Born c. 1950 in Toronto, Ontario, Canada; daughter of George Siberry, an investment dealer. Education: University of Guelph (Ontario), B.Sc., 1980. Politics: "Apolitical." Singer, songwriter, and recording artist, c. 1976--. Recorded album, No Borders Here, on Open Air, 1984. Also makes short feature films. Addresses: Home-- Toronto, Ontario, Canada. Agent-- 185 Frederick St., Suite 106, Toronto, Ontario M5A 4L4. Manager-- Bob Blume, 2700 Rutherford Dr., Hollywood, CA 90068.
Jane Siberry was described by Don Shewey in the Village Voice as "one of those rare artists who can crack brains and break hearts at the same time." Siberry came to the attention of American audiences in 1985 when her 1984 album, No Borders Here, was picked up and distributed by Open Air/A&M.
Her singular, slightly off-beat style makes her difficult to place; critics can only compare various aspects of her approach to that of other artists. Shewey, for instance, described her as a "garage band Laurie Anderson," and some critics have compared her quirky charm to that of Kate Bush. Her tendency to cram many words into a short space, and to use Eastern-ethnic rhythms liken her to fellow Canadian Bruce Cockburn. Like Rickie Lee Jones, Siberry employs frequent changes in time signatures; her vocal precision has been compared to Joni Mitchell's.
But Siberry is unique and inimitable. Her ethereal little-girl voice belies a perceptive, droll, black humor. She never hesitates to toss in weird little comments, verbal or musical. Her musical compositions, which are often first conceived by Siberry on paper as a drawing of shapes, has a highly visual quality. But, according to Rolling Stone critic Anthony DeCurtis, Siberry's most characteristic attribute, both on record and stage, is "her ability to infuse the everyday people and emotions she writes about with a stirring sense of wonder."
Her fascination with discovering the small wonders of the world is evidenced by her decision, while attending Ontario's University of Guelph, to switch her major from music to microbiology. "I used to leave the [science] class in heaven," she told DeCurtis, "because some little thing had been explained to me that I thought was a mystery.... I think it's a healthy thing about me--that openness to discovering something, that interest in everyday life."
The daughter of an investment dealer and a housewife, Siberry grew up in suburban Toronto, where, she says, "I was bored a lot, lived in my head." She has had piano training, french horn lessons, and taught herself to play the guitar. She was bored by the music courses at the University of Guelph and, since she essentially played by ear, learning the logistics of music seemed unnecessary to her. While still at Guelph, she hit Ontario's folk-club circuit--solo or as half of a female duo, doing original songs and tunes by the Ink Spots and Fats Waller. "I made people nervous enough of me to like me," she told DeCurtis.
Her first recording project, Jane Siberry, was independently released in 1981; Siberry financed the effort with tips she earned as a waitress, and sold the album off the stage. No Borders Here followed in 1984. It was recorded on Duke Street Records, and earned her the hit "Mimi on the Beach." It was then that music critics began to take a serious look at this new artist. DeCurtis described the album as "a portrait gallery, filled with witty, carefully-drawn self-studies and probing explorations of character." Her attitude on writing music began to evolve and take shape with this album. As Siberry said in a Canadian Musician interview, "I seem to have written several songs about the same sort of fascination which is the idea of shifting boundaries.... of no borders here." The Speckless Sky, her third, more ambitious album, earned Canadian gold-record status and thoroughly established her as a major new recording and performing artist. With this album, said Siberry, she set out to open up "things that on No Borders Here seemed too rigid."
In 1987 Siberry won a U.S. recording contract with Warner Bros. (She remained on the Duke Street label in Canada, however.) The following year she recorded The Walking, a densely layered collection of impressionistic tone-poems. Making The Walking coincided with the breakup of her relationship with bassist and producer John Switzer. The songs evince much of the pain that Siberry was then experiencing. North American reception to this complex album was hesitant, and it failed to produce a hit. But her first European tour following its release earned her a large and enthusiastic response from European audiences.
Following the breakup with Switzer, she began a relationship with Toronto filmmaker Peter Mettler. Bound by the Beauty, her fifth album, was the result of a fresh perspective on the world. This more melodic and accessible album, full of joyful, ironic songs, was happily received by the public. With it, she had returned to her simpler, more folky roots. She told Canadian Musician that she worked out the final version of the songs for this album while on tour. "I like to go out with a half-baked idea, just wing it, and then have it find its own place."
Siberry's other passion is filmmaking. She has directed her own 12-minute movie, called Bird in the Gravel. And with Mettler, she is filming a 30-minute experimental work titled Vladimir, Vladimir, based on her 1985 song from The Speckless Sky. But it is Siberry's music that has earned her a growing reputation. Though she is unlikely to ever achieve superstar status, her single-minded adherence to the unique and fey qualities that make up Jane Siberry has earned her a devoted following and has established her as one of Canada's most innovative artists.
by Heather Rhodes
Jane Siberry's Career
- Selective Works
- Jane Siberry, Street Records, Canada, 1981.
- No Borders Here, Open Air Records, Canada, 1984.
- The Speckless Sky, Open Air Records Canada, 1985.
- The Walking, Duke Street Records, Canada, and Warner Bros., 1987.
- Bound by the Beauty, Duke Street Records, Warner Bros., 1989.
- Canadian Musician, March 1985, June 1990.
- Maclean's, October 9, 1989.
- Montreal Mirror, March 1990.
- Rolling Stone, July 4, 1985; June 5, 1986; July 17, 1986.
- Village Voice, June 10, 1986.