sing a little sweeter

scott w. gray interviews jane siberry

On a drizzly day on ultra-urban Yonge Street in downtown Toronto, Jane Siberry and I met in a busy cafť to talk about topics seemingly in direct opposition to our surroundings. Against a backdrop of constant traffic and huddled packs of opened umbrellas, we talked about Siberryís regular sojourns to the North, away from basic amenities like electricity and running water. Against the washed sounds of passing cars and clattering dishes, we talked about finding space in songwriting, and Siberryís movement toward a stiller, more atmospherically layered music. At first, this side of her came as a surprise to me, but as we spoke a clearer image of who Jane Siberry is came into focus.

Initially I had pictured Siberry as a fiercely independent musician, somewhat squirreled away from the workaday world, creating an alternate reality in songs that are sometimes reminiscent of recounted dreams. What emerged was an image of an artist concentrated on professionalism and an unsentimental sincerity, whether in business, creative expressions/collaborations or spiritual life. She is most interested in breaking through the preciousness of music and spiritual practice, and finding functionality within these heady topics to keep her moving forward in a grounded, centred reality.

In a telling example, she spoke of taking yoga in New York City, again an experience seemingly out of step with its frantic environment. She told me about a class at the Sivananda Center taught by a yogi from Brooklyn. ďIt was funny to hear him speak in this really heavy Brooklyn accent, saying ĎYa gotta have your healthÖwithout your health, youíre nothin.í I actually recorded a bit of him speaking and wove it into a record called Day in the Life. It was so beautiful and perfect to hear it presented as not precious. It made it real to me.Ē

This seems to say a lot about the way Siberry approaches topics that could easily float away on the wings of their own esoteric nature, and how she tries to find an element of practical reality in it all. As Siberry herself says, ďIf you donít wait to find that perfect place to meditate, youíll meditate a lot sooner.Ē

We began by discussing the changing nature of her independent record company, Sheeba Records, which she founded in 1996, and the nature of independence itself. Her newest release, Love is Everything: A Jane Siberry Anthology, is a two-disk retrospective that collects material from all thirteen albums, and came out in May 2002.

Scott W. Gray†† I wanted to talk about independence in the act of creation itself. Do you create your music independently or is it a collaborative effort?

Jane Siberry†† I leave a lot of openness in my music for other musicians for sure, because when I direct myself musically I leave a lot of openness, knowing I could never direct myself to sing or play a certain way. The essence of good improvising, I believe, comes from a really strong structure. I donít think you can improvise with the same mastery or command if you are just learning how to fuse musical creations into real things. When you have more experience, the openness can be there and the structure can be strong and that makes for the best vehicle to hold inspiration.

SG†† †Your earlier material to me seems more angular, and the most recent material seems smoother with a greater sense of stillness. Is this deliberate?

JS†† †I donít know if I would use the word deliberateÖ itís just natural to me, and probably a reflection of me as different, as someone who has grown a lot.

I think when I was working on the album When I Was a Boy, it was a marker for me of being very ungrounded for most of my life. At that point, I understood that the most important thing I could do was to learn how to ground myself. It was more important than anything else. I heard it in myself. And so I focused on grounding, although I didnít really know what I meant by the word. When I Was a Boy is a reflection of this colliding of heaven and earth, in my system anyway, where the true physics of the word ďgroundedĒ started taking place, where you can actually function as a ground, and energy can pass through you.

Musically, thereís been more space in the studio on the later stuff, because I started to take more of a directorís role. When I worked on When I Was a Boy, I would just tell people to go away, and work alone with computers and sequencers until I could get closer to what I heard in my head. And the silence is partly a reflection of that, and partly just learning how to use my musical palette, and partly being more grounded in my life.

SG†† †All this came together on When I Was a Boy?

JS†† †Yeah. And my interest in different topics was an organic thing that flowed from record to record, but that was the first time I started talking about love, and God, and prayer and things like that.

SG†† †Youíve talked before about getting out of the city and going up north. How important is it for you to be in a different physical and creative space?

JS†† †I used to need props in my life. Like, for writing, I would need a special book and a special pen with a special chair in a special room... special specials. And now because Iíve had to let go of a lot of these things anyway, because I couldnít have them, my environment doesnít mean as much to me anymore. I just write wherever and whenever.

I really like what I read once: ďIf you want to meditate, donít go to the top of the mountaintop, but practise in the noisiest place you can think of, like in a noisy intersection.Ē Itís a living, working meditation, and I really like that attitude to life. Itís a good example of the way I approach things, sort of reversing everything, reverse thinking. Then things donít get too precious, and you donít have to wait to find that mountaintop, and you test your mettle against immediate concerns.
When I write now, I try to write anywhere instead of waiting until I get up north. Iím practising not putting things aside until I get to the perfect environment, because maybe itís just an experience that I could put off for years.

SG†† †Are you saying that the practice used to be mediated by the rituals you had, and now the rituals have been taken away across the years, and the practice is more just about doing, rather than having the rituals?

JS†† †Yes, I used to burn sage and use sweetgrass and have all my favourite things around. And now I do the opposite. I love and appreciate these things, but I use them much less than I used to. My life is much less precious and much more proactive and bare bones and effective.

SG†† †In a beautiful way, orÖ?

JS†† †Yes. Absolutely, because I see it as a progression forward. And itís a freedom too, because I can do anything anywhere.

SG†† †How much, musically, are you allowing freedom, or exaltation, versus restraint to take over?

JS†† †Writing music is a very mysterious thing for me; itís like Iím always being taught. Itís almost easier for me to put on a tape recorder and write from beginning to end because then it is done, and it flows. And thatís like poising myself in the perfect position so that it can be complete. But sometimes I have to write the music when I write the words, and other times I donít have words, just sounds. Other times when I write, it feels like I am forcing something, so I have to restrain, but thatís also like letting go. Itís a strange dance. Itís much easier to just be inspired.

I had a singing teacher once who said, ďWhen the singer cries the audience stops.Ē Which is to say the audience is a living, breathing thing, and their energy is being felt by the performer. Itís a really important communion, and when the singer cries, she canít hear anymore, and the audience is left vulnerable. They are not heard anymore because this person has gone over the line, and is just hearing herself. And Iíve done that in the studio where I have just been swept away in something and been so inside it that I thought, well, that should be true, and yet Iíve listened to it later and it has carried much less than other takes, when I have held back just a bit. So when you talk about exaltation and holding back, itís finding a perfect balance, which is a tricky, mysterious thing.

SG†† †I gather that youíre devoted to music, but what is that devotion? Is it a devotion to the music, or to you and your life, or is it a devotion to something else, something other?

JS†† †At different points in my life, Iíve had strong opinions about why I was doing things, and then Iíd grow and canít believe what I used to think was true. So Iíll just sign off on this statement as what I know to be true March 16th, 2002: Sometimes I hear people say, ďIím a musician because I donít know what else to do,Ē and I think thatís a very rude thing to say. Because if thatís your only reason for doing something, then thatís not good enough. I feel like I have something good to offer. When I think about not doing it, my whole system rails against me. And I feel like I would fade away pretty fast. Itís so strongly in my heart to give, because most of my music comes from being moved. I want to give back; it all comes from a drive to help in some way.

It comes from a sense of service, and yetóand Iím very stubborn about thisóthe only way I do music is without my brain involved. Because I donít want my brain saying: You have to give to people. So the only way I write music is when I write from my heart, which keeps it pretty pure, I think. But itís very much of a devotional nature, because I think that Life and People and God are so unutterably moving, that this is the only thing I can do in response to that.

SG†† †So music is the avenue for your devotion?

JS†† †Music is one way. I do lots of things, but I know that the music is a particular fortitude that I have. I just hear it in my head. I donít think Iím the best musician or singer, or anything. I just happen to hear it.

When I was young, I always knew that something was different about me and it wasnít until much later that a word came to me that I understood to be true. I learned that I had a ďdevotional natureĒ and it confused me, but I knew it was what made me different from others. I always felt that my spirit was kneeling, that my face was turned upwards, that my spirit face was turned ever upwards.

SG†† †If your expression is coming through you, and you work to ensure that it is coming from your heartófrom a pure placeódo you ever have trouble trusting that?

JS†† †Yes, there have been times that I realized there had been a distortion or that something was out of balance. So I have to adjust and fine-tune, as everyone does. Thatís what experience brings to you, a fine-tune-ness, or an elegance that just canít be there at the beginning. Even though I see a through line from the beginning, there is an elegance now that wasnít there before. And maybe new distortions have come in that Iíll see later. Iíll get my trusty old horse out and herd the distortions out to the edge of the range.

Jane Siberry's newest release, Love is Everything: A Jane Siberry Anthology, is a two-disk retrospective that collects material from all thirteen albums, and came out in May 2002.

Scott W. Gray is a freelance writer and musician, recently relocated to Montreal. While his point-shot requires work, his positional play has really come along nicely.

Copyright ©2007 ascent magazine, first Canadian yoga magazine, yoga for an inspired life