from Mixing It
R: Now, responsive as ever to the signals of interest and approval you, the listeners send back, we felt the time was right to feature Jane Siberry on the programme. She has released four albums over the last ten years, the most recent of which, When I was a Boy, created a small bulge in the Mixing It postbag last year, and led us to invite her into the studio when she payed a flying visit to Britain in the autumn.
For the uninitiated: Jane Siberry is a Toronto-based singer whose interest in the spoken word and in multimedia experiments along with her idiosyncratic sense of humour have lead to the inevitable comparisons with Laurie Anderson. Which is o.k. up to a point, the point being that Siberry is more musicianly, less intellectually cool and politically correct and much keener on the sheer joy of singing than Anderson, as you'll appreciate from this caper through a variety of styles, The Very Large Hat, a track from her 1985 album, The Speckless Sky.
[plays first 2 mins of A Very Large Hat]
R: Had you always wanted to be a singer? [inflexion implies not first question asked]
J: No uh. The singing thing came as an aside, really. To sing what I wrote. And then slowly I have identified more with being a singer.
R: Did you start writing prose? poems?
J: Yeah. I wrote a lot of prose when I was young. And I improvised music always. And so, when I put the prose and the music together, I was seventeen. And I still do a lot of writing that never comes to light as a song; musically, and also prose-wise.
R: When you decided to bring the words and the music together, what sort of musical elements were you interested in?
J: Uh, It's cur... Ah, I don't really know how to describe it. But, but you know, if you had a choice of four notes and could put them together in a string, certain ways of arranging them would make you feel sick... and tired. And certain ways of arranging them would make you feel, uh, like you had roots in the Earth, or something, a hh-humming. And that was my little compass.
R: Two names that crop up a lot when people are, are trying to describe your music are Joni Mitchell and Laurie Anderson. Are these performers who you recognise as [something, underlaps Jane's response]?
J: Yeah, Joni is definitely a huge influence. Because she was one of the first voices that um, that... first people who I responded emotionally to; lyrically. And Laurie Anderson, um, I respect her, but I've never really fallen under her spell, so to speak. But I know the two names come up a lot.
R: You were saying earlier, Jane, the Miss Punta Blanca was written about something which actually happened. [J: cough] Do you usually find yourself writing about things that actually happened to you, or people that you know?
J: Yeah, although I do change the names to protect the... innocent [R: laughs quietly]... or the guilty (sometimes). But often they're, they're you know, metaphors (really). But the chances of going to the Punta Blanca Hotel in Cuba are very great for Canadians, because you pay $500, go through the Fiesta travel agency and you have a choice of two hotels... you, you know, it's a real f... So uh, so that's where we went and in fact, we did consider going to the Punta Blanca contest. He, he to see if he could win Mr Punta Blanca. It was a sad, sad pathetic picture I painted wasn't it?
R: [amused] I thought it very funny actually. Does humour---is humour something...
J: That's what I mean.
R: Do you like to be funny?
J: Yeah, I do. I actually realise there's a real imbalance with how I'm perceived because often people think I'm very serious, and uh, pretentious, aloof, removed, artsy. And yet the things that move me to write about are the everyday person and the everyday things and it hurts my feelings very much to be pushed aside as something for people in the know(?) Because I feel like I'm moved by the everyday and write for the ever... I just write about things that aren't _written_ about everyday, that's all.
[plays Miss Punta Blanca]
R: How would you, from the vantage-point of now, describe your progress as a recording artist? I mean, I think you've made five(?) studio albums and there's been the compilation best-of. [J: Right] How do you see that progression yourself?
J: Circular [both laugh], meandering, convoluted. Um, well, the compilation doesn't really count; that was an aside [R: right]. But fairly focused, I'd say. I feel like this record, although its path was _very_ convoluted as I say and never what I expected... [R: We're talking about When I Was A Boy, now?] When I Was A Boy. [R: yeah] I almost put a---I had another record written and I rejected it because it was---It didn't feel like big enough step. It felt like it was a sequel to the last record. So I'm saying that it's important to me that the next thing I do is, is a gathering _from_ and a _leap_ forward.
R: How do you actually write your songs, Jane? I know in some of the things I've read that you refer to your music in terms of fragments. How do you assemble your pieces?
A: Uh, yeah. I think of a lot of my songs as caught. Is that what you mean? Like a fragment. That it's just caught in time, as opposed to a beginning... and that's the way it should be, I like that. But An Angel Stepped Down is sort of different because uh... When I write I just put on a tape-recorder and then I blow; improvise, and words come out. And, uh, like The Vigil was written in one pass with almost all the words and the chords were all the same. But An Angel Stepped Down actually from a tape that I was make of all the special bits from like hours and hours of... blowing. And then I put them on this tape end-to-end, all these little favourite bits, and then I listen it over and over again and weed out the ones that stop moving me after a while. But this little string of special things took on this song-like quality and so I... What An Angel Stepped Down is, is a all the special bits put across a groove.
[Plays first 2 mins of An Angel Stepped Down]
R: This new album, I notice, has got a lot of religious allusions... in the titles at any rate. Can you elucidate that? Why there are so many titles refering to Angels, um... The Gospel According to Darkness, Calling All Angels?
J: Well I think they were just in the air for this record. You know, I find with every record there's certain common symbols are attractive at that time. Certain symbols and certain colours. And this record had to be---and we worked very---and actually the lipstick is wrong; the colour that's the only thing I regret about this...
R: Your lipstick on the cover?
J: Yeah, they repai--it was touched up, and it was supposed to be, uh, Mack[[?]] No. 14 [both laugh]. Because---all these things are important to me---it's too Burgundy. The colour of this record is more on the orange side. It's too deep there. But anyway, this record had a certain tone to it, colour-wise, sound-wise, which dictated which synth sounds I used, and samples and everything.
R: Does this mean, then, that you see---that you sort of _see_ your songs, almost as pictures?
J: Yeah, in some cases, yeah I see them before I hear them. And An Angel Stepped Down, I did a video for that because I could see it. But if I can't see it, I can't do it.
R: So you image all your songs before you actually... record them?
J: Yeah... yeah [R: Hmmm] that's uh, before I write... them.
R: You've worked with a number of people on this new album. Um. Brian Eno produced a couple of tracks. Have you worked with him before?
J: No, Never.
R: How did yo come into contact with him, or he with you?
J: Well, um, Baby-lips Eno [both laugh] is...
R: That's your name for him, is it?
J: Yeah, that was one of the first things I noticed... is that for someone who is highly intelligent his jaw was very relaxed and his lips were very soft; like a child's. Which I think is a sign of balance. Anyway, he really loved Bound By The Beauty, my last record, and wrote Warner Brothers in the States. Imagine writing a letter! Like... busy as he is, he actually sits down---that to me is a sign of someone who's really centred. So he wrote Warner Brothers in the U.S. and said that he loved the record and why hadn't it done better and... so when then the idea of someone working with me came up they put him forth as one possibility. And I think he took very perverted pleasure in being considered the person to bring me to accessibility.
R: He sings, doesn't he, on Temple? I think it's...
J: [shocked/amused] No he doesn't! [R: Doesn't he? oh...] No, but he called David Ramsden, who sings on it `one of the great voices of our time' [R: oh]. Which I think, in fact, is true.
[plays middle of Temple]
R: How was singing the duet with kd lang?
J: Well, she arrived in the studio with her little dog, Stinker, with a kerchief on her head and Stinker who barked at everyone... I mean she looks like she can handle herself but it was so funny to see this little dog, totally in love with kd, in front of her, barking. So kd and Stinker arrived, and we were in booths at first, and then we um, we couldn't really connect. So we came out on the floor and so we could see each other, and then we started singing, and then that singerly thing happens when you can make eye-contact, and actually feel the other person's presence, and then it was uh, for me anyway, very special.
[plays middle of Calling All Angels]
R: I notice there have been quite a few---well over here we notice--- that there have been quite a lot of very characterful female vocalists to emerge from Canada in the last few years: kd lang is an obvious one, Mary Margaret O'Hara, [J: M...] Margo [J: Timmins] yeah, [J: Holly Cole]. Do you thi---Is there anything in this? Is there --is---Do you feel some kind of---that, that this is your time?
J: Uuuuh, oh I dunno. I think it's the time for I think its a battle between darkness and light between depression and... love for life and I think these are really difficult times period for everybody and so I think the kind of music that will---and music had been a way to heal, always, since the beginning of time---The music that will come to the fore on certain levels is music that's believeable; that people can trust. And I think that's---different as we all are---that's a common denominator.
[plays first couple of mins of Life is The Red Wagon (the remix from the Summer In The Yukon compilation)]
M: Jane Siberry talking there; that track was The Life Is The Red Wagon, that was from her third album, Bound By Beauty, on the Warner Brothers label.