Siberry moving her melodies into emotional terrain

The Globe and Mail - Toronto - 19 August 1995
written by Simona Chiose

Music, says Jane Siberry, is like a drug. "People use my music as they use their medicine cabinets. There is nothing negative in that, it's just calling a spade a spade....It means that you are able to provide a service," she says, alternating between drinking a coffee and a glass of water at a downtown Toronto restaurant.

This afternoon, the kind of medicine Siberry provides is in high demand. The tiny, four-booth place seems to have been converted into interview headquarters. Called Mimi's Restaurant -- but with no relation to Siberry's hit of almost a decade ago, Mimi on the Beach -- the place seems like the kind of west-end Toronto landmark Siberry would naturally be associated with: stuffed animals in the window, brightly painted walls and a diner-like counter. The space is not big enough to accommodate the amount of interest Siberry is generating with her new album, Maria, slated for release at the end of the month. Television crews pack up while other journalists await their turn outside. Her seventh album, Maria should finally do away with all of the descriptions that have followed the Toronto-bred Siberry since the release of Mimi on the Beach.

At the time she was quirky, she was fun, she was poppy, she was the woman who in 1984 sang Mimi, and a few years later, in 1989, Everything Reminds Me of My Dog. The music and Siberry's sometimes shy, nervous delivery in her first few years as a recognized artist called forth comparisons with folklore singers such as Suzanne Vega. In other words, at the beginning of her career, Siberry's music would have been unlikely to be described as therapeutic. That reputation was so hard to shake that her 1988 album, The Walking, a pensive, melodically complex release that included 10-minute singles, was received with bewildered and not very sympathetic reviews. In its musical and lyrical tone, Maria is far closer to The Walking's thoughtfulness, but coupled with catchy melodic twists and enough rhythm to sway to.

Maria "is a natural development for me from the last few albums I've done," she says.

It's divided neatly into two parts. The first section is a collection of songs of two to six minutes in length, and the second is a 20-minute meditation, some of it spoken, some of it sung, entitled Oh My My. Partly a plea for deliverance from suffering and partly a detailed examination of self-forgiveness and development, the song seems to echo Siberry's own tribulations.

"I think my albums become more trustworthy the more they're led by the heart than by the head. I have far less fear of saying the wrong thing regardless of whatever love may be coming my way," she says.

Recorded over three days, Maria also follows in the lyrical and musical footsteps set by 1993's When I Was a Boy, the album from which Calling All Angels, featured on the soundtrack of Wim Wenders' Until the End of the World, was taken. Where that release, produced in part by the legendary Brian Eno, was two years in the making, though, Siberry says Maria simply spilled out in a burst.

"Recording it over three days opened a window which allowed me to work much faster. I've always heard a lot of music in my head and it's been a slow process to get it out." This time, "I had an overload of energy and I had to make a leap."

Siberry, who is 40 this year, seems rarely to express herself directly. As with the lyrics from the new album -- full of images, colours and metaphors -- in conversation she talks about the stages and development of her creative process in an almost allegorical manner. And she will often gaze away while thinking, then respond, only to correct herself and offer a more nuanced answer. Whether the "tactic" is intentional or not, it has the same effect as her lyrics. The listener is forced to pay attention, to derive his or her own meaning from Siberry's words. As well as the music, many of the lyrics on Maria were not rehearsed but simply came out during the recording and mixing process.

Increasingly, she says, she is trying to move both her melodies and lyrics into ore emotional, and dangerously honest, terrain.

"What I love about other people's music is some emotional connection. I have to be moved somehow by the music, or else it gets cut."

The confidence to know what to cut -- the current album is the result of three hours of material -- may be born out of Siberry's working alone for the past few years. Two years ago, for example, she mounted a one-woman show of poetry readings, songs, film and a question-and-answer period in small clubs in Toronto, New York and London among other places. Now, she says, she was ready to work with other musicians who were willing to improvise.

"I wanted a group of musicians who would work from my head out...who were jazz-oriented. There was enough energy [during the recording] and it was kinetic enough that I could shout out directions as we played."

And when she tours in the fall, it will again be with a band, the first time in six years that she has not worked solo.

"I needed to do that: to be on stage by myself and not leak that energy. But I want to work with a band as well."

The result of enlisting the help of musicians who previously worked in jazz -- drummer Brian Blade, bassist Christopher Thomas, pianist Tim Ray and rumpeter David Travers-Smith -- is an album that as a whole is tight but whose individual tracks meander into unexpected and intriguing improvisations.

In another change from her work in the past few years, Siberry gave up sequencing her tracks on computers. The combination of working alone and her use of computers led to her building up a bit of an image as a technologically savvy artist. Wired ran an interview with her last year, and the more arty and elegant tech magazine Mondo pushed its profile of her with an ethereal cover shot. But, Siberry says, the technology was never more than an aid.

"I liked working with computers because it showed me I could work alone. I go through phases where I really use them: it's a fantastic thing when it gives me what I want. I have the kind of brain that likes that kind of pathway logic," she says, not unexpectedly, considering she majored in microbiology in university.

Her high-tech period also resulted in comparisons with Laurie Anderson, who is currently carting computer equipment around the world for her precise multimedia show. It's a comparison that Siberry will barely even tolerate.

"It's like being compared to women because we all have high cheekbones," she says. A more accurate description, she says, would be to compare her work to the "wryness of Elvis Costello," or the "smoothness of Van Morrison."

The point, it seems, is to keep both her audience and herself guessing about just what each album will sound like.

"With this album, I found that if I tried to force my own logic on it, it would resist."