She has a tough new album with a title to explain
by Dan DeLuca
Jane Siberry was at home in Toronto when she began hearing voices.
"I was sitting on my couch and I heard that 'Mmmm ... Gimme. Mmmm ... Gimme.' Over and over again," the known-to-be-nebulous Siberry said by phone from her hotel room in Tokyo last weekend, remembering the initial creative spark for her sixth and newest album, _When I Was a Boy_ (Reprise). "I put down a quick drum groove, and I started to drape music over that. And every single song after that went through that room in my head. Or in my heart."
Those Gimmes grew into "Temple," the ebbing and flowing incantation and statement of purpose that leads off the record. "You call that rough?" Siberry queries on the Brian Eno co-produced song, which slow-burns with a Madonna-meets-the-new-age eroticism. "You call that sad? You call that tough? Well, it's not tough enough."
Those questions echoed through the Canadian singer-songwriter's head while she was in London, Switzerland, Vancouver and Toronto recording _When I Was a Boy_, her first album since 1989's _Bound by the Beauty_. She had first played a collection of demos for Warner Bros. executives two years ago, and they liked them fine. But they were at a loss as to how to promote the unconventional artist, whose tendency toward abstraction has inspired comparisons to Laurie Anderson, while her dreamily orchestrated compositions have led to her being dubbed "the Canadian Kate Bush." It was Siberry herself who decided that the songs weren't tough enough.
"It was me," says Siberry, 38, who plays a solo show at the Theatre of Living Arts tonight and Saturday. "I felt that I had written the wrong record. They were good songs, but they were just too much of an extension of Bound by the Beauty. I just wasn't pushing myself."
And Siberry knew that she didn't want to do _BBTB_ all over again. On that album, which contained the whimsical and breezy minor hit "Everything Reminds Me of My Dog," still her best-known song among radio programmers, Siberry went out of her way to keep the subject matter at surface level rather than indulge too many personal obsessions or spiritual flights of fancy.
"With Bound by the Beauty, I avoided anything that reminded me of myself," says Siberry. A native of Toronto, she grew up listening to "whatever records my parents brought home," as well as Canadian heroes Neil Young and Joni Mitchell and records by progressive rock bands such as Yes and King Crimson that were popular with boyfriends. She graduated from the nearby University of Guelph before financing her first self-titled album in 1981 with tip money from a series of waitress jobs. _When I Was a Boy_ was much more draining, she says, because "I really learned to trust myself. I had to learn not to accept what other people were saying and doubt myself. And once I realized that I didn't have to please anyone else, I realized that I could do whatever I wanted."
Count on Siberry to elaborate on the meaning of the enigmatically titled _When I Was a Boy_ during her shows this weekend, billed as the "It Ain't a Concert Concert," which will include screening of self-directed video clips, interactive audience segments and other offbeat notions.
Before setting out to work in earnest on the album, Siberry had recorded "Calling All Angels," a duet with k.d. lang that was included on German filmmaker Wim Wenders' _Until the End of the World_. It's also on _When I Was a Boy_, and is only the beginning of the heavenly imagery on the album. Siberry goes in flight in seraphic voice on "An Angel Stepped Down" and "The Gospel According to Darkness," and the whole album has a mystical pull and a timeless strangeness to it. Particularly "The Vigil (the sea)," a nine-minute lullaby that examines love, death and loss from the perspective of a guardian angel carrying a loved one away in her arms.
Siberry doesn't care to elaborate on the personal matters that sent her into the tangle of self-examination leading to _When I Was a Boy_, though she does joke about such public embarrassments as being booed offstage in Scotland a few years back while opening for Mike Oldfield, whom she refers to as "Mr. Boobular Bells," poking fun at the synthesizer whiz best known for his 1973 album Tubular Bells. The important thing is that she forced herself into isolation, and when she came out of it, she had grown.
"I had time to close my doors and be totally nonfunctional," she says. "I went through periods of what now seem to be madness. But that's what happens when you give yourself permission to get to the root of things, when you want to get to a change, and you have the time and space to go to really strange places.
"The last three years were probably the most intense of my life," she says, typically elusive. "I was going through my different phases and learning, and then I would go back and work again. But I'm really happy that the record doesn't sound like a reflection of a long, tumultuous path of personal change. It's out on the table in a neutral place. It draws from everything I was learning, but it's a good, clear piece of work."