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SMITH EXCLUSIVE: Interview with Jane Siberry

Over the course of a career that spans four decades, singer/songwriter/producer/performance artist Jane Siberry has always insisted on an artistic life outside the mainstream. Even when she was at the top of the Canadian pop charts with the 1980s with songs like “Mimi on the Beach” and “I Muse Aloud,” the Toronto native made no apologies for having an edge in songwriting and performing that was simultaneously quirky, mysterious, spiritually inquisitive, fashionably avante garde and always, always, hauntingly beautiful.

Canadian singer-songwriter Jane Siberry will perform April 26 as part of The Smith’s Jan Regan Club Series at Club 86.

While fiercely independent, she has also built a reputation for bold collaborations with other artists, from Brian Eno and Holly Cole to Indigo Girls and k.d. lang.

Siberry will be performing as part of The Smith Opera House’ Jan Regan Club Series on Friday, April 26. The 8 p.m. show takes place at Club 86, 86 Avenue E., Geneva.

Now in her early 60s, Siberry continues to reinvent herself, paring down her resources to quotidien necessity (she has exactly one guitar, two pairs of shoes and everything else fits in a very small suitcase), choosing whenever possible to perform in small clubs and intimate “salons” and creating a musician’s business model that is portable, flexible and in step with today’s cyber economy.  

“I use a lot fewer words as well,” says Siberry as she speaks deliberately via Skype from a farm house in Wales where she will be performing.

Siberry’s most recent album from 2016, “Angels Bend Closer,” has a spiritual dimension that breaks forth in ways that lean nostalgic and gnostic, working through despair to find solace and wisdom on the other side. The collection includes “Living Statue,” a duet with lang.

let me be a living statue
holding all that life does send
let me be a living statue
knowing when to brace or bend

“I hope the songs work on all levels. I do love the teachings of Christ Consciousness, but I don’t call myself a Christian as a way to identify with a formal religion,” she says. “There is a lot of intolerance (in formal religions), so it’s good to come up with your own synthesis.”

Siberry is one of those artists who has proven she cares more about aesthetics and being true to herself than climbing the ladder of commercial success. It has not always been easy.

Largely self-taught in the music realm from a very young age, she grew bored with music studies at the University of Guelph, majoring instead in microbiology while keeping music as a side gig in local clubs and coffeehouses. Her first album, self-titled, came out in 1981 via an independent Canadian label. It had enough traction to get her a deal with A&M Records, under which “No Borders Here” was released in 1984. Taking on techno-pop approach reminiscent of Laurie Anderson, the album made her one of Canada’s art-rock darlings.

By the mid-1990s, Siberry began recording under her own record company, Sheeba Records. To augment revenue, she added merchandise sales of personal items (clothing, instruments, music) and began offering “salon” performances in artsy venues or private homes that would include dinners and post-show discussions, a performance practice she continues to this day, though she still relishes the chance to perform at Carnegie Hall.

Siberry was also a pioneer in offering self-determined pricing for her music back in 2005, inviting fans to pay as little (as in nothing) or as much as they wanted for digital downloads. That was at a point in her life when she had shed not only her most valuable belongings (including a house in Toronto), but also her name. For a few years, as she hedged her bets that the universe would provide, Siberry identified as Issa.

“I would not be touring if I was only doing clubs,” Siberry muses. “It is so much better in a house situation. You don’t have promoters losing money. I sell out at 30. The host always steps up to the plate. I get to experience so many different places, like playing in a barn on llama farm. People get to know that I am pretty easy going. If the graciousness level is high, I will try most things. My last tour in New Zealand, we were outside, and just as I started playing, these black cows black raced down hill. It was hilarious, we have it on video tape. That kind of thing is the best. If I could do that the rest of my life, it would be grand.”

Siberry also gets creative in other parts of her life, renting out her backwoods cabin when she’s traveling. Her website, www.janesiberry.com, sells jewelry, bee keeping jackets and meditation robes, artwork (including some of her own paintings) and one-on-one “Siberry Takes” where she will critique your own artwork with the promise “not to torture you.”  

Sheeba Records never reached the level of sustainability that SIberry had hoped. She has said in other interviews that “Angels Bend Closer,” also released under Sheeba, could be her last album.  

“I get to see the world in more interesting ways, going into homes, always learning. That is the fun part. The part that is not so fun is letting go of wanting to make records. It took me six years to get out of debt from my last recording. I would love to have the freedom to record, I like to do films, but I really don’t like asking for help. At this moment, I can tour and have a great time, so I am not sure about recorded work in the future,” she says.  

But of one thing, Siberry is sure.

“I do not want to live my life in fear. I want to stay open to what the world has to offer. It is a privilege to be a musician.”

–Karen Miltner

The Smith’s Jan Regan Club Series presents Jane Siberry
When: Friday, April 26 at 8 p.m.
Where: Club 86, 86 Avenue, Geneva.
Tickets: General admission $28 plus service fees.
Dinner option: Club 86 will be offering a cabaret-style dinner menu starting at 6 p.m. Reservations are required. Ticket holders can make reservations directly with Club 86 by calling 315-789-4955. Doors will open for non-dinner patrons at 7:30 p.m.