Songs of innocence and androgyny

The Guardian
circa May 1993

Jane Siberry believes the music world is changing - which is why she feels protective towards her next album. Luci Cavendish meets a singer in an unusual state of balance

"Words are ... words are just so ... just so important. They paint pictures. Whole pictures. A real truth." This is Jane Siberry (pronounces Sea-berry), one of Canada's most popular female singer-songwriters.

She is a woman who lives by words (she has been known to include more than a million of them in an album). A woman who is talented with a capital T; whose intensity about her music is as frightening as it is awe-inspiring.

She has the most disconcerting way of talking. She concentrates incredibly hard on her answers, searching her brain for the expression to encompass all the nuances of her meaning, rolling the phrase round in her mouth until - whoosh - it's gone in a gulp, a flutter of hands and a pleading look.

"Is this what you want to hear?" she asks. "This whole thing about my life and inspiration?"

Jane Siberry is now 36 years old. She has been "inspired" since she was five, teaching herself to play guitar and piano and writing lyrical poems. Her music is so eclectic it almost defies comparison but, to give an idea, imagine a combination of Kate Bush's wails, Joni Mitchell's country air, Laurie Anderson's synths and Suzanne Vega's ethereal melodies. And, as recognition of her long years in the business, WEA are bringing out an album, Summer In The Yukon, of her her collected best works this week.

But Siberry's problem, which she more than recognises, is that in the UK she has not had a great hit. Since the early eighties, when she released her first album financed by tips earned as a waitress, she has been acclaimed on the music circuit as a "genius". Yet she has never gained commercial success and is still branded as part of the "underground movement".

She rose on the same star as kd lang, Vega and Mary Margaret O' Hara. Yet her music is not as accessible and, consequently, gets less airplay. It is possible that she suffers from the eighties drive to sign female artists of her ilk and lump their differing styles together. But she does not feel affected by this.

"I have always insisted on full artistic control over my work," she says. "I think the reason why there are more female artists being signed now, is because the world is moving more towards femininity.

"For so long it has been masculine oriented with the building of cities and inventions, but now the balance, through women and the female side of men, is changing.

"The music world is actually dominated by men who occupy all the top positions. But there are really cool, androgynous women who dominate the second strata. These are the people who will eventually work their way up. Like me, they are strong through their androgyny.

Siberry talks a lot about "androgyny", although with her blonde hair and slight frame she does not particularly fit that description. But she is referring to being in a state of balance, using a good mixture of female and male energies as an empowering force.

"When I write," she says, "I feel it is not particularly to men or women, but to their spirits. I think of myself as being expressive, creating whole pictures. Tough is never linear. I try to show this in my lyrics."

Siberry's lyrics are an art form in themselves. They rush out of her when she least expects them - when she is cycling over Vancouver Bridge, walking her dog, sitting in a park. Sometimes it is hard to know where she is coming from, to tune in to her channel.

But although Siberry claims she has not had to bow to the pressure of the "norm", she admits her style has had to change. Her next album, due out in September, will be very different from her past work.

"One day", she says, "I was warming up for a gig and I found I couldn't dance to my music. It shocked me. Music should be the interaction of the body and the mind, a total experience. I then realised I needed a change in my style, so I went to the record company and asked them to give me more feedback,"

Siberry feels protective towards her next album. For personal and financial reasons, she needs it to be a success.

"I want to reach a wider audience with this album," she says. "It is important to me that it works. It will work. To be honest, I don't know what will happen if it doesn't. But I can't think that way. I have to remain confident. This is me. Take it or leave it."