Jane Siberry - Rhyme and Seasons

Melody Maker
by Jim Arundel

"It's not art, it's a power struggle. It captures me and I capture it back", says Jane Siberry at the start of one of her, what is the word? Songs? Landscapes? Paintings? Excursions?

Words, eh? They're all I have right now to try and put over some of the awesome splendour of Jane Siberry's work. God, what a mess we get into with words. What a beautiful soup of meaning we can drown in. Jane Siberry's whole oeuvre is dedicated to communication, to capturing life and giving it back. At least she has music at her disposal as well.

Her songs are lush, evocative playlets; "fragments" she calls them. The camera pans by a scene, a moment is caught. There's an inherent sense of a bigger picture. The songs are painterly, detailed, full of twists and turns.

"If you're trying to capture something, you need those things - strong dynamics or rhythms that change," she says in her faltering way. She reckons words are evading her today. "I think that's a closer depiction of what life actually is, how we perceive it." There's a very long pause. "If you listen to your thoughts rather than what you actually say, your thoughts are much more dynamic. When I was young and heard records skipping I'd think "That's really cool", and then I'd realise it was a mistake, but it seemed much more fascinating than something that was musically smooth. I have the greatest respect for how people receive things."

Jane Siberry is in London to finish her next album. Meanwhile, in a rare display of corporate good taste, Mr. very High Up at Warner Brothers has decided the time is right to personally collect together some prime moments from her five albums and call it "Summer in the Yukon". Whether this is a blow struck for art and justice or a cynical marketing ploy, who gives a damn, because it's a very useful way into this woman's work. Especially the second half, representing the records where she really hit her stride, the third and fourth LPs, "The Speckless Sky" and the life- affirmingly gorgeous album "The Walking".

Best of all, Mr. Very High Up has seen fit to include some of her least commercial but most breathtaking tracks including one of your reporter's favourite songs of all recorded time, "The Lobby". A vignette that perfectly realises the still strangeness of someone in shock: "So I go down to the lobby / And everybody stares / They say / Take off that foolish hat / Put down that chair / And they say 'This is your darkest hour' / This is my finest moment / 'You can't leave him like that' / He'll be okay."

And she seems like someone who'd have first hand knowledge of the feelings of distraction expressed in, "The Lobby". Her gaze seems focused on the middle distance. She speaks slowly like she's drawing her words up from a well. Is she a dreamy person?

"As a child I spent a lot of time in the air," she says. "I still do and I think that ... everyone ... yeah I ... no. Er, often my awareness is more of shadows around me than distinct figures. It's a whole different world of its own, a world of emotions and tones of colour and to me it's real."

She says she took a science degree at university to help her deal with the physical nature of the universe.

"I had to take peoples words for things I didn't understand. Studying science was so valuable, just for the tuning of the mind. It took me two years to realise that I had to memorise the cell width of an amoeba without rounding it off. My mind sharpened. If you asked me the time I'd say, 'Two twenty-one' instead of 'post-breakfast'. That thinking helped thin out the fog around me. Science helped me get down to elemental levels."

Some would say that immersion in yourself was perfect for art. It seems a bit of a shame to sharpen yourself.

"You have to sharpen up to be able to articulate the fog. It's not a bad thing, that fog, it's more of a representation of all your senses, including a sixth sense, working at the same time." Suddenly she gets it. "I am trying, in my songs, to be as precise as I can to describe things that are imprecise and difficult to quantify, but that exist all the same. Phew!" She laughs.

Along with being able to extract poetry from little moments of everyday life, like a woman trying to get a table on her own in a restaurant or a girl feeling awkward on a first date, Siberry uses her voice to fashion moments of chest inverting splendour. She layers her own voice into choirs of bewildered angels. She sweeps from a girlish coo to a womanly whoop of wonder.Beautiful is the word, even if it's a sadly undervalued one. The church of the human voice.

"I've always been a very devotional person. Devotional to beauty and nature. For years I couldn't go into churches because I'd start to cry. Because of their beauty. Because I sensed something I was missing. And I think the reason I lived up in the air was that I couldn't get the right nutrition from the culture I was in. Our culture is very shallow spiritually."

"At Mr. Very High Up's behest, Jane has been rather implausibly transplanted to Fulham to record some of her next record with Brian Eno. Fulham's a bit posh for her. She's used to a downtown Portuguese/Thai region of Toronto and an apartment opposite to a mental hospital. This is a woman who for years would only play in private and never admitted to anyone that she created music. She still hates being interrupted when she's playing alone. But she wants to move out of her head. Warming up before a gig by dancing in her dressing room, she was alarmed to realise that she couldn't dance to a tape of her own music.

"I've spent a lot of time in the air. I've only recently come down to the ground which I think makes me a happier person. The music's moved down my body. It was just below my neck or above my head. Now I think it's probably just below my knees. Like a good catholic girl's skirt."

Since her first record Jane Siberry has been exploring, capturing, defining, rejoicing. She has only just felt the need to use the words, "I love you" in a song. There's everything else, though.