Transcript from WFUV Radio Interview

New York
October 24, 1995

Q. 90.7 FM, WFUV in New York, I'm Ben Sopar, and into Studio A we go for a conversation with Jane Siberry. Welcome, Jane.

A. Thank you.

Q. It's good to have you here. You have just released a wonderful new album called Maria and I want to talk about it. But first let's play a track from it and let folks know what it sounds like. This is the title track from the new album, Maria, on WFUV.

[airs "Maria" track from album]

Q. Here at 90.7, Jane Siberry, with the title to her new album that is just out on Reprise Records. And she's my guest today in the studios of 90.7. You're in town to do a bunch of different gigs. In fact, the first one was Monday night. And I've heard rave reviews of your concert at Fez. You've got a bunch more coming up fairly soon. How's it working there?

A. Uh, yeah, yeah. At the Fez, it's a very small club. It's 150 people in the club. But we wanted to sort of start with a sort of workshop gig, you know, and stay in one place. And also, if a show doesn't work out, I live here, so I just have to walk home a few blocks. So we thought we'd start that way. And um, it's just what I wanted. You know, it's a small club; people can hear and see and touch and sense everything and we can feel the same of the audience. And it feels really tactile and gritty and the right way to work on music.

Q. When I first heard the album, it's sort of off in a different musical direction for you from the last one, certainly, and has a much more jazzier sound. And the first thing I thought when I heard it was, wow, this would sound great in an intimate club like Fez. So it seems highly appropriate that you're working some place like that.

A. Yeah, and when I was thinking of what, you know, I wanted people to wear on the tour, so I always picture the tableau, so to speak, at the Fez, you know, with that curtain they have and that sort of Arabic handwriting. So we've got beautiful hot pink satin shirts being made up by a New York tailor right now. And I'm fascinated by tailors, and that's one of the pulls of New York for me, anyway.

Q. You live here in town.

A. I live here now. But that was my biggest excitement, was finally finding someone to be a really good tailor.

Q. So the whole ... the band have individual outfits, presumably. It's not a uniform, but the tailor's come up with ...

A. Yeah, I know. Yeah, you don't want it to look like a uniform. But you want it to ... but visual, strong, so when people leave a show, they've got these colors dancing in their heads. You know, so, lightwise, I told the lighting guy I wanted bright blue like my purse here, like turquoise, and bright red, like my shiny patent leather red shoes. And, um, bright yellow. And I realize that these colors are all ... (and hot pink shirts for the band) ... are all um, more primary colors than I've ever wanted. I've always liked sort of more in-between colors, but I consider that a positive reflection on where I am as a human being. But people leave a show with these colors, you know, these three bright, beautiful colors.

Q. And the theme actually carries over on the cover of the album there, some very vibrant colors here too.

A. Yeah.

Q. It very much stands out when you really see it. It's a gorgeous blend of those different hues.

A. Yeah, thank you.

Q. The music itself is a gorgeous blend too. How did you come to work with these specific musicians?

A. I saw Tim Ray, the pianist, play with Lyle Lovett once and I said, "That's the most amazing pianist I've ever heard." And then I saw another band play, a jazz band, and I liked that, and I said, "No that's the most amazing pianist I've ever heard." There was some electrical quality about his playing and his listening and his centeredness; he was in the middle of every single note, which is how this electricity is done. And then I was at the second show, and I slowly came to realize that this was the same person. So Tim, through that. And I saw Brian Blade, the drummer, play with Daniel Lanois. And the trumpet player, David Travers-Smith, was engineering a soundtrack I was doing and then he said he played trumpet, so I asked him to bring it one day, and little did I know he was an unbelievable and totally modest trumpet player. He's an incredible trumpet player, and then I asked Brian Blade to bring a bass player because we only had three days and they, you know bass and drums, have to be pretty well joined at the umbilical cord to, you know, to ...

Q. So those were the only two people who'd worked before; the other two were new and they hadn't worked together. Wow. Because it sounds like they've been working together for years. They've got a really tight arrangement and the songs really musically stand out.

A. Well, arrangement-wise, these were all done, a lot of the songs were done with no arrangement. It's just an example of great musicians, um, in the moment, um, 150 percent, you know, and what can come from that.

Q. It must have been kind of refreshing to work like that because I know the last album, When I Was a Boy, took considerably longer to create than Maria and had a very much more in-depth sound to it. There seemed to be a lot more varying, there was more synth, well, there were synthesizers, ...

A. Yeah.

Q. ... and it had that Brian Eno touch to it on certain tracks, 'cause he had helped you out on some of them, too. Uh, but this is much more stripped down, as you say, they're very in the moment. It much more sounds like a jam session almost, that you've walked into and put your vocals down on top of and it all works together. It must have been really liberating to work like that.

A. It was. It was exhilarating and um, and it had taken so long to do the last record, not that we'd worked every day on it, like months and months went by and I didn't think about the record at all. You know, just waiting for this or they're looking for a producer for this and blah blah blah, so I needed to feel like I could do things quickly again because I do work quickly and it's important to work quickly, not belabor things. So it was a joy to do this so quickly.

Q. Do you feel there is a certain amount of pressure to create an album? Is there pressure from outside sources or from within yourself?

A. Within me. The record company isn't in a rush because they don't really know what to do with it anyway.

Q. I think that's unfortunate but true, that sometimes yourself and other musicians do certainly fall through the cracks when it comes to working, trying to put the album on radio, or put it on to a cable, MTV network or something like that. It's tough to work with. Why that is, I don't know ...

A. Yeah, I don't ...

Q. ... but unfortunately it seems to be true.

A. I figure I'm the kind of person who will reach occasional Top 40 status throughout my career, just occasionally. Just occasionally, that'll just be the momentum required every now and then to feel like I'm moving forward and not backwards. And that's fine, you don't need too much.

Q. You're very successful north of the border in Canada where you're from.

A. Yeah.

Q. And have a very loyal core following here in the States.

A. Yeah.

Q. Why do you think it is, I suppose we've kind of touched on it, but why do you think it is that the United States hasn't ...

A. Video.

Q. ... Oh, it is radio, you think?

A. Video.

Q. Oh, video ...

A. Because I have, I don't know, 13 videos, and they've all been played in Canada, so I've a very visual presence there. And the visual presence is pretty, I find, pretty important in what I do. A lot of people say, I didn't really understand the record till I saw you, either in a video performance, actually mouth the words, you know. For some reason something's added to it when people see me or see me live. And no videos have been played here. Except, you know, once, here and there.

Q. Jane Siberry, my guest here today at WFUV. Let's get to another track off the album. Uh, this time, "Lovin' Cup," which has got a great, upbeat kind of sound to it. How did that come together? 'Cuz a lot of the rest of the album has, uh, a darker moodier sound to it, but this is very upbeat.

A. Um, just we needed a change in the studio and this was more of an arranged song. So I think I already sort of ... in my head that I'd chart it out a bit more than the others.

[airs "Lovin' Cup" track from album]

Q. That's a track called "Lovin' Cup." It's off the new album, Maria. And the new album is from Jane Siberry, just out. She's my guest today here at WFUV. Your sixth album in total, not including the self-titled album that you put out back in '81 in Canada, north of the border. How do you see the progression of what you've been doing over the last, say, ten years, since signing on with Reprise? Because the albums have had quite different sounds, each one. Do you see yourself as going off in different directions and actually choosing to do, say, a jazzier record than the more layered record, or does it sort of happen naturally?

A. Well, it's natural, and yet, there's a sense of, you know ... I think by the third record, I started realizing that my records were -- each record had a wide gamut of emotion and color and tone, and they were starting to blur into each other, even though they are very wide within each other. Because they were all very wide, they started to ... and that made me, um, realize that over time each one had to be more distinct against each other, so I started to be more specific in the sort of colors I would choose. So then after The Speckless Sky was, I think, The Walking, so that was, you know, an autumn record, and a very particular tone to it, and then Bound By The Beauty was like a release and we did that very quickly just sort of like Maria, and let the band sort of arrange itself and not directing it too much. And so always there's a sense that I want to make things stand against each other over time, and a body of work that ... um, but I don't, a lot of it is so inside-out that it's hard to say that it's really that predetermined except through the gut feelings, senses, and so I'll hold one parameter constant, and let something else change. Like on the last record, When I Was a Boy, I held the rhythm section constant. I didn't let anyone get too musical and develop the songs with too many peaks and lows. I went for hypnotic bottom end. Nothing could be too interesting, not even the piano. And what changed, the vocals were freed up. They were allowed to unlock and become much freer. And tons of vocals and vocals that never repeated. And on this record, um, even the ... the constant that made people, I felt ... made it a safe record to listen to was a familiar sound, sort of the jazz sound that the band ended up with without me asking for it. It's just when they played together, they ended playing all the jazz standards in-between songs, oh, as soon as they stopped playing my stuff. So it really was ... it created this ... and I didn't expect to do a jazz record but it's part of how I'm living now. It's just, well, that's what happened, so let's go with it and not try to change it.

Q. Yeah. Well, it sounds really great. The album is really wonderful. Jane Siberry, with Maria. There are nine songs, and then a tenth song, which is sort of like a whole side of a record in itself. If this were an LP, if we still had vinyl, I'd imagine that the 9 songs would be on one side and "Oh My My" would be on the other side.

A. That's right. And I tried to have 2 CDs. I thought they'd make, like, a beautiful set, with Maria on one CD and "Oh My My" on the second CD and then have a separate book for each one, different visual, but joined because they're in the same package. That would have been perfect, but I ended up ... but I'm not Michael Jackson and I don't sell enough. [In a kidding tone:] Darn that Michael Ja-- ... and I heard he did a trailer for his new record, a visual trailer, which, I did a trailer for my last record but nobody knew what to do with it. You know, and then Michael Jackson, make a visual trailer with [indecipherable] and I cut all the songs together in medleys and ...

Q. Wow.

A. ... wonderful. Um, I thought they should ... they don't know what to do with me, so I'll give them tools, you know. Different things -- they could rent some time in the movie theaters, run this one minute, I did a one minute, thirty-second, and a two-minute version, but they'd never had it before, so they didn't know what to do with it. And then I hear, oh, Michael Jackson has a trailer for his ... oh -- and he's got 2 CDs -- ohhh. [Sort of giggles.] And anyway, they gave me a big book. I got a big book, lots of pages, so I got to go crazy with that.

Q. Well, it's a good thing. It's good and it's certainly very ... it's not overwhelming but it's very informative, and visually rich. And very nicely matches the music that comes with the CDs. It's too bad that that trailer isn't available, maybe perhaps it will show up on a video or something that you can get at gigs in the future.

A. Oh, you can buy it through the Sib-Line, this sort of merchandise outfit that looks after stuff. We've got different videos I've directed for sale. I think the trailer's on one of them.

Q. That's a cool thing. Now, what is Sib-Line?

A. Well, it was created because people kept writing saying, "oh, I didn't have my wallet at the show and I still want a t-shirt," sort of thing. Or, "where can I get these things I've heard that Jane has done?" So it's sort of a gathering of all this and this guy Hershecules writes the newsletter twice a year and tells people what's up.

Q. Is there a way of getting in touch with him or with Sib-Line or something like that?

A. Well, it's the address that's on all the records.

Q. Is there an Internet address as well?

A. There is. It's through Reprise. We use the Reprise page.

Q. I'll try and dig that up a little later on. Jane Siberry is my guest here at 90.7, WFUV. We're talking about the new album, Maria. You're quoted in the press release that I had faxed to me very handily as saying that you wanted to create songs that allowed you to walk in and look around like a Dutch painting.

A. Yeah.

Q. Visual is obviously very important to you, and so, it would seem, is art. What would you say that the connection -- is there a connection between a music and artwork or do you draw upon the influences of, say, Dutch painters? Are they ever-present in your mind when you're composing?

A. No, I heard that expression somewhere about Dutch paintings -- they're different from other paintings because you can walk into them, so I -- I'm not very literate, but some day I hope to ... I know all these wonderful vistas are just there as soon as I have time, you know. I really get in all these things ... no, but to be able to walk into music has a lot to do with the mix. And that's something I spend a lot of time creating mixes that don't sort of batter you, you know, that are as three-dimensional as possible. The drums aren't panned like wide-wide-wide and then the piano in one place. It has to feel natural because I think that you pick up everything subconsciously and register it with, you know, the incredible astuteness and wisdom, and everyone does this. So you start to feel a bit funny if all of a sudden you hear the drums, it's as if they go around, like, a 360-degree circle around the room, unnatural for a drum kit -- different things. I like to have the piano way up and I don't like the faders to come down when people aren't singing or playing because I swear you can still feel them feeling, you know. So I leave the faders up and get a little bit more noise and do all this to feel like you can walk in, and not too much sizzle so that can't penetrate the wall, you know and so you can go get in there.

Q. It's ... I think that contributes or is a large part of why I felt, listening to the album for the first time, that it would work so well in such an intimate setting, because it does have kind of that cafe feel to it in that ... or smoky jazz club feel to it in that you are definitely, you stumbled across this band on a stage, and you're right there with them.

A. Yeah -- you're right there. Everyone is so present and it's amazing how much work it takes to get everyone right up there so that you can feel the bass player, and you can feel the strings, and that you can feel the, you know, the breath of the trumpet player, and not have it all, like "pretty" sounding, you know, but unnatural. So that's good.

Q. Now, you do this yourself on this album, you have it self-produced.

A. Yeah.

Q. How did that come about? Do you feel comfortable working with producers? Have you done on the last albums?

A. Well, I've co-produced a lot of things, but mostly I feel like I produce it, you know, because I'm sort of the one there directing, even if I'm working as a co-producer. And it's much more comfortable now, because I don't have really explain to anyone what I want. I just say what I want, without even having to explain to the co-producer why I want it. I just tell the engineer what I want.

Q. Exactly, you tell them what to do without having to explain the whole philosophy behind it.

A. That's right. And less and less I talk about why or feel the need, and that's a real freedom, 'cuz I didn't have the same confidence before that I do now.

Q. Yeah. Well, it sounds really good. Jane Siberry here with Maria, the new album. We'll get to another track, called "Honey Bee" with this new album here at WFUV.

[airs "Honey Bee" track from album]

Q. On 90.7 FM, Jane Siberry is my guest today here at WFUV. That's "Honey Bee," off the new album, Maria, that is just out. And she is in town to do a couple of gigs this weekend. In fact, she will be here Wednesday night, and then it's Friday and Saturday at Fez on the Time Cafe.

A. Yeah. They've added a new show Friday because it was sold out.

Q. Oh really?

A. Well, the week was sold out, but they've added an extra show.

Q. Later in the night -- later in the evening?

A. Yeah. Double show Friday and Saturday.

Q. That's excellent news. It's now this, presumably, I'd ...

A. For you! That's a lot of work for me!

Q. Yeah, that's true. You gotta be up there twice, don't you? Twice a night. But, um, I have to admit, and I'm ashamed to admit, that I've never caught the It's Not a Concert Concert shows that you've done at the Bottom Line and around the country before. But my impression of them is, from what I've heard from other people, is that they're sort of multimedia presentations. How do they work?

A. I don't like the MM word.

Q. Ok.

A. No, but that show just by accident, I didn't feel like, even though the record's filled with different players and different singers, tons of vocals, it didn't feel right for me to go out to mount a big tour which takes a lot of energy, and didn't want to leave ... where I lived for very long. So I went out alone and I had written a story for something ... someone had asked me to write, so I read this story at the beginning, which was sort of good, because it sort of ... people were caught off guard because I went out and just sat there and started with a joke. You know, so the clown is walking on the edge, and then we went on this fifteen-minute adventure, me and the audience. By the end of the tour I knew it by heart, so I could just speak it, and that was a real interesting thing for me to learn/experience. And then I'd play a few songs, and then I'd show a video every now and then and talk about the video, so it became interesting to the audience 'cuz I could tell them, you know, where it came from and why I'd done it that way, they were ones I'd directed. And so, even though it was solo, when the videos came it was a band energy that filled the room. So it was a curious thing ... [words on tape garbled], so the energy could reach another level, even though I was alone. And I never left the stage, so my energy stayed anchored there, as if I was performing, I felt. And I'd sit there, and I'd just register in my spine all these ... I could sort of feel the audience -- they weren't looking, they were watching the screen, but I could feel them change because I didn't have to perform. So I could just sit and receive, and it was so interesting, you know, different rushes, when people would like this or not like this or be uncertain, and it was a wonderful tour. And at the end, I would have a question and answer period. The lights would come up a bit, and people wouldn't say anything at first. And all this whole tumble of questions would start. Different cities were different. Vancouver -- they all wanted to ask, they all wanted to know how I did my hair. Japan: they wanted to know why "Sail Across the Water" were all looking straight out, because in Japan they look upwards for, you know, divinity. In the video, we're all looking out across the sea, right, "Sail Across the Water." And, very fascinating, touring. And I learned a lot, like just to be alone on stage, hold my energy a bit better than I do, you know.

Q. It must be an enormously courageous step to take to do something like that because you, in a way, don't have, you certainly don't have the band to fall back on -- you're saying that you do have a band energy through the videos. But it's much more that you are sort of the emcee in that you have to guide the process along, rather than if something goes wrong or if you're feeling uncomfortable or if it's a bad night, which everyone is prone to have -- you can just pick up a guitar or whatever or strike up the band and do the music without having to engage in any chitter-chat, but with that, you have to do the chitter-chat, you know, that's the core of what you're doing.

A. Yeah.

Q. Is that a daunting thing to head into?

A. Well, I have this peculiar ... well, ... [words on tape garbled] ... I don't realize how much I've created/set up for myself till it's too late. So I get these big ideas, and then get them rolling, and the next thing I know, I say, "I can't sing this song -- it's way too hard!" you know. Or "what am I doing out here by myself?" sort of thing. But even if you have a band, if your energy's off, you can pull the whole band, like, way off. It's, um, sort of, that's really daunting, you know. Or, I've had bad nights where I feel like I made everyone feel sick in the audience, you know, like everyone goes out hanging their heads. I said, "I don't want to have that responsibility." You know, I'd rather it be in the middle all the time, but then I don't really want that -- I want to run along the edge of the, you know, the rim of fire, and take both sides of it, really I do, but definitely, it gives me great panic attacks sometimes.

Q. Jane Siberry is here with me. I want to wrap up with a song from a collection of various different sea-oriented tunes that the French composer Hector Zazou put together earlier this year. Before we get there, I want to talk a little bit about some of the side projects that you've done, because in addition to releasing a new album, you've also been busy working at the Real World Studios last year with Peter Gabriel and a whole ensemble of musicians from around the world. That must have been nothing short of a fantastic musical conference to be energized by people from all around the world.

A. That's exactly right, what you've imagined. It was like a fantastic musical conference.

Q. How long did it go on for?

A. One week. And then, like billiard balls, we clicked and broke, you know, out into the wherever across the world, all these people, I don't even remember half their names, and yet they are probably some of the greatest musicians I've ever seen. And yet maybe it's appropriate that I don't remember their names.

Q. I'm sure certainly down the road, you know you'll be at a concert some place and there they'll be on the stage, and you'll go, "that's the person, that's the person that ..."

A. Yeah. "There's that Egyptian tabla or drum ... whatever you call those Egyptian drums that I was poured into a hammock with by Daniel Lanois one late night after many glasses of wine. Ah, yes, there he is, I remember ... you." [Laughs.] No, it was a wild week, and the valley that the studio was built in just took on this, if you could see things, I bet it had this huge glow in it, you know, all the cows and all the birds --

Q. It's certainly a really idyllic and bucolic setting -- I know that area quite well, it's close to ... it's a lovely area.

A. Oh yeah. Well, a very powerful area, aside from the studio being there, it's known to be very powerful on the planet, right?

Q. Sure. Stonehenge is not too far away from there. There it's some of the crossroads of ... the Druids used to live around there too. It's certainly steeped in lore.

A. "Steeped" is a good word.

Q. Jane Siberry, thank you very much for coming up -- it's been a pleasure to sit down and talk with you.

A. Yeah, it's been a pleasure. And you're definitely at the higher end of good interviewers.

Q. Thank you. Thank you very much. This, from the Hector Zazou collection, Songs From the Cold Seas, "She Is Like The Swallow."

[airs Zazou album track]