This is My Voice

Canadian Musician - v. 12 no. 1 - Feb 1990)
by Howard Druckman

"This may sound weird, but I felt limited a bit by being Jane Siberry. So anything that reminded me of me, I would reject. It still sounds like me, but in a fresh direction. It wasn't just to change styles, but I felt it would be redundant to do something Jane Siberry-ish."

It's a change that's been roundly welcomed by Canadian radio programmers, critics and listeners alike. After enjoying steady gains among all three segments throughout the '80s, 1987's The Walking - a complex work of lengthy songs and quirky imagery - met with less airplay, harsher reviews, and poorer sales than its predecessors. "Beauty" is being viewed, in all quarters, as a big step in the right direction.

The critical line is that it's a return to Siberry's folkie roots - the sort of sound she offered while playing the Southern Ontario coffee-house circuit in the early '80s. Though she did start to play folk festivals again last summer, Siberry doesn't see the album as a regressive move.

"It's not really a return, but the next step forward," she says. "There's lots of acoustic guitars and piano on The Walking, too. And there's also electric guitars and bass on Bound by the Beauty. I think the difference is that there's very little use of "sustain" on this record, which you get through synthesizer pads and harmony vocals. So it opens it right up when you take those away."

Instead of masking her vocal insecurities by providing multi-plexed harmonies, Siberry now seems confident enough to sing alone in simpler settings.

"There were moments when I just wanted to say 'Weeeeeell, it'd sound better if I doubled it, my voice sounds weak there.' But I just kept saying 'No, this is my voice. So there!' In 'Bound by the Beauty' and 'The Life is the Red Wagon' there's a lot of vocal overdubbing, but mostly it's just stripped down to one vocal."

Another major change on Beauty is the use of new musicians - former k.d. lang pianist Teddy Borowecki, and Shuffle Demon drummer Stitch Winston.

"I needed something different on this album," says Siberry. "Musically, I wanted to have people playing in known styles. I wasn't looking for'character' playing. I was looking to keep the music really conventional, so I looked for people who were really hot in those styles. Teddy is just an unbelievable player. His accordion playing and piano solo on 'Are We Dancing Now?' is just amazing to me."

Despite the simpler context, there's a lot of experimentation on the record. The title track, "Something About Trains" and "Everything Reminds Me of My Dog" all offer a loping, country-ish feel fuelled by an acoustic guitar strum; "Half Angel Half Eagle" is a more terrifying song than Siberry's ever recorded, filled with danger, consequence and a nasty murder (listening to it is like sitting through the movie Talk Radio); both "Half Angel" and "The Valley" were partly inspired by the neighbourhood surroundings of Siberry's new flat, in the warehouse district of Queen Street West; the Latin stylings of "Miss Punta Blanca" and "Are We Dancing Now?" are more obviously, gracefully sensual than I would ever have imagined Siberry could be.

"I had some neighbours living beside me, three guys from South America," she explains. "They'd play Spanish music, and every time I'd stop playing, their music would come through, so I heard it all winter. They moved out, but they gave me a tape before they left. Normally I'd reject doing any music that seemed stylized, because it wouldn't seem like I was working hard enough. But in this case it was just fine, and something different happened.

"In the mixing approach for the record, it was really bothering me hearing this disembodied head on one side and the guitar on the other, with nothing connected. I love playing together in one room with the band, and I wanted to hear it like that. No drummer has his kit as spread out as it sounds on the record. So it became sonically more matched to the physical space, which I really like. My guitar is always in the middle, and you don't hear the stereo as much.

"This time, I just didn't worry about things. All of a sudden, I decided I could use any kind of music on this record, so it opened all these doors. I feel freer now that I'm not trying to hold down a complicated melody and make it seem simple to people. Things are simple, so I feel freer. Something good is happening, and I don't know what it is, but I trust my gut feeling. It's just an intuitive thing."

That same spirit of open simplicity started in the songwriting process.

"I wrote words and phrases all the time on tour. In September (1988) I started the actual writing, and it was the greatest fall. I'd just get up every morning, turn on my sound board, pick up my electric guitar and coffee, and start playing anything that I felt like. Just playing for the fun of it, doing some exercises. Then I started recording things I liked, and later tried to put things together."

This time out, Siberry decided to mold the songs on tour before recording. Backed only by her longtime guitarist Ken Myhr, she played the aforementioned folk festivals and other mostly-acoustic gigs last summer (including an excellent week at Toronto's Premiere Dance Theatre, where even a case of laryngitis on opening night couldn't dampen her enthusiasm - or that of the crowd).

"It's best for me to tour and then record," she says. "I like to go out with a half-baked idea, just wing it, and then have it find its own place. To make that leap to the final version is really hard and frustrating for me, because I can't decide finally on the lyrics. It was such a pleasure to be able to do that this summer. The songs were better because of it. Even after three shows, I felt they matured a bit."

Siberry's songs have hardly made her rich - not yet, anyway. The only royalties she's pocketed are live performance rights. Those from record sales and radio airplay go toward recouping recording costs, and per diems. Touring only with Ken Myhr and recording at Orchard Sound are money-wise steps that make business sense - and emotional sense - to her.

"I wanted to make an inexpensive record, and I want to make inexpensive videos. I can't stand all the waste - it just smells of corporate greed. And it unhooks you from other people. They think that you're a foreign species, and you lose you believability. I think it's really good to show that you can do things that are still from the street level. It's good for you to have the opportunity to spend $200,000, and then not do it."

Though Siberry remains on Duke Street Records in Canada (her original label) she's now signed to Warner Brothers for worldwide release. After 'New Age' label Windham Hill distributed 1984's No Borders Here and '85's Speckless Sky in the U.S., Siberry signed with Warner. But they had to buy out the final album of Windham's three-record deal, to the tune of more than $100,000. If The Walking didn't exactly thrill Warner's promo staff, they're having a considerably easier time with "Beauty".

"I feel very secure at Warner Brothers," says Siberry. "I like the people there. I've never run into their cold steel machinery, though I know it's there. So far, everything's been really kosher, respectful, and gracious, but they are a big machine. If anything, they just have their shit together so that things are done properly - interviews, artwork. They were quite pleasantly surprised by this record; they didn't expect it. So I have to keep telling them not to expect it again, 'cause they get used to one thing.

"So far, I think they expect me to do what I want. And that," she says happily, "is a good thing."