A fiercely independent artist, Canadian singer/songwriter Jane Siberry pioneered the idea of fans self-determining what they pay for her music. She has pushed musical and D.I.Y. marketing boundaries for almost four decades. She talks to PKM about her recent album Angels Bend Closer, starting her own record label, her shift to ‘salon’ performing and more.
Throughout her nearly four-decade long career, Jane Siberry has consistently pushed herself into new musical directions and reinvented herself. The Canadian singer/songwriter is the type of musical artist who can’t be judged by any particular album; if you don’t like one, chances are another is more to your taste. Siberry has incorporated a wide variety of styles and influences into her work, including folk, electronic music, country and jazz, but her unique artistry has always given her a sound utterly her own. Siberry’s voice can be as varied as her musical influences, ranging from soft and intimate to majestic and soaring.
Siberry started playing music as a child, and by age seventeen had written a collection of songs later recorded as the Teenager album. Initially performing guitar and piano-based folk music around her native Toronto, Siberry released her self-financed, self-titled debut album in 1981. Her breakthrough was the 1984 New Wave-influenced pop-rock single, “Mimi on the Beach”. Siberry achieved great commercial and critical success in Canada and set her sights on the U.S. by signing to Reprise Records in 1986. During this period, her music grew quite a bit more ambitious and complex. While she didn’t break into the mainstream in America, she developed a devoted following here.
Here is the 1984 promo video for “Mimi on the Beach,” a truncated version of the much longer album version:
In 1996, disagreements with Reprise led Siberry to made the bold move of starting her own internet-based label, Sheeba Records. After several studio and live albums through Sheeba, Siberry slimmed down label operations, sold most of her possessions and in 2006 began working under the name Issa. With the name change, she began writing without expectations or music business concerns, ending up with 33 songs in 33 days. Rather than performing at traditional venues, she focused on doing shows for small groups at fan-organized “salons.” Looking back on the Issa period, Siberry says simply that “it had to be.”
Siberry shifted gears again with her most recent album, Angels Bend Closer. Released in 2016 under her own name, it’s very much in the vein of her later major label work. The music is complex, richly arranged and magnificent.
PKM: Having released music as Issa for a while, what made you return to using Jane Siberry?
Jane Siberry: I didn’t plan to come back to the name Jane Siberry. If anything, I would have changed it from Issa to something else. But I was just in a particular place and the sun was on a certain angle and I just knew in that moment that it was time to change my name back to Jane Siberry. It was a surprise to me, but I did it. This new record is Jane Siberry.
PKM: Your most recent album, Angels Bend Closer, is your first in five years. What was the process like making it?
Jane Siberry: It was a long time coming. I did it with two different producers, including myself, and then finally it was pulled together by some friends in LA. Some things were added to my versions, and they sort of lifted it to a different level. But it took a long time, it was like I was in a vacuum, not knowing if I’d have the money to finish it or if there was anyone out there who wanted it. As a lot of musicians will tell you, it’s something we’re always trying to sort out.
“The main thing that strikes me is not specific to the Internet so much, but I think that people are bored with music. They’re not getting the musical food they need.”
PKM: The arrangements are very strong. When writing, how much of a sense did you have as to how the finished recordings should sound?
Jane Siberry: I often write in the studio, so I sort of sketched it out. With “Hide Not Your Light,” I wrote it in the studio and sketched out the strings and the brass. I wanted group vocals because I wanted to make sure it wasn’t just me talking to someone, but it was a group of people talking to one person. That was a big deal, but I didn’t know who it would be. I tried some friends, and some of them worked out, some of them didn’t. But that’s the organic part, where you get them in and you hear whether the blend is right between the voices. That can be a very exciting part, but it was a lot of playing it by ear, so to speak. No pun intended.
PKM: “Living Statue” features k.d. lang, who previously appeared on “Calling All Angels” [on the 1989 When I Was a Boy album]. How did you come to work with her again?
Jane Siberry: When I did the arrangement for it, I knew I wanted her on it, and so she came to Toronto and did it. It worked beautifully. And then we did a single of it, where she actually starts singing in the first verse, so it’s more of a duet. It’s beautiful. As you know, when doing anything creative, there are thousands of decisions. It’s all open, and sometimes you just think it will never end. Some of the arrangements are quite complex, so I had some good friends who kicked me in the butt and helped me get it finished.
Here is “Calling All Angels,” recorded with k.d. lang:
PKM: Given the long timeframe of making the album, was it difficult at all deciding at what point to say it’s done and ready to release?
Jane Siberry: No. People seem very curious about that—about how creative people know. You just know. And it’s fine with some imperfections, too; it doesn’t mean it has to be perfect. You just know when you’re satisfied that the spirit is there.
PKM: Writing in the studio, are you thinking at all about how the music will ultimately be presented live?
Jane Siberry: I am thinking about that, and I’m definitely on the path of not caring if the live version duplicates the studio version. I’m also thinking about what the videos would look like, too.
PKM: When you left Warner Bros/Reprise in the 90s to start your own online-based label, you were one of the first artists to do that. What was the experience like?
Jane Siberry: That was the beginning of the web, so it was perfect timing, for me, anyway. When Warner Bros. wanted to renegotiate my contract, and make me work with a producer, I didn’t want to be limited, so I left. The Internet was really a whole new contact with people who liked my music, and people knew they could find me now, so I’d get letters from all over the world and orders. I had a great team. It was a different way of working with energy, and I could feel it lighting up in different parts of the world through the direct contact. Maybe if I was still on Warner Bros., I would have still chosen the direct approach, but it went from 0 to 60 miles an hour towards directness. It was a lot of work running a label and I did a lot of the work with my team. Sometimes, it was just so busy I’d have to call people up and let them know their Visa didn’t go through. When Warner Bros. was starting to get into the Internet it was quite artificial, with copywriters writing your blogs for you and stuff like that. They were doing it the right way for a corporation, but I like the honesty and realness of the direct contact. So now I do salons in people’s houses, and I have a store now where I sell things like dog accessories. It just continues being very direct. But I don’t mind. It’s fun. My life is really interesting, I’d say. I wouldn’t want it any other way.
“Now I can play anywhere in the world, as long I can make the travel costs and a fee for playing. And I actually do make money doing that. The people who host salons do it really well. I have simple guidelines. They don’t spend any money. It’s always a fantastic night. It’s an exciting way to go.”
PKM: Being an early adopter, how do you feel about how things have evolved with music on the Internet?
Jane Siberry: I love the fact that the gatekeeper has been removed, and if you make music, you can get it out there. The universe is still involved; if you’re meant to reach a lot of people, you will, and if you’re not, you won’t. For different reasons. The main thing that strikes me is not specific to the Internet so much, but I think that people are bored with music. They’re not getting the musical food they need. Every now and then I think I hear it in someone’s work, a new way of conveying data, information, spiritual or whatever.
But there is just a big change happening where people aren’t hungry in the same way and artists, a lot of them, are thinking, ‘Why do it? Why spend all this money doing something that won’t make money?’ It becomes almost like a vanity project. So, a lot of people are sorting things out, and I think we’re in the middle of a transition. I don’t know what’s ahead, but I think peoples’ eyes will change in concerts; they’ll listen differently because they’re getting what they need.
With the Internet, I think it’s a great time for older people who are shut-ins. It’s like a window just opened for them. They can be really stimulated on their computers all day long, I love it. There are so many good things about it.
PKM: While it makes it easy for your existing fans to keep up with you, it can present challenges in reaching new audiences. How do you approach that?
Jane Siberry: I don’t have an answer. I do think it’s in the hands of the universe. I’m pretty proactive with Facebook and sharing. I share a lot of other people’s music and keep the energy going.
PKM: What made you start doing the salons, the private performances, in people’s houses?
Jane Siberry: The first time I did them, I was frustrated with working in clubs. I went home after a particularly frustrating night and sent out an email that said, ‘If you miss me, invite me to your living rooms.’ I had 72 salon dates booked over 3 months, all over the world. The gatekeeper’s not there. It’s a horrible feeling to think, ‘Oh, I’ll never play Italy because I’m not well known enough there so no promoter is going to make money, so why would the book me?’ But now I can play anywhere in the world, as long I can make the travel costs and a fee for playing. And I actually do make money doing that. The people who host salons do it really well. I have simple guidelines. They don’t spend any money. It’s always a fantastic night. It’s an exciting way to go.
PKM: Have you been surprised about where the interest is coming from?
Jane Siberry: I guess I just know through where orders come from, etc., and people tell me where they’re from. It’s much more educational for the artist than it used to be. I’m in direct contact with people from all over the world, and a lot of them are doing amazing things. I always ask and try to get them to teach me about it.
PKM: Do you currently perform in traditional venues as well?
Jane Siberry: Yes, I do, and I like doing really big shows and tiny shows. It’s like a workout, working with a large room where you have to hold the energy and comb through the energy at the beginning to get people in harmony because they are often coming from all disparate places. That’s one sort of different training. And then there’s the home concerts, where I like to dress up. It’s really a fun thing in a living room to see someone who you can also imagine seeing on stage at Carnegie Hall. It’s an extra thrill. I dress to terrify when I’m doing a house concert.
PKM: You recently did a series of salons in the UK. What is next for you?
Jane Siberry: Well, the three shows in the UK were just because I was here. I came to walk with my dog and write new songs. One thing that happens when you’re a musician is that you have to be more disciplined because often you start writing music and poetry in your bedroom when you’re just trying to get away from your parents and you’re sort of trapped. It becomes an outlet. When you’re an adult and you run your own life, there are so many interesting distracting things. So, I decided that I’m just going to start walking and writing. That’s going to be my teenage bedroom. That’s what I’m doing over here, and the salons are on the side.
The title track from her wonderful Bound By the Beauty album:
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