Dipping into the Strange Well: An Interview with Jane Siberry
by Caroline Horn
I sat and watched the audience settle in at a recent Jane Siberry show at the Bottom Line in New York. The electricity in the room was palpable, and on many tables I saw pitchers of expensive and lovingly arranged flowers brought as gifts. It was a touching testament to the consistent power of Siberry's music to evoke and move, even as it has defied categories. In her last few albums, she's shifted from jangly, acoustic tunes to dark, haunting songs that coast over sound loops influenced by producer Brian Eno to bright jams with a jazz quartet. Yet through all of these stylistic swerves, the common threadher sudden, quirky humor, the vulnerability and abandon in her voice, her deep reverence for naturehave kept her fans devotedly connected.
Siberry's recording career began in her native Canada in the early '80s. After a self-released debut and six subsequent major-label releases (on Windham Hill/A&M and Reprise/Warner Brothers, respectively), she returned to recording independence this summer and launched her own label, Sheeba Records, with Teenager, an album of songs written when she was in her late teens. Newly situated in New York, and poised for her new adventures, Siberry spokewith WIM about looking back and moving forward.
It seems like the press is making a big thing out of your move-to-indie status.
Yeah, well, I don't like the word "indie," I feel like I've started my own major. It's sort of a bit of a joke, but that's how I feel. "Indie" sounds like a step down when in fact it's a step forward.
Had you planned to open your own label for a long time?
No, I hadn't even thought of it, really, until this contract with Warner Brothers came up. And then I assumed I would go to another label. It wasn't 'till a few months before the [most recent] record, [when] that option came up, that I started to sense change was possible. The only way out of my contract was for them to renegotiate. You know, because usually they want to keep you on a label for a long time, even if you're not making money, to at least recoup what they've lost. And I've fought to get off labels before, and succeeded, but it was a big pain in the butt and you give away lots of things. So, I crossed my fingers and they wanted to renegotiate. And now that I'm off Warner Brother's, there's such a huge sense of relief. I just didn't realize how much frustration I was repressing when I was on the label.
Now my mind's going wide again because I know that anything is possible. I'm only limited now by money and my imagination, not by people's smaller way of thinking or a machine that's too unwieldy to suit what I need.
And now the money can flow a lot more directly.
Well, for this initial period when Teenager is being sold through mail order, everyone paying $18 a record, it's going directly into paying my bills, so, it couldn't be more direct than that. Directly back into the studio...And it pleases me, the fact that, if money equals energy, people give their energy in the form of money and they receive energy in the form of a record. The people who are buying the records now are really, on a subtle level, getting more through the record than people will later when they buy it in the store, 'cause of the energetic charge that's available right now to them, and to me.
What are some things you can do now that you couldn't have done on your prior labelor on anyone else's label?
Well, a simple example is the artwork thing. It's always bothered me that the very people who are supposed to illuminate someone's work to the general public [critics] get less than the general public will get to examine. You know, they'll get an advance copy and it has no artwork and no credits. They don't know where it was recorded and what it all means, they don't know the context, and they don't know what the color scheme of the record is. That's all a part of it. And a lot of journalists are really intelligent people, so I've always felt that was a mistake.
So now, I have a one to two-month window with the distributors, the window being: I can sell through mail order, through the Internet, and through our mailing list, to the fan base, who will get a two-month jump on the record. And that's a reward for their support before it hits the stores. The mandate for the distributor is I'm gonna distribute on certain levels myself and they can get the rest of the records into the stores, as opposed to them wanting everything [right away]. It gives that extra 2 month period where press can have the finished artwork, and then it hits the streets which is, I think, the right way to do it. That's a small example.
People are quick to turn the power upside-downdistributors creating things so you're almost working for them when, in fact, they're working for you. I always thought of a label that way, too, which was extra frustrating 'cause really I have the work and I use them to get it out. So now every step I take, I'm correcting myself: "Oh, yes, this contract should reflect that you're actually working for menot me, you. Change this, change this, change this." Et cetera.
Now that you're running a business, do you find that you have to switch back and forth between your creative head and business head in a way that you didn't before?
No, I've always been doing that. I've always been involved in the business in other ways. But what I can't do yet is be out of touch - I have to be in touch with the business every day, I can't stray too far, spirit-wise, which is what I normally dono phone calls for a month at a time.
Do you have to find new ways to protect your creative work time and energy?
Yeah, but I feel like I'm working much faster than I used to so, for some reason, I'm still getting a lot of creative work started and finished, even as I've been setting up the record company.
I really believe everything comes at exactly the right time. I just turned 40 this year and I feel I'm moving into a whole different phase in my life, as far as having command over my own energies, not being so sensitive and out of control that I feel too helpless or hopeless too often. And I can deal with people much better than I used to. I can ask for what I need without an emotional charge. I can be clear now, much clearer than before, which commands a different kind of respect from people. I'm not afraid to ask for help when I need it. I couldn't have done this five years ago.
I know you're using the Internet a lot, for your marketing. Do you surf a lot for fun, too?
I got involved enough to do an intense thing with our Web site, you know, to check other things out and set it up. I don't feel much pull to go in and just cruise. But I'm totally fascinated by the way that it's changing the flow of energies all around the world.
I think, in a much wider picture, that it's part of the grand scheme of, you know, this day and age being a time for people to create their own churches in themselves. Anyone who comes to a strong philosophy of understanding the universe is going to have worked really hard to get it, and it's a whole new sort of breed of people being created. And, on the way there, there's lot of aloneness and difficulty. And the Internet and the use of computers, by people of all agesespecially children, I supposeit's like the cosmos is using it as a tool to train people to follow how human intelligence works. So, eventually, we'll learn how to access our own computers and take our hands off the keyboard and create things and communicate things without any machinery. It's a training ground for a higher purpose - that's how I see it. It's too heartbreaking if you think the other way - that kids are, you know, losing touch with their bodies, their wonderful five senses. Before I saw it in a different way, it was too upsetting. I choose the hopeful way of looking at it.
You're mentioning energy a lot and it strikes me that all these recent changes in your work coincide with a lot of new energy on your part.
A new understanding of energy, yeah. That's true. I'd say five years ago, I couldn't go any further and I was just forced to learn about myself on an energetic level. And that was the beginning of a long adventure of reading lots of things, and eating the right diet, and reading the about the energy system, the Hindu system of chakras, that way of seeing it and taking dance, looking at myself walking. Why did I look so different from everybody else? And becoming more and more aware of myself. And a lot of it's hard 'cause you have to take stock, and that means there's no hope. You have to look with a cold eye, to really see who you are, where you stand, without any distortions. And then when you start to learn, then you have hope again. But the stock-taking is a hard time.
Speaking of stock-takingIn parts of Maria, there's a lot of child imagery, and then you come out with this album, Teenager, the songs from your teenage years. Are you doing some time-travel, starting over artistically as well as commercially?
Yeah, I think so. I'm sure it means something that my first record for my own label is my very first songs. And now I'd really like, as soon as I get the rights back to certain records, to remix them, change the artwork, put lyrics back in the records, you know, for the ones where they were cheap and left the lyrics out. It's like tidying up the housethere's a bit of cleaning things up before I get on to new things. So there's a lot of juice in me that I'm sort of restraining, 'till I get other things out of the way.
Yeah, that's what I meant by more energyit seems like you've got a lot of energy now.
I do, thank God (laughs). I would hate to be too tired to do all of these things. I can work quickly now, I'm finishing things faster, and I can sing better than I used to, so I can do final vocals in one takeI can improvise and keep it, you know? I feel I've been working way too slow for too long.
Because of red tape?
Yeah. When I Was A Boy took four years. Not four years to record, but I was waiting, for months at a time, for them to find a producer for a single. And then they couldn't decide on a single and it was like, oh my God, it's gonna be out of the air by the time it comes out. That's when I decided I just had to do something so I started to direct my own videos for it, and started to write stories.
Was improvization always a big part of your work?
It was, but I wasn't a good enough singer to sing what I heard in my head, so I was limited that way. And I hadn't found a person like Tim RayI kept pushing people to improvize but they would close up at their own times. Tim is unbelievable...almost spooky. I mean, he can play one note on the piano and I can hear a whole song in that one note. There's some energy that flows through him when he plays...he's so emotionally connected when he plays.
So he's a key in your being able to improvize?
He's key. If I hear something, if I hang on the note long enough, he'll hit it. And I'm sure he's hearing things and guiding meit's almost telepathic. And now, I'm recording three shows this fall, each with a different theme and different special guests, at the Bottom Line. And I really think it's the way to go. To me, it's like real music, natural music, powered by musicianship only.
It's like letting the people you bring to the music shape it, as opposed to your just getting out there and defining it.
Yeah, creating some kind of structure, still, but creating some kind of openness for music to be made by all these fantastic musicians. There isn't enough of it, in my mind. I don't hear enough of it, really, like, have direct interface with someone else's chest.
Did you feel influenced by other genres that use a lot of improvization?
Oh, yeah, well, I've always enjoyed that sort of thing. And jazz, sure, or listening to children sing, you know? To me, that's really real, it's natural. I trust it... a certain kind of spirit. And Van Morrison, I like him for that. And I like a stream in Prince's musicyou know, he keeps that space open.
I remember once in a show I heard you refer, jokingly, to Joni Mitchell as "the mother of us all" and I wondered if she was one of your artistic mothers.
Yeah, she spoke to a certain side of a lot of our 14-year-old souls, and put words in the air for us.
Who are some of your heroes and she-roes, musically or otherwise?
I like the way Georgia O'Keefe's space stays relaxed. I don't know her painting that well but I like her face. It reflects an energy that fascinates me 'cause I've gone from being terribly ungrounded most of my life to needing to understand it, so that's part of the fascination...Sometimes [I've seen] wild singers sending out a certain energy that ...I didn't think was cool. So it's almost like a reverse influence, which is just as important, and you have to thank them at the end of the day, too.
Do you think music has helped to ground you?
Music's been like a teacher, forcing me to become more extroverted, making me bigger because I had to expand while I was on stage, and then slowly it became a landscape that I could own. I think that's pretty common....And being in the music business, you're forced to look at yourself under a microscopeyou sit and edit videos of yourself, you go through contact sheets from photo shoots, you listen to your voice solo'dand I choked during most of that time, like most people. Because, you know, we're taught not to respect ourselves, and along with that goes all that low self-esteem and self-hatred and things that are great testing grounds to become a strong person but not much fun to go through.
I think it's pretty well the arena that most people have to go through. And so I probably got a jump-start on things being in the music business because I couldn't ignore the fact that my face just wouldn't read on camera.
So you've had to face yourself in ways that jump-start growth that might evolve more slowly over the course of a "normal," non-performer life?
Yeah, yeah. So being in music has been like a classroom, and quite uncomfortable. People say the hardest thing is having to grow up in public, you know? Or grow, grow in public. But that's part of what you're offering that's so valuable: People are able to monitor someone else's growth and then it's a reference point.
All of this growth that has to happen in publicdo you feel exposed in it, or do you feel like when you make a record, when you go out on stage, there's a different zone that you go into that's not so directly exposing?
Well there's personal and then there's too personal. And always, with my work, I feel it's fine, it's not too personal. It's more my hairstyles and attraction to different clothes and stuff that feels too personal. (laughter) But I think my work is pretty solid, pretty safe from my superficial swings.
Some people ask me, sort of with funny looks on their faces, "don't you feel vulnerable sometimes?" as if I'm doing something bad and haven't I noticed? I've come to the conclusion that the best anyone has to offer, if you're doing something creative, is that it reflect how you see the universe, how you're getting by. How are you handling being angry? How are you handling feeling truncated from the rest of humanity?
So it's really important to be personal, but there's a line that you can cross over where it's too personal. And the best way I've ever heard it put was something my singing teacher said to me which was, "when the singer starts to cry, the audience stops." And that's too personal, then you stop hearing the listener and it stops being a loop, a circle. And the audience senses that. And also, that little expression says how important it is that the audience feel heard, in a live show. On a recording it's different somehow. There are certain recordings that work because it sounds like you're eavesdropping, but often they don't work, I find.
I think that the best things can go right out into the middle of the table, for everyone. It becomes common food. It's not closer to you than other people, it sits on the table by itself, even though you are the human being who wrote it. And someone else can partake of it without you. That's, to me, the goal.
In "The Strange Well" [on Jane Siberry, the debut album] you talked about your words "pulling the universe out of place" and about leaving the well, coming back to town "saying things you don't believe." It seemed like a harsh view of yourself as a writer. Do you still feel that way, that you leave the well saying things you don't believe, or do you feel like you've come to capture things more accurately?
I don't think it's harsh. I think maybe it would be an acknowledgement that I didn't know what the truth was but, if you go to the well, you get to spout a few things for a while and then you go back to saying things you don't believe. It's like the two realities of truth. And the gapis the gap smaller? Yeah, it is...My definition of enlightenment used to be that I could say what I would say when I was drunk, when I was sober...Be whoever I was when I was drunk, without alcohol. That's about the gap, too...But I haven't had a drink for three, or maybe more, years now. That's an important point, I wanted to say that.
What do you tend to look at, or listen to, or read to get your juices flowing?
I have some books that I really love that will put me in touch with a part of myself that can be really neutral and empty. And one of them is the Bible. So I can read a few words sometimes and all of sudden any walls around my heart will sort of dissolve. That, or being around people that I love. Mostly I need stillness so I'll find it either through a book, or a friend, or meditating, or lying on my bed.
And what have you been listening to, lately? Do you listen to other people's music much?
Not a lot. I love it, though, when I hear it. I like being around people who will put on music themselves; then I get so excited. And I think that's music's the greatest, but I usually don't choose to put it on myself. I just don't think of it.
You don't even think of it? Has that always been the case? Or has it been just during this time of housecleaning that's been going on?
No, I think it's always been the case, and it has been conscious at different times where I thought I was still crystallizing my own...fears...So especially I wouldn't listen to women. So I maybe missed out on a whole lot of happiness but I wouldn't listen to Joni Mitchell or anyone that anyone compared me to. The second I was compared, then that was itso I had every right to feel original.
A Billboard article from this spring mentioned that you had plans to release "more commercial" work and then "non-commercial" or "private" work on your label. How do you differentiate between the two, since you don't have the check and balance of the label person telling you that anymore?
Oh, but you don't need someone for that. I know what's on the more accessible end of what I do. And I've always had to have a wide spectrum. But "non-commercial" would be like a record of hymns that I've been working on. That's obvious. And then, I hear a lot of dance music and that's what I would release with a single and a video and everything.
During your "When I Was A Boy" tour, you read some prose and showed some longer videos. Are you going to be releasing things like that?
Yeah, I can do all that now. And I do sell the videos through Sheeba records now. And now I can do more of them and send them [out] through Sheeba. And I'm working on a trilogy - and other books, too - but the first one that I'm finishing includes the story that I wrote on that tour. And I have a sort of novelette that goes with "Oh, My My."[on Maria] And I have two feature-length films ready to go, in my mind. I'm just waiting till I have my own AVID set-up so I can do a film and edit it and do the music and... Yeah, that will be one of the most satisfying things. Now it's all in one place, and it's all one eye doing the artwork and one eye making sure of everything.
And that's the eye! (motions toward Siberry's T-shirt bearing the Sheeba logo)
(laughs) Yeah, this is the eye that will be watching.
© 1996 Caroline Horn. All rights reserved. Unauthorized duplication is a violation of applicable laws.