they have maintained.

“It’s very important for me to take my experiences and connect them with the audience so that they are enveloped by what I have experienced and have some connection to what I’ve been through,” Garber says.

In her latest album, This I Know, Garber reminds us how dynamic her skill as a performer is; from the lusty and seductive “Hit Me with a Hot Note” to her play on contemporary pop with the brazen and haunting cover of Adele’s hit “Rumour Has It/Fever” — a melody that ALTo will call vivacious jazz with a tinge of rock. “Underneath the Jacaranda Tree” is a track where Garber reminisces about her homeland.

 “It’s the most beautiful land. I love the red earth, the jacaranda trees, the beautiful rainfall in summer,” Garber says. “The whole land is just God’s land.” But it’s also where her jazz roots lie.

“If you are June Garber, the daughter of Eric Garber, you need to know that he was one of the most phenomenal jazz drummers in South Africa,” a note that someone published on her website in 2003 read.

Her father died in a plane crash when she was three years old. The new information about her father partly explained her love of jazz.

“I had no idea where this feeling came from to do jazz because I wasn’t brought up with it. I knew of South African jazz because I heard it on the radio, but now I know it came from him.”

The calling to be a singer when she was younger had never shaken off. Growing up, Garber was not permitted by her family to perform unless it was in college or university. But that did not cut it for her.

Garber taught English and science in South Africa, graduating from the Johannesburg College of Education. After teaching there for four years, she landed in Toronto in 1975 to leave the political climate of South Africa. There were no teaching jobs here so she followed her passion for music, applying for any work that she could find. Going under the name ‘June Garba,’ she found a band in need of a lead singer. She later put together a new band, Angel Fever, that travelled around Southern Ontario and the United States. Garber was eventually signed under management at the Constellation Hotel and would also play at all of the big hotels in Toronto — something that only American acts were able to do. 

In 1983, she went into theatre, eventually taking a hiatus in 1991, and returned to jazz in 2004 with three album releases to date. 

This I Know is an exploration of one’s most raw emotions, from joy to pain. Garber is weaving a tapestry of her own — one of “tiny threads of silk” that represents her life experiences that transcend into her work. It’s that type of emotion that is best understood, and best told, by the teachers who have lived all aspects of a full life.

As to the issue of age and appearance, Garber says that someone can have the most exquisite voice, talent and story to tell, but that is broken down because we judge physical appearance before we give someone a chance to bare their soul through their music.

Gesturing to her heart, she says “this is where your soul is.”