Barbra Lica radiates joy when she sings, a characteristic of singers from Ella Fitzgerald to Corrine Bailey Rae. Lica learned from the best, including Fitzgerald and her frequent duet partner, Louis Armstrong.
“The first one that really hooked me in was called ‘They Can’t Take That Away From Me,’” Lica said from her home in Toronto. “They just sounded so, so joyful and happy, and like they were having more fun than you’ve ever possibly witnessed in person in the Toronto suburbs.”
Lica and her band will make their first appearances in North Carolina on Feb. 15 at High Point Theatre after a Valentine’s Day show in Oriental. The performances will mix standards with originals by the award-winning jazz singer-songwriter.
“I like to pick things that are good stories, and when I do standards, I arrange them in such a way that they represent a moment in my life,” Lica said. “I try to weave them together as seamlessly as I can.”
The first of Lica’s five albums came out in 2012. “I’m Still Learning” in 2016 earned her a nomination for Best Vocal Jazz Album at the JUNO awards, the Canadian equivalent of the Grammys. Her most recent album, “You’re Fine,” came out in 2018.
“While this album is a bit of a departure from Lica’s previous jazzy records, it’s still true to her signature, sunny style,” Cathy Riches wrote in a review for The WholeNote. “Even when she’s singing about heartbreak and longing, such as in ‘Everybody Else,’ you need to listen closely to know it, since the songs are so consistently upbeat.”
The gorgeous “You’re Fine” was recorded in Nashville and shows the influence of American country music. Although the songs retain a jazz feel, the piano and horns are augmented by pedal steel and Dobro.
Lica was a latecomer to country music. She first learned to appreciate it during a residency in Alberta led by American country songwriters including Matraca Berg, who has written hits for Deana Carter, Kenny Chesney and Trisha Yearwood.
“They were writing the type of music with real stories, lyrics and imagery that I had only experienced in jazz,” Lica said. “And then I started hearing songs like ‘I Fall to Pieces.’ They would play things every morning, and you would just say, ‘That’s a country tune? That’s a jazz tune!’”
Her parents exposed her to music from earlier generations. Lica grew up listening to classic singers such as Fitzgerald and Armstrong. Her mother was a popular singer in Romania, and her father was a pianist and trumpet player in the former Soviet Union. They met while performing together in a Toronto band.
Lica’s mother later married an accountant, but one with a huge record collection that further broadened Lica’s horizons. From his collection, she heard material from Ray Charles and Tony Bennett, as well as vintage record labels such as Verve and Decca.
She started singing at age 6, and grew up studying music theory and history with some of Toronto’s top music scholars. When she announced her college plans, she got pushback from her family.
In movies like “Billy Elliot,” artistic children face pressure from parents who want them to pursue more practical pursuits. Lica faced the opposite problem.
“In high school, I took any math, physics, chemistry or biology classes I could get my hands on,” she said. “I was all prepped to go on a scholarship to the East Coast and study microbiology and immunology. My parents got so upset. We really had a rough relationship.”
She had seen her parents struggles as musicians and wanted to try a different path. But her parents convinced her to audition for the music faculty at the University of Toronto. She ended up attending college closer to home, majoring in human biology and music.
Eventually she realized her heart was in music.
“I understood I was fighting against myself for all the wrong reasons,” Lica said.
In the years since, she has competed on the TV show “Canadian Idol,” co-written with songwriters in the United States and Europe, and performed with the Time Jumpers, the all-star Western Swing band that has also backed Norah Jones, Robert Plant and Reba McEntire.
For her High Point appearance, Lica will perform with musicians who have played with her since 2014: Joel Visentin on piano and accordion, Tom Fleming on guitar and Mark Godfrey on bass. The latest addition to the group is “unbelievable New York drummer” Curtis Graham Nowosad, who grew up with Visentin in Winnipeg.
“They’re besties in the most old-fashioned way you’ve ever seen,” Lica said. “Curtis gives Joel piggybacks. When they’re together, it’s just ridiculous. It’s like they’re 10 again.”