Songs in a Brave New Key

McLeans 9 Aug 1993
by Nicholas Jennings

Most performers would call getting booed during a concert their worst nightmare. Not Jane Siberry. Although she suffered that fate last year, at the height of a celebrated 12-year career, the singer-songwriter now refers to the experience as "an initiation rite." It was September, and Siberry was performing in Edinburgh as the warm-up act for British art rocker Mike Oldfield, best known for his 1973 hit Tubular Bells. Siberry has a following in Britain, where she has received critical raves. But rather than play older material that might be familiar to the audience, she chose to introduce all new songs. It wasn't, as she recalled last week, what they wanted to hear. Accompanied by former Blue Rodeo keyboardist Bobby Wiseman, Siberry cut short her set after hearing scattered boos from the crowd. Traumatized, she retreated home to Canada, where she decided that her whole life had been "some horrible mistake." Admits Siberry: "I lost all my reference points, my music, my instincts: everything. I went down so deep that something snapped inside me." But the Toronto-born artist has emerged with renewed vigor. This week, she released When I Was a Boy, the boldest and possibly best album to date.

Siberry, 37, has become known for taking risks throughout her career. And she has displayed a knack for turning them to her advantage. Her song "Mimi on the Beach", a 7 1/2-minute number about a woman floating on a pink surfboard, became a surprise hit in 1984 and helped to launch Siberry as one of Canada's brightest new talents. Her next album, The Speckless Sky (1985), went gold with Canadian sales of 50,000 copies and earned her a U.S. recording contract with Warner Bros. But instead of plunging into the mainstream with catchy, accessible pop tunes, Siberry recorded The Walking (1988) and Bound By the Beauty (1989), two albums of unconventional material that each sold fewer copies than Speckless Sky. Still, Siberry has always netted more critical kudos than sales awards.

Recently the praise has come from some illustrious fans. On the new album, k.d. lang performs a duet with Siberry, "Calling All Angels", which Siberry wrote for German filmmaker Wim Wenders. He featured it in his 1991 movie Until the End of the World and has commissioned another song for his next film. Last year, British rock star Peter Gabriel invited Siberry to take part in experimental recording sessions for his Real World label. And legendary producer Brian Eno (Talking Heads, U2), who has called Siberry's work "overwhelmingly lovely," produced two tracks on her new album. According to MuchMusic's Denise Donlon, Eno and Sibbery [sic] are a perfect match. "Like him, she takes a multimedia approach to her art, producing highly inventive videos for her songs," says Donlon. "And she's always followed her muse."

When I Was a Boy is the work of an artist musing aloud. Some songs, like "The Gospel According to Darkness" and "All the Candles in the World", with its lines about "goin' goin' down" amid "the altars of despair," reflect Siberry's inner turmoil and a troubled view of the world. Others' including the pulsing, Eno-produced "Sail Across the Water", convey sunny strength and optimism. Predictably, there are a few enigmatic numbers, such as "The Vigil (the sea)". But overall, the lyrics are some of the most direct and accessible in Siberry's career. Several numbers, especially the sensuous opening track, "Temple", even feature the muscular rhythms of urban dance music. As her longtime guitarist Ken Myhr put it: "Jane's let go of a lot of poetic veils with this album. She wants to reach more people."

Perched on a stool in the kitchen of the small townhouse she rents in midtown Toronto, Siberry spoke about the need to make her songs more relevant. One critic said she shows "a painter's sense of the real and surreal" in her work. And Siberry often talks in abstracts, interpreting the world around her in apocalyptic terms. "I just feel it's not the right time to be pussyfooting around, creating paintings that people can enter or not," she said. "These are strange times. The battle is on between darkness and light. And when some of the most beautiful, radiant people I know are talking about suicide, there's something terribly wrong."

But in several new songs that deal with the search for spirituality, Siberry expresses her belief that there is reason for hope. "Most young people have now rejected the religion they were born into," she said. "They've moved through the other religions and are now saying, 'I haven't found what I need anywhere outside of myself, so I will create a temple within and worship there.'"

Meanwhile, the new album's title, When I Was a Boy, has raised a few eyebrows. And the sexually aggressive and, in some cases, sexually ambiguous, lyrics of some of the new songs are bound to confuse other Siberry followers. At her record launch last month at Toronto's Rivoli club, Siberry screened her self-produced videos for "Sail Across the Water" and "An Angel Stepped Down (And Slowly Looked Around)". Both are impressionistic films filled with female characters played by such personalities as vocalist Holly Cole and Siberry's longtime friend and backup singer Rebecca Jenkins, who is also an established actress (Bye Bye Blues, Bob Roberts). The "Angel" video, set in a red-velvet boudoir, depicts women lounging in diaphanous gowns, occasionally embracing.

Siberry giggles at the homoerotic label that has surfaced. "What people are calling 'homoerotica' is actually 'humanerotica,'" says Siberry, shaking her head. "It's something that women are more in touch with. Often girlfriends will lie on the floor watching TV, just enjoying each other's physical energy." Siberry, single after ending a relationship with Toronto film-maker Peter Mettler, added that she believes pop stars like Madonna, Prince, and k.d. lang represent "a diffusion of genders, not asexuality but pansexuality." And like them, she now seems to delight in creating an aura of mystery about her sexual identity.

Despite her talk of sisterhood and her lyrical and video references to angels and goddesses, Siberry is now an honorary member of one of pop music's most elite boys' clubs. Wenders, Eno and Gabroel, along with Canadian musicians Daniel Lanois and Michael Brook, who produced several tracks on When I Was a Boy, are all friends. And Siberry jokes about how the older men in her life are beginning to blur together. She has a special fondness for Eno. "He told me, 'Don't forget what you're really good at,'" she said, referring to Eno's preference for her more complex, cerebral works.

Siberry took four years to make When I Was a Boy, rewriting the material twice. But she feels the result better reflects the changes she has been through. "I've had a lot of things happen that have made me face my demons," she said. "One music industry person told me, 'We want the sweet Jane, the Jane that makes our hearts melt, not Jane doing therapy on record.' That kind of criticism can really weaken you. But I don't sing just sweet, nervous songs anymore. And as long as I'm doing what I think is right, I'll be fine." Staying true to her artistic self, Siberry has passed through the darkness and come out on the side of angels.