Jane Siberry Reaches the Snapping Point
One of Canada's most creative divas faces booing crowds, is cheered on by Brian Eno and learns the meaning of freedom.
Network, April/May 1993, Vol. 7, No. 2
A huge black bear of a dog, inappropriately named Crimson, galumps to the front door, welcoming visitors to Toronto's Reaction Studios. A sleepy black cat named Alley sleeps on a console, curled up beside a half-eaten bag of chocolate chip cookies. The owner/engineer's mother answers the phone and within the space of five minutes three people offer fresh coffee. It's a warm environment to begin with, made warmer by the sound of Siberry's lilting voice wafting out of the studio speakers.
In the first fresh weeks of the new year, Siberry is still completing an album she started working on more than two-and-a- half years ago. It's an unusual amount of time, though not unheard of, and one can't help but wonder if trouble is dogging the steps of one of Canada's most intriguing artists.
The album, still untitled in January (in contention were When I Was A Boy and Tyger Tyger, the latter referring to a William Blake poem found in the book Songs of Innocence), was recorded in Vancouver, Toronto and London, England, was re-written twice and has been the subject of much industry gossip with each new incarnation. The final touches were meant to be applied now, here in Toronto, with acclaimed produced Michael Brook finishing off the last track before returning to England where he's producing the new Pogues album. But Siberry is unsatisfied with some vocals and vows to mail him a completed tape when her "throat chakra is centred" (in Eastern beliefs, chakras are energy centres in the body).
It's not that Siberry is difficult to work with -- Brook calls her "an amazing person, very focused on her work and very deep inside it emotionally" -- and it's not as though her record company (she's signed to the U.S. Warner Bros. label) was unhappy with the earlier versions of the album. "They never rejected it," she explains, "but it wasn't hitting them in the heart". It's just that the album has not reached the point where she can close the book on it. She's waiting, she says, until she can write at the end of this chapter in her life that the album is, "The best I can do, 1993. Sincerely, Jane Siberry."
Siberry has a reputation for being enigmatic in both her songwriting and in conversation. Words don't flow out of her, they tumble -- sometimes in great long paragraphs of images and metaphors, sometimes in slow, deliberate sentences that paint a picture rather than explain a situation. Getting her warmth, sincerity and conviction down on paper is almost impossible. Her eyes bore into yours as she speaks. Her hands flutter in the air like hovering humming birds.
"I think she's trying to speak as clearly as possible," laughs actress Rebecca Jenkins, Siberry's close friend and backup singer for the past eight years, "but Jane is always a poet first." Yet, Jenkins has noted a change in Siberry. "She's more concerned now with communicating and being as good a communicator as possible. I can hear it on this album. She's less concerned with being a mystery."
In the three-and-a-half years since the release of Bound By The Beauty, someone took Siberry's red wagon and placed it precariously at the apex of a massive roller coaster. There have been glorious highs and perilous lows. Fascinating vistas have unfolded before her as she raced between the peaks and valleys.
Probably the highest moment came along with an invitation from Peter Gabriel to participate in what amounted to a giant jam session for some of the world's finest musicians at his Real World studio in England. The lowest point came when she was chased off the stage by several hundred booing boors during a concert in Scotland.
It's ironic that at the same time Siberry was struggling to come to terms with what she thought was a levelling off in her career (after steadily improving sales of her first three albums, she seemed to hit an invisible ceiling with the last two), she was beginning to be, in the words of her manager of 10 years, Bob Blumer, "embraced by the musical intelligentsia." Besides being chosen by Gabriel to be among 30 artists and producers invited to his studio last August (others included were fellow Canadians Brook, Daniel Lanois and producer Bob Ezrin), Siberry developed a friendship and collaborated with legendary producer/composer/renaissance man Brian Eno and had a song, in part, written about her by up-and-coming U.S. singer/songwriter Shawn Colvin.
"A group of some of the world's most highly regarded musicians are turning around and regarding her in the same way they are regarded," Blumer contends. "If those people, who the masses adore, adore Jane, then you know that she's doing the right thing."
The Eno connection came out of the blue. "He wrote a letter to Warner Brothers saying that he felt Bound By The Beauty was an amazing record and why hadn't it done better," Siberry explains with a half smile. "Then he wrote me a really long letter about my demo tape because it was sent to him to see if he was interested. It was very in-depth and amazingly wise and loving. His comments were very astute and what he liked about me is what I like about me, and the things he found were weak were the things I felt unsure of, too."
Eno's letter, written in January, 1992, is endearingly fan- like, filled with words such as "classic", "overwhelming", and "great." It has criticisms too, and they were even more convincing than the praise was for Siberry. At the time she was telling people she wanted to make a commercial record, one that included danceable songs along side her more experimental pieces, "I am aware you are trying something new," he wrote, "but my advice is to follow the path of most feeling and least resistance. This sounds like weird advice, the opposite of what you might have expected from me. But, so often we are frightened of our own ideas, either because they pop out so effortlessly, or because they seem too familiar to us." It was the kind of encouragement Siberry was starved for at the time. The end result of the correspondence was that Eno produced or co-produced four of the album's tracks.
Although Eno's primary advice for Siberry was to continue writing the metaphorically and musically complex songs that he found so engaging in the past, one of the songs he worked on is the most straightforward tracks on the album. "The Temple" is taunting, aggressive and perhaps the most overtly sexual song she's ever written. "You call that tough? Well, it's not tough enough," sings the unusual demur Siberry. On the other hand, "Sweet Incarnadine," with its invocations of ancient Persia, is among Siberry's most lyrically opaque and complicated. Sonically, the album is consistent with previous releases due to the continued presence of musicians such as guitarist Ken Myhr and pianist/vocalist David Ramsden.
Unfortunately, the crowds in Edinburgh last November didn't share Eno's enthusiasm for Siberry's music. Tapped by her British label to open the bill for the debut of Mike Oldfield's Tubular Bells II, she admits the event was a nightmare.
"You know in native Indian cultures you have initiation rites?" Siberry asks. "Well," she smiles, "that was my version of it. It was the worst thing I could have imagined happening to me." After finishing five songs of an intended six-song set (accompanied by ex-Blue Rodeo keyboardist Bobby Wiseman) she succumbed to the crowd's jeers and surrendered the stage. "They were just rowdy," she concedes, "and it was freezing cold and they didn't want to hear songs from some strange singer who was doing weird things with her voice."
"I was dumbstruck. I cam back to Canada and went up north and cried for two weeks. Then something in me snapped. I took all the power back that I had put outside myself trying to please [others]. The worst show of my life has become the best show because it's given me the ultimate freedom to care only about what I think is really good. How my career does is secondary. But, I have a feeling that because of this attitude it's going to do better than ever."
Siberry seems to have taken on the passion for life and its simple pleasures that is usually the preserve of people who've had a near-death experience. A smile lights up her face as she leans forward and says, "I'm in the greatest space. Now I know I will never stop. I will never be motivated to stop or not by the outside world. I've unlocked totally from the machine which is reflected in me all of a sudden getting all this creative juice. All I care about is I'm going to make these little films, do songbooks and write stories. If I see someone beautiful, I'm going to make them sit down and take pictures. I'm going to do whatever I like and as an aside, if I do well commercially, that will have its rewards, too. But it's not the point of my motivation."
What now is most absent in Siberry's work is self- consciousness. Over a period of creative turmoil that might have crushed a weaker spirit, Siberry has emerged stronger, more productive and more self-confident. Her new album seems destined to herald a new phase in her career.