Cover Story

In Conversation With Jane Siberry  by Cindy Filipenko
In Conversation With Jane Siberry

During the summer, Jane Siberry’s temporarily abandoned website read: gonefishing.calm. The tongue-in-cheek message to her fans is indicative of where Siberry is these days. As an independent artist, it is imperative that she is part of the dot-com era to communicate with her fans and promote her music, which has been largely ignored by commercial radio. However, as an individualist in an industry dominated by trend, it is essential that she take time to be calm and remain grounded.

Asked if she spent any time during the summer actually fishing, Siberry laughs. The website may have been dormant for a time, but running SHEEBA Records kept her amply occupied. In addition to preparing for the fall release of her latest CD, Hush, she found herself in the studio re-mastering ‘Calling All Angels’ for inclusion on the soundtrack to Pay It Forward, a romantic drama featuring Kevin Spacey and Helen Hunt. As well, she recorded a song for the Martha Stewart Christmas album. The US projects are expected to bring Siberry’s music to an audience that’s 10 times larger than she can reach in Canada.

During the summer, Siberry did manage to spend time at her retreat in Northern Ontario, where she spent a week on the forested land planting 300 white pine trees. It was an act inspired by her father. "He loves white pine trees and Robert Service, Sam Magee, that sort of thing," Siberry says. "I wanted to mark the year 2000 and planting trees felt right."

The experience of reforesting her land also gave her some time to relax and listen; essential elements to her creative process. In September, she released Hush, a collection of Celtic and American spirituals. While these classic songs have been interpreted hundreds of times before, Siberry’s versions are uniquely her own.

"With Hush I have a record with wider appeal than anything I’ve ever done before," she says. "When I started I thought it would be a very different album."

The biggest evidence of difference is in the production. With the exception of Sandy Baron’s violin on a number of tracks and Jennifer Weeks’ oboe on ‘The Water is Wide’, Siberry provides all the instrumentation on this new recording – piano, accordion, harmonica, harp and keyboards–as well as the vocals, which fans will hear as somewhat of a departure.

"I thought it was very important while I was recording not to make it sound too ‘Jane Siberryish’" she says. "I felt that a neutrality of my singing was required, otherwise I would have been pissing on the songs. It was more important to be a messenger than make a statement."

Her criteria for choosing material for Hush was simple: she had to love the song. The fact that a young girl of her acquaintance would light up when Siberry sang the well-known songs was a bonus. The 10-song collection includes such familiar fare as ‘Jacob’s Ladder,’ ‘Ol’ Man River,’ ‘Swing Low, Sweet Chariot’ and ‘Streets of Laredo.’ With its stripped-down arrangements and ethereal vocals, the overall effect of Hush is that of a hypnotic tonal poem: deeply relaxing and resoundingly joyous in its simplicity. Siberry first gained notoriety for her infectious, quirky tunes such as ‘Mimi on the Beach’ and later, ‘Everything Reminds Me of My Dog.’

The release of her second recording in 1984, No Borders Here established Siberry as a truly original female artist in the same vein as Kate Bush or Tori Amos, possessing both a unique vocal style and lyrics expressing a decidedly female vision of the world. Siberry’s sense of melody and lilting soprano made the ironic statements that fueled her lyrics all the more delicious. In the tune ‘Waitress,’ the singer laments about not being able to deal with full ashtrays at parties, concluding that: "I’d probably be famous now if I wasn’t such a good waitress."

At a time when women’s music still meant Cris Williamson and Meg Christiansen, Siberry offered a contemporary sound and vision that won her a devout female following. At 45, Siberry says that vision is still evolving.

"I’ve always been a late bloomer. I think maybe getting a glimpse of my potential now and then is good, but maybe I’ll reach it when I’m 70."

Initially signed to Duke Street Records in 1984, a small Canadian label which joined forces with A&M, Siberry joined Warner/Reprise three years later. At Warner, she was considered a "prestige artist," that is, one who adds to the label’s creative cache without necessarily adding to its coffers. Ironically it was under this label that she achieved her greatest commercial success with the release in 1993 of When I Was A Boy, which spawned three singles including ‘Calling All Angels.’

Two years later, the Toronto-based artist was back with the Maria CD, a recording that saw her exploring a jazz-influenced landscape. And yet something didn’t feel right. Typically, labels advance artists a sum based on projected sales. Failure to move the requisite number of recordings results in an advance not being ‘earned.’ "I was getting these advances from the record company that weren’t being made back in sales.

"I started to feel like I wasn’t pulling my own weight," Siberry recalls.

When it came time to renegotiate her contract with Warner, she was dismayed to find the company offered lower advances and insisted that Siberry work with a producer. Up to that point, she had enjoyed complete creative control – an industry rarity that she insisted on when she initially signed with the label.

Restless and reluctant to be further restricted, Siberry took the plunge and went solo, forming SHEEBA Records in 1996, an act she now laughingly says had its impetus in ignorance. This idealistic venture's first offering was a collection of songs the founder had written as a 16-year-old folksinger, aptly titled Teenager. The following year she released A Day in the Life, a 29-minute sound collage of a day in New York City comprised of voice-mail messages, cab conversations and excerpts of studio sessions with artists such as kd lang and Joe Jackson. She published two books of poetry, SWAN and One Room Schoolhouse. She also hosted weekend-long Siberry Salons, which consisted of two performances, a workshop and dinner at atypical venues such as art galleries.

However, the luxury of spending time writing and recording music was pushed to the back burner as running a small business took precedence. "I started the company with a small circle of people, and two years later SHEEBA had expanded too much and crashed. I was left with a debt I was unaware of," says Siberry. "The big surprise was learning how to run a small business."

In an effort to regain control of the label, Siberry scaled back the company to a bare-bones operation. She enhanced her website and found a distributor with whom she shares a similar business and life philosophy. Today, Colorado's Sounds True distributes Siberry's music, largely because she trusts Tami Simon, the company founder.

"She's a woman my age and I like her principles," Siberry explains. Simon's principles are grounded in spirituality, operating her company with a mandate to "distribute audio, video and music for the inner life."

By attaching herself to Sounds True, Siberry joins the likes of holistic health practitioner Dr. Andrew Weil and The Artist's Way author Julia Cameron. Simplicity remains one of Siberry’s main principles. When asked if she has any interest in working with a band again, her answer is an emphatic "No!" "I worked alone for two years," she says. "I had a lot of baggage to clear up, including my own. I feel too busy to contemplate working with a band. I want my life to be as uncomplicated as possible."

Speaking with Siberry, it is evident that much of that baggage was career-related, but it was far more extensive than career-related strife. Asked about her personal life, however, Siberry politely declines to comment.

"I keep this part of my life very separate."

While the formation of SHEEBA Records initially created further complications for the artist, the streamlined version of the company has given her what she needs: creative control and a sense of personal achievement. And although being independent has forced her to be more resourceful and expect less, Siberry is happy.

"I feel I am coming into my own," says Siberry. "I had a lot of personal lessons to learn. I feel freedom is nearby." To receive a catalogue of past works, or to join her e-mail list, log on to SHEEBA Records @ www.sheeba.ca or e-mail: Sib@sheeba.ca.