Jane Siberry on stage in 2007, when her identity was Issa
October 12, 1955|
|Origin||Guelph, Ontario, Canada|
|Singer-songwriter, composer, musician, record producer, poet|
|Instruments||Singing, guitar, keyboards, computer|
|Labels||Sheeba, Duke Street, Open Air, Windham Hill, Street, East Side Digital, Reprise, Rhino|
|Brian Eno, K.D. Lang, Hector Zazou, Peter Gabriel, Rebecca Jenkins, Holly Cole, Mary Margaret O'Hara, Victoria Williams|
|Website||Jane Siberry on Sheeba Records|
Jane Siberry ( SIB-?r-ee;née Stewart; born October 12, 1955) is a Canadian singer-songwriter, known for such hits as "Mimi on the Beach", "I Muse Aloud", "One More Colour" and "Calling All Angels". She performed the theme song to the television series Maniac Mansion. She has released material under the name Issa ( EE-s?) - an identity (as opposed to a simple stagename) which she used formally between 2006 and 2009.
Jane Stewart was born in Toronto in 1955 and was raised in the suburb of Etobicoke. She would take her subsequent surname, "Siberry", from the family name of her maternal aunt and uncle. Many years later, she would explain this choice by stating "this woman and her husband were the first couple I met where I could feel the love between them and I held that in front of me as a reference point."
Siberry learned piano from the age of four, predominantly teaching herself and developing her own concepts of notation and structure. At school she learned conventional music theory (as well as French horn) and taught herself to play guitar by working through Leonard Cohen songs. Her first song was completed (to her own satisfaction) at the age of seventeen, although she had been developing song ideas since much earlier.
Jane Siberry on her education
Following high-school graduation from Richview Collegiate in Etobicoke, Ontario, and then the Canadian Junior College, Lausanne, Switzerland, Siberry moved on to study music at the University of Guelph, later switching to microbiology (in which she gained a BSc degree) when she found freshman music courses to be stifling. She began performing in folk clubs in Guelph, linking up first with singer Wendy Davis and then with bass guitarist John Switzer in a group called Java Jive.
Following the split of Java Jive in 1979, Siberry maintained both a musical and a romantic relationship with John Switzer (who would work with her on her first four records). On leaving university, she supported her work as a solo performer by working as a waitress, earning enough to finance and tour her debut album, the folk-influenced Jane Siberry, which was released in 1981 on Duke Street Records. The album was relatively successful for an independent release, enabling Siberry to sign a three-album deal with A&M Records via the Windham Hill label. As part of the deal, Siberry was able to release her albums on Duke Street Records in Canada while Windham Hill handled American release and distribution.
Assembling a backing band of Switzer, guitarist Ken Myhr, keyboard players Doug Wilde and Jon Goldsmith, and drummer Al Cross, Siberry recorded her second album No Borders Here (released in 1984) for which she mostly abandoned the folk approach in favour of electronic art-pop. This coincided with a growth in support of new wave and independent music within Canadian broadcast media, including the Toronto radio station CFNY and the video channel MuchMusic. Both of these became keen supporters of Siberry and put her onto high playlist rotation.
Siberry's first hit was the No Borders Here track "Mimi on the Beach" - a seven-and-a-half-minute art-rock single which benefitted from the art-friendly broadcast support at the time (and from its striking video made by Siberry and friends). Both factors earned it heavy MuchMusic and college radio play. Two further singles with videos - "You Don't Need" and "I Muse Aloud" - consolidated the success. No Borders Here sold 40,000 copies and won Siberry a CASBY award for best female vocalist, as well as giving her first opportunity to play live in New York.
Siberry's third album, The Speckless Sky (1985), continued her art-pop approach. It was another commercial and critical success, going gold in Canada by selling over 100,000 units and establishing Siberry as a leading Canadian pop star. The album provided another hit single, "One More Colour" (with an entertaining video featuring Siberry walking a cow) and won the 1985 CASBY for best album, with Siberry also picking up the award for best producer. Siberry's growing success paved the way to her 1986 signing by a major label: Warner Brothers subsidiary Reprise Records picked up her American contract from Windham Hill, while honouring the existing Canadian arrangement with Duke Street Records.
For her fourth album (and debut major label release) Siberry created her most conceptually ambitious work to date. The Walking (released in 1988) contained a complex, diffuse and demanding set of intricately structured songs, many of which were lengthy and shifted between narrative viewpoints and characters. Many of the songs dealt with romantic collapse and miscommunication, partially inspired by Siberry's breakup with John Switzer (which happened during the writing and recording of the album). She was marketed as part of the "high art" end of rock music, alongside artists such as Kate Bush or Peter Gabriel. With high hopes from Reprise, Siberry embarked on a high-profile tour of Europe and the United States to promote The Walking. This included her first European performance, which took place at the ICA in London.
In spite of the efforts of both label and artist, The Walking was ultimately less of a commercial success than The Speckless Sky, with Siberry failing to make her mainstream breakthrough. Although the album met with the same critical interest and attention as its predecessor, reviews were noticeably harsher and less welcoming. Even more damagingly, the album was considered unsuitable by broadcasters for radio airplay, despite the presence of several shorter and more accessible tracks on the album (both the title track and a shorter edit of "Ingrid and the Footman" were released as singles but failed to make an impact).
Despite this setback, Reprise retained Siberry's contract, even taking over the Canadian side of the distribution for her next album, 1989's Bound by the Beauty. This saw Siberry consciously move towards more simple and direct song forms, jettisoning electronic art-pop in favour of more acoustic styles drawing on country and western and Latin music. While retaining her quirkier conceptual approach, the album's song themes were generally more lighthearted than those of The Walking. Prior to the album's release, Siberry toured various folk festivals (in a duo format with Ken Mhyr on guitar) in order to reposition herself in the market. The lighter sensibilities and greater accessibility of Bound by the Beauty led to better record sales. In 1990, she embarked on a 50-date tour of Japan, Australia, New Zealand, Britain, the United States and Canada.
By 1991, Siberry had completed demos for her next album: however, this was scrapped when neither Reprise nor Siberry herself felt satisfied with the results. For Siberry, the demos sounded too much like Bound by the Beauty and she already wished to move on to something different. In 1992, during the wait for a new record, Reprise released a Siberry compilation album called Summer in the Yukon for the UK market. This focussed primarily on her more pop-oriented side and featured a remix of the Bound by the Beauty track "The Life is the Red Wagon" with a new dance-friendly rhythm track.
Siberry's sixth album, When I Was a Boy, was finally completed in 1993 after a three-year writing and recording period during which she'd undergone yet more changes, both in her personal life and in her musical approach. For the first time she chose to share album production responsibilities with other musicians - in this case Michael Brook and Brian Eno, both of whom also contributed instrumental work to the album. During the recording period, she had also confronted and overcome a longstanding alcohol addiction. She would later consider the music on the record to be more liberated, featuring what she described as "more body in it, more sexual energy... it's about the sacred aspects of sexuality, and finally being able to embrace them and not, em, (just) be an observer anymore."
In contrast to its predecessor, When I Was a Boy was influenced by funk, dance and gospel music and featured extensive use of layering and sampler technology, in line with developments in latterday pop music, trip-hop and R'n'B. It also featured what would become Siberry's best-known song, "Calling All Angels" (a duet with k.d. lang which had first appeared as part of the soundtrack to Wim Wenders' Until the End of the World and as a track on Summer in the Yukon; it was later re-recorded for the Pay It Forward soundtrack). Other contributors on the album included Canadian singers Holly Cole and Rebecca Jenkins and (for the last time) regular guitarist Ken Mhyr. The album introduced the more spiritually-oriented themes that became a hallmark of Siberry's later work and launched three singles - "Calling All Angels", "Sail Across the Water" and "Temple".
Prior to the release of When I Was a Boy, Siberry performed in Edinburgh as the opening act for Mike Oldfield's premiere of Tubular Bells 2. She met with a disastrous rejection by the audience. Initially, Siberry was devastated (later describing herself as having "cried for two weeks") and had to make a serious reassessment of her perspective on her work. From this point onwards, she chose to reclaim her art for herself and decided "I took back all the power back that I had put outside myself trying to please (others). The worst show of my life has become the best show because it's given me the ultimate freedom to care only about what I think is really good. How my career does is secondary."
Siberry would subsequently reassert full control over all areas of her work, from songwriting to stage presentation and video direction. For her promotional tour for When I Was a Boy - which she called "The It Ain't a Concert Concert", she opted not to use a band and instead performed solo, encouraging audience interaction and including spoken-word material (to the puzzlement of critics).
Later in 1993, Siberry collaborated with Holly Cole, Rebecca Jenkins, Mary Margaret O'Hara and Victoria Williams on a live concert of Christmas music, which was broadcast on CBC Radio on Christmas Day that year before being released in 1994 as the album Count Your Blessings.
During 1994 Siberry recorded sporadically, without constructing a new album. She came to the attention of a new audience when her song "It Can't Rain All the Time" was included on the soundtrack for the movie The Crow; time spent with Peter Gabriel at Real World Studios resulted in three more songs (not released for another seven years) and she sang on the Indigo Girls album Swamp Ophelia.
Siberry's next release was another complete change of direction. In contrast to the intricate studio production of When I Was a Boy, Maria (released in 1995) featured a more jazz-inspired direction with live acoustic instrumentation and approaches similar to Van Morrison's Astral Weeks. The basic tracks to the album were recorded in three days flat by a group featuring Tim Ray (pianist for jazz band Orange then Blue), Betty Carter's double bass player Christopher Thomas, top jazz session drummer Brian Blade and trumpeter David Travers-Smith (with Siberry playing electric guitar and singing). She edited and reworked the recorded material into fully realized songs, most of which featured various perspectives on innocence. The album also featured a 20-minute extended conceptual work called "Oh My My". Siberry took this new band on tour across Canada and the United States and professed herself pleased with the results, but Reprise Records were less pleased with the album sales.
After Maria, Siberry parted company with Reprise Records, later stating "they wanted me to work with a producer and that severed any sense of loyalty. I realized they truly didn't understand what I was doing... so I took my leave."
In 1996, Siberry founded her own Toronto-based independent label, Sheeba Records, on which she has released all of her subsequent material. Although her public profile became lower once she became an independent artist, she retained a devoted cult following. Her first Sheeba release was Teenager (1996), an album of songs which she had originally written during her teenage years and which she had recorded during the Maria sessions (taking advantage of the fact that the sessions had been completed with studio time left over). Leaving the Sheeba Records office to continue its work in Toronto, Siberry herself then relocated to New York City in search of new inspiration.
In 1996, she performed four concerts at the city's famous Bottom Line jazz club - all of which were recorded and released on a set of live albums between 1997 and 1999, collectively known as the "New York City Trilogy". The first of these was 1997's Child: Music for the Christmas Season, a double album which combined Christmas standards and carols (such as "O Holy Night" and "In the Bleak Midwinter") and original Siberry songs containing religious imagery (such as "An Angel Stepped Down...")
Siberry had also demonstrated the greater creative freedom she had as an independent recording artist via her other 1997 album, A Day in the Life. This was her most unconventional release to date - although it did feature song excerpts, it was predominantly a sound collage representation of a typical day's experience by Siberry in New York. The album was filled with recordings of yoga classes, phone messages and street sounds; and featured conversations and exchanges with a wide variety of people - cab drivers, friends, fellow students and Siberry's then-current musical collaborators Patty Larkin, Joe Jackson, k.d. lang and Darol Anger.
Also in 1997, Siberry's former label Reprise Records released a second compilation album of her work, A Collection 1984-1989, aimed at the Canadian and American markets, and drew from the whole range of Siberry's output prior to When I Was a Boy.
With Sheeba running into financial problems, Siberry left New York, returned to Toronto and reestablished her label as a one-woman operation (handling everything from songwriting to envelope-stuffing). In order to finance Sheeba, she also began to experiment with what were then seen as unorthodox promotional ideas, such as the weekend-long "Siberry Salons" (a concert-cum-seminar featuring two performances plus a workshop and dinner, which were hosted at intimate and unusual venues such as art galleries and loft apartments). Sheeba now also sold soft toys and auctioned off collectible career-related items such as signed lyric sheets, her first guitar and even the pink bra which she had worn on the cover of Maria.
Siberry took two years to restore Sheeba's precarious fortunes, during which she kept busy. Her first book of prose-poems, S W A N, was published by Sheeba in 1998, the same year that she toured as one of the acts on the female-oriented "Suffragette Sessions" tour, alongside Indigo Girls, Lisa Germano and members of Luscious Jackson and the Breeders. A second book, One Room Schoolhouse, followed in 1999. In the same year, Siberry released the second and third volumes of the New York concert recordings. Lips: Music for Saying It was based around themes of communication (and included a "Mimi"-sung riposte to 1984's "Mimi on the Beach"). Tree: Music for Films and Forests documented a concert in which Siberry had sung songs linked by the concept of trees, as well as adding a couple of songs she'd contributed to film scores. The complete trilogy was reissued as a three album box set the same year.
Siberry's tenth studio album, Hush was released in 2000. This was a predominantly acoustic record consisting entirely of cover versions in which Siberry explored traditional American and Celtic folk and gospel songs such as "Jacobs Ladder", "Ol' Man River" and "Streets of Laredo". She released a third book via Sheeba in 2000, New Year's Baby. The following year's City album compiled various non-album tracks, rarities and collaborations between Siberry and other musicians. As well as providing another home for "Calling All Angels", the album included work with Nigel Kennedy, Peter Gabriel, Hector Zazou and Joe Jackson and featured "All the Pretty Ponies" (a children's song which Siberry had contributed to the Barney's Big Adventure soundtrack).
In 2002, Love is Everything: The Jane Siberry Anthology was released on Rhino Records: a double-CD album combining material from her Duke Street, Reprise and Sheeba eras and summarizing the first twenty-one years of her career. This was followed in 2003 by Shushan the Palace: Hymns of Earth - another Christmas-themed album of cover versions. This time, Siberry performed her own interpretations of liturgical Christmas hymns by various classical and Romantic composers including Mendelssohn, Bach, Holst and Handel.
Despite her apparent productivity, Siberry was continuing to find her independent career and business efforts to be challenging and problematic. The live albums were in part an inexpensive tactic to enable her to gain resources to record her original work. She would later confess "I really thought it was going to be much, much easier. The whole label thing. It wasn't. Those records, Shushan and Hush, were to pay for studio time."
Early in 2006, Siberry closed her Sheeba office, then auctioned and sold nearly all of her possessions via eBay - including her Toronto home and her musical instruments. She retained one travelling guitar, but none of the other instruments featured on her albums and in her concerts. In 2006, she told The Globe and Mail that she had kept a very few precious possessions, including her Miles Davis CDs, in storage.
Jane Siberry, explaining her time as "Issa" in 2009
On 3 June 2006, somewhere in northwestern Europe, Siberry changed her name to Issa: revealing this change of identity to the public a couple of weeks later on 24 June 2006. She told The Globe and Mail that she chose the name Issa as a feminine variant of Isaiah. She stated that her older music would remain available for sale under the name "Jane Siberry", but her new material would be released as Issa. At the time she also stated, regarding the change of identity, "I had to do it right. I had to be serious about it and I had to convey that. When I put Jane away, I went silent for 24 hours. Not a word to anyone. And then Issa from that point on."
Later she would describe the process of choosing a new identity in terms of changing her writing approach - "Moving into Issa, I didn't know if I'd be in the music business any more. I just started writing. I wanted to let go of any expectations and just try to get closer to what I heard in my head... I just tried to write as precisely as I could to what I heard in my head. I slowed everything down and took one note at a time, and just waited until I heard the next note." The process was evidently successful, resulting in thirty-three songs written in thirty-three days.
On 4 July 2006, Issa gave a lecture at University of British Columbia in Vancouver on the topic of "Cracking the Egg: A Look from the Inside". She began with a poetic meditation on science and life, and then opened the floor up to questions from the audience. She talked about her recent adventures in decommodifying her life, her change in name, and her new conception of herself as an artist. Over 2006 and 2007, she documented the process of recording some thirty new songs in her journal, posted on her MySpace page and on her new website.
In autumn 2008 Issa finalized the ideas for a trilogy of albums to be called the "Three Queens" sequence. The first of these - Dragon Dreams - was the debut Issa release, on 12 December 2008. As with the previous Jane Siberry material, it was released on Sheeba: Issa had retained the label despite slimming down its operations. In 2009, Issa released the second album in the "Three Queens" trilogy, With What Shall I Keep Warm? However, it was plain that her identity was no longer fixed, as both of the names she'd used as a musician - "Issa" and "Jane Siberry" - were included on the cover. In December 2009, she notified her fans that she had recently changed her name from Issa back to Jane Siberry, feeling that the process of working under a different name had run its course.
Inspired by the dichotomy between frequent e-mails from devoted international fans asking her to play a concert in their city and her difficulty in finding a suitable concert promoter, Siberry launched a "microtour" through her fan mailing list in 2010, in which she offered to play small venues - ranging from intimate cafés to fans' own homes - in any location in Europe where one or more fans could organize a space, an audience of about 20 to 30 people and a night of accommodation.
In May 2010, Siberry made her entire back catalogue of music available as free downloads in MP3 and AIFF formats. She had previously employed a flexible pricing policy, stating "I started feeling weird about holding back anything people wanted because of the money. It just felt wrong to my stomach, so I made a flexible interface so people could take it with whatever reasoning they felt was right, and I didn't have to worry about it any more."
In March 2011, Siberry advised her fans through her mailing list that the third album of the "Three Queens" trilogy was almost ready (having been "nearly completed" several times before), and that she intended to release a fourth disc as part of the collection. The album, Meshach Dreams Back, was released later in 2011 and was the first album to be credited to "Jane Siberry" for eight years.
In 2014 Siberry used crowdfunding to raise funds to produce Ulysses' Purse, a limited edition CD. Siberry is featured in the Corey Hart single "10,000 Horses", which was released on 8 April 2014.
Siberry's music is most commonly compared to artists such as Kate Bush, Joni Mitchell, Suzanne Vega and Laurie Anderson. She has drawn from a wide variety of styles, ranging from new wave rock on her earlier albums to a reflective pop style influenced by jazz, folk, gospel, classical and liturgical music in her later work. She has cited Van Morrison and Miles Davis as being strong creative influences.
Siberry has often criticized the competitive power of commercial radio and the recording industry. In 2005, she pioneered a self-determined pricing policy through her website on which the purchaser is given the choices of: standard price (about $0.99 USD/track); pay now, self-priced; pay later, self-priced; or "a gift from Jane". In an interview with The Globe and Mail, Siberry confirmed that since she had instituted the self-determined pricing policy, the average income she receives per song from Sheeba customers is in fact slightly more than standard price.
Siberry is a vegetarian.
Siberry has placed three singles in the Canadian RPM Hot 100:
Two other tracks made RPM's Adult Contemporary charts:
Siberry has also contributed tracks to a number of movie soundtracks and compilation albums:
Her song "One More Colour" was covered by Sarah Polley on the soundtrack to The Sweet Hereafter, and by the Rheostatics on their Introducing Happiness album. K.D. Lang covered "The Valley" and "Love Is Everything" on her album Hymns of the 49th Parallel.
The late Kevin Gilbert recorded a piano version of her song "The Taxi Ride" which appears on the posthumously-released album Bolts, a collection of unreleased material from Gilbert's career released in 2009.
She sings on Bob Wiseman's 1991 Presented By Lake Michigan Soda. She sings "The Bridge" on Joe Jackson's Heaven & Hell.