Tone Glow 055: Jane Siberry
An interview with Jane Siberry
The title of Canadian singer-songwriter Jane Siberry’s 1984 breakthrough sophomore LP also still serves as her mission statement: No Borders Here. As one of Toronto’s most prolific tone poets and troubadours, her work has long ridden the divide between pop form and sonic abstraction, carefully dodging any traps of easy definition through detail and duration; erstwhile music critics often compared the ethereal leanings of her stretch of records for Reprise as Canada’s answer to the likes of Kate Bush or Laurie Anderson, but even these ties are somewhat of a slight. Her genre-agnostic innovation is fully drawn from intuition—a record like her retrospectively celebrated 1988’s The Walking merged koan-like lyrical hooks with thick vocal arrangements and impressionistic textures. Over the years, she’s collaborated with Brian Eno, Peter Gabriel, k.d. lang, Michael Brook and Mary Margaret O’Hara. Citing the competition of commercial radio and manipulative major-label deceit, she went independent with her Sheeba Records in 1997, becoming an early champion of pay-what-you-wish pricing and DIY salon-style touring. She dropped the use of her name between 2006 and 2011 in pursuit of a new pseudonym, Issa, for a trilogy of records she dubbed The Three Queens. Her most recent record was Angels Bend Closer released in 2016.
I spent ninety minutes on a Zoom call with Jane reflecting back on the past four decades of her career. Along the way, we also discussed walking, the natural world, meditation, microbiology, dance classes, decommodification, bad poetry, the periodic table, the avoidance of self-indulgence and self-promotion, the artist-to-audience connection, and the cultivation of community. At one point, she turned the tables unexpectedly and asked about my own creative journey. I will remember this conversation and her vivid pearls of wisdom for many years to come. —Nick Zanca
Nick Zanca: Hello, Jane!
Jane Siberry: (off-camera) Hi, Nick!
How are you?
I’m good. I apologize that I’m late, we had a little dog accident just now, so…
Uh-oh! What happened?
Oh, my dog pooped inside, so…
All good. Where are you right now? In Toronto?
I am. Oh, is my camera going in and out? I think it is… (turns on camera). You can see me alright?
Where are you?
I’m in New York, in Ridgewood, Queens. It’s about thirty degrees and we’re just getting through the last stretch of winter over here.
That’s a trick, you know.
For sure. So, I wanted to start with an open-ended question. I wanted to ask you, if you don’t mind, to talk about a favorite place from any point in your life where you’d frequently take a walk.
(a long silence). It’s where I go when I can get away, it’s up north in Ontario. I have a cabin, and I go up there a lot when I can.
Is it secluded?
Would you mind talking about the property and the general area?
Oh, yes. I love talking about things like that. Thanks for asking!
So, it’s in Northern Canada and it’s on an island on Lake Huron, one of the great lakes, of course. My cabin is on the water, it’s at the end of the road, so it’s very secluded. It’s on the south side of Huron, so it’s sweet water, not ocean water. It’s only accessible from about May until the end of October.
So you’re only allowed up there at that time?
Well, the roads get snowed in.
Got it. Had you spent a lot of time up north prior to having this house?
I always sought it out since I was little, but you find the natural world in different places. It used to be the family garden, and then it was the neighbors’ garden. Anytime I’d go into nature, I’d get a lot from it. I know how important it is for people, because they see themselves more clearly I think when we’re in nature. I always thought that if these inner city kids, if they could just go—it doesn’t have to happen in one day, or ten days, like it can happen in just a flash—where they get it, and in my mind that can put them in a good state for the rest of their life. It’s an instant shaping, you don’t go backwards—you can forget about it, but you don’t go backwards on an inner level. So, at the times I would be in nature when I was younger, I guess that would happen to me and I’d see clearly for just a second, and know it was important.
So, later I would seek out cabins to rent. I’d go up to Manitoulin Island, I did a music festival there and sort of hung around and started going up there a lot, renting from this older couple who later became my friends, war vets. And then magically, this property was standing in my driveway where I was renting. I never expected to buy, but I own it now, and it’s one of the most important places—and now I rent it out, so it’s become important to other people too.
I’m glad you’re able to share that space with others.
There’s very little like it. It’s really unusually beautiful, and it’s so quiet. You can really imagine that you’re the first person standing on the shoreline. It’s really remarkable. I opened it up for friends, and then I started renting it out, and that actually became a way to support myself during summers anyway, for music. I loved how people enjoyed it.
What is your frame of mind when you’re walking up there? Do you often work through a creative process, or is it more like an absence of thought?
I think you might get it yourself—you wouldn’t be asking me these questions otherwise. That’s cool. To me, creativity is just inspiration, and I’m inspired everywhere I walk, inspired by the beauty, just... inspired. Seeing all the tiny things and everything changing throughout the day because of the light, and then seeing everything change as the seasons, what flourishes in spring and then shifts into something else and something else. All the frogs and insects at their perfect time. The migrations of the geese across the island, butterflies and sandhill cranes, things I probably don’t know of. But it’s remarkable, I feel really… I don’t want to talk about me, it is remarkable. When I walk through the forest, you can always see the shoreline. I’ve always walked through the forest up there until I got this property as the locals did.
Sometimes you encounter a really rude, entitled energy. I put up a sign when I first got it because I’d never had land before and I didn’t know how it worked and I was nervous and insecure, and I put up a sign that said “private property”. It was around the same time I changed my name and let go of everything, and it felt so anti-that that I took the sign down and put “welcome”. It shifted the energy there so much. The locals really appreciated that. It’s horrible to be turned off land that should be everybody’s.
I hear that.
You read a note in the local paper that someone and their grandson were told to get off the marina that they’ve been fishing at for years, “no fishing allowed”, ever. It makes me sick to my stomach. It’s so rude to take tradition away from people. It’s wrong, you know what I mean? To me it’s just not common sense.
It’s not common sense to me either. While we’re talking about the natural world, I know you briefly studied music at the University Of Guelph before getting your bachelor’s in microbiology. What drew you into that particular field of science and away from pursuing music in an academic setting?
I went into the music program because I played by ear and it was easy to get into Guelph without any real training, you could sort of talk your way in. So I did, and I found that it really didn’t hold my interest. I already knew how to do these things by ear, so it was not conceptual to me, it was just descriptive—learning how to describe what I already knew how to do. I had to take one science class for arts students—bless their hearts (laughs)—and I took genetics. I would be so ecstatic after each class. I had dropped sciences in grade 9 because I wanted to do music, and they let me. It took me about a year to switch into sciences, I had to take all the beginners science courses, which meant I had a freshness to it. I loved it. If I ever went back to university, I would take first-year science courses only because they’re all big and conceptual. In the fourth year, I had to memorize 32 shapes of viruses.
I like the concept of a virus, but I don’t want to memorize like that. It wasn’t conceptual anymore.
I ask because when I engage with your music, as a producer, the first thing I always latch onto is your attention to detail. Your sense of texture is very kinetic and fleeting. There’s a kind of constant mutualism or symbiosis happening between the text of your songs and any gestures in composition or production; in other words, you tend to go micro. Would you say that studying the science of small life ultimately benefited your musical practice, or served as a sort of secondary music school, as it were?
Yeah, I think you’re right. I think it comes from a micronature to begin with. Even taking sciences, it took me two years to stop rounding off. People would ask me the time and I’d say “it’s about eight”, but after two years of science I started saying “it’s 8:04”. My brain really had to tighten up to be able to learn and really believe that I was supposed to study, because I wasn’t. I wasn’t like that. I’m more like that now, partly through the science training, partly through music training. I can be very detailed now through the mathematics of music. The science training always informed being able to go to the foundation and build it up again. When I was in university at the beginning, it was the New Age time—people were writing a lot, which was really great. People were interested in energy, which is to me a really foundational word—people don’t use it too much, but everything is fundamentally energy. People were blowing through their hats a lot and had no clue what energy meant, and I couldn’t go down and build it up myself, so I really wanted that training from sciences too. I know exactly where to go when I want to talk about breaking a bond in a molecule. I’m always going back and forth between big life and little life because it’s informative. You know what I mean?
Well, I tend to think a lot about the duality of micro and macro within my own work. But with that binary in mind... I’m also curious about your practice of layering. In a conversation with Jenny Hval, who I’d consider your contemporary kindred spirit, you discussed a similar practice of stacking vocals and text. I think you explained that “life is more impressionistic than linear.”
More precise. It’s a more precise way of describing life than the linear. It’s precise actually, even though people think it’s fuzzy.
I would love for you to lean into that more. Was there a turning point in the act of writing when you realized this weaving of fragments was truer to what you were trying to convey?
(pauses). Probably the first song was “Mimi On The Beach”, where I had more to say than I could actually put in a song. I put in two monologues, like bursts of color, and you had to say them faster and make it work musically in the sort of full classical structure. That’s not quite what you asked, but…
I mean, it sort of is. You’re finding ways to collage the fragmentary.
Yeah. And then, songs like...
(We are briefly interrupted by a knock on the door and an off-camera voice who enters the room to tell her she’s taking the dog for a walk).
Sorry. So… more impressionistic songs are really important to me. “Caught” things. I’d love to do a musical that’s “caught”. I still have an urge inside me, a drive to capture things—they’re almost like interim, like plasma around the cell. You know what I mean? The in-between. To me, that’s more the stuff of life than the cell in a way. It can hold way more information than something that’s linear. We are capable of understanding things on a huge level. That’s one of the amazing things about poetry, the manipulation of words. You can’t go straight to where the person’s going. You have to set up three stones and because there are three stones, the center of that is stoneless. That’s the place you’re supposed to be.
Like a cairn?
Not touching, but separated by water. You have to leap to the exact center of what’s created by that position of three rocks. I think you understand it, I didn’t say it that well but I think you understand. Poetry is important for us. Good poetry. I don’t like poetry. I don’t like art too much either, but I like whatever I feel I can trust.
It’s fascinating to me that you say you don’t like poetry. Your songs possess a particular prosody, the way the text is shaped. I admittedly have the insert of The Walking in front of me and the first thing that catches my eye is the superimposition of lyrics.
I know you’ve talked about creative influence being largely an extramusical affair for you. What were the “good” poets that were part of that development?
Well, from the opposite—I don’t enjoy poetry that feels like a wank, a left-brain wank. I don’t like experimental music too much. I love heartfelt improvised music, totally, like I love jazz. Most of it is naturally connected. But I like right-brained poetry, I suppose you’d put it, where I really trust the person that they’re not—this sounds really crude, but—masturbating in front of me. I don’t want to be facing that direction. With the left-brain, you feel the awareness of how someone is going to be perceived. There’s something really unsacred about it, and that’s made me realize better what I like. That’s all very crude what I just said, but…
I really like haiku. It’s got enough mystery in it, rocks positioned in water to create room for the reader. I mean, some of it I like. I used to like a few poems by e.e. cummings. There’s a beautiful poem by D.H. Lawrence, “Snake”. It’s pretty straightforward, not poetry so much as a story. The overall thing is a beautiful impressionistic song in my mind because it’s saying way more than just “a snake came down to drink at the same trough as myself today”. Whose other poetry… I often don’t know the name but I see it go by, and I love it, and then it’s gone. Same as music. It doesn’t really make me a good example-giver, but… (laughter).
No, this is great. I am also really fascinated by what you said about your aversion to experimental music. I completely understand where you’re coming from in terms of responding to stuff that comes from the heart as opposed to intellectual wankery.
That’s a better way to put it (laughter).
But I agree with you! Too much solipsism comes off as masturbatory. Anyway, it’s interesting to me that you bring that you bring that up. Your early trilogy of records (The Speckless Sky, No Borders Here, The Walking) has become retrospectively beloved with the current generation of musicians that are equally invested in pop form and sonic abstraction.
I’m aware that in the past you’ve expressed hesitancy being labeled as experimental, but considering the leanings of our publication I would love for you to riff on that.
I think that’s one of the most beautiful things about people, experimenting. Experiment-pushing, seeking new combinations of things. We have the capability of creating things because we push, everybody, not just musicians—and you hit something and that shapes you too.
I was really shocked the other day talking to some young kids. They didn’t think. They just wanted to make it and didn’t want to talk about anything, like the slight shift of vibration when you boost the piano a touch, that kind of stuff. They said, “Wow, you’re so… you just said so many deep things.” And I thought, “Man, like… no!” (laughter). I’m just talking about natural things, and everyone’s training as a musician is an opportunity to rocket. It’s actually a huge spiritual path too, and it’s a fun spiritual path without a lot of dogma. And for each one to discover… thank God we’re not living in classical times where there were so many rules. Like, we’re living in such an open time where you can create things that are different and know that there might be some ears that can accept and get it… or not get it, but…
...but get it!
(laughs). Yeah, so there’s some kind of value, I suppose. Or enjoyment.
My personal draw to experimental music isn’t derived from intellectual inner discourse. Ultimately, I respond to emotion. But going back to the concept of layering, when I hear The Walking, … the best example I can think of is “The White Tent The Raft”.
I understand that the record largely deals with a personal romantic ending, and that you generally opt for letting the songs speak for themselves, but in looking at the text on the page, I am intrigued most by how the text is divided into separate “emotional clearings”—sad, happy, angry, weird clearings. You can answer this question as deep as you are comfortable going with it, but I would love to hear about the process of developing that particular form. It’s a code that I’ve been trying to crack in the act of listening for a while.
Well, it’s a classical song form, really. So you get that it builds and peaks two-thirds of the way through—not that you do it on purpose, but it’s just a musician’s sense of proportion. Like the golden mean. It’s a natural pleasing form because it reflects the greater, but you don’t think about it, you just do it. So, for that one—I often see songs before I hear them. I’m terribly moved by migration and geese. It’s really an autumn record in my mind. The cover doesn’t reflect that. I wanted reds and rusts and stuff, but anyway… (pauses). It was trying to… trying isn’t the right word, it was trying to capture… capture isn’t the right word either. Anyway, just put a blank! (laughter). Autumn reminds us of so many poignant things that you don’t get reminded of summer or spring.
I saw the shapes of the song and drew them first, and I had to put more paper on the wall—I had a big laundry line on the wall. I knew where the parallel lines were and where they circled and were tighter and would continue. Sometimes they were higher, but I could tell they were related. It was probably going to be thirty minutes long…
…I had a lot more stuff, but I edited and got it done, I guess, and decided where the clearings were. But it’s such an amazing process, isn’t it, because you don’t know what it is and it comes to you at the right time if you don’t force it. It’s almost like you’re obedient or of service. I’m not crazy about when people say “channeling” or all that kind of stuff. It’s just a beautiful thing humans can do. The repeated verse riff that starts “there’s a red leaf that falls”… each clearing had to develop starting with the right chord. Some of them had to start lower than that verse, some higher… that was all just so interesting to do.
It seems like it was completely dictated by emotion.
Probably. Yeah, there wasn’t a lot of head in it except for the arranging. It was guided by a very consistent vibration of longing and loss and joy. You said something earlier and it rattled me a little bit—something about The Walking being a personal record about a romance or something?
No. What made you say that?
Is it not?
Well, everything is about love, but no—it’s way bigger than that. It’s not a document of particulars in my life. You know how sometimes you can have a record that’s clearly about a breakup between, you know, Carly Simon and her thousands of lovers (laughter).
So, what I’ve heard was quoted out of context.
What song would have made you feel that way?
Perhaps “Goodbye”? We hear one side of an argument at a restaurant where you’re trying to get that table for one.
(whispers) Oh, yeah…
Every time I hear that… it’s gooseflesh, Jane.
You hit that high note and immediately go back into the verse melody. It’s one of my favorite vocal performances.
Oh, thanks! I used to curse my songwriting because I was never meant to be a singer, but I write songs that are really hard to sing (laughs) and so it’s made me a better singer.
But, yeah, “Goodbye”… it’s sort of about everyone one has ever broken up with. It feels wrong when it’s about one person. It’s too small that way. I remember being so offended when someone wrote to me and said “…in your sweet self-absorption”. It really shocked me and I saw it, and I became aware of it in others and probably made a big leap then, because that’s so rude, really.
Yeah, I don’t like hearing that.
No? Do people say you’re absorbed sometimes?
Well, I think any creative person goes through phases of encountering opinions of solipsism. When it happens to me, I try to keep it at bay or compartmentalize it. But I should say that hearing you reframe the record as a reflection on a broader, collective human experience will definitely change how I hear it.
I hope in a good way! Do you think solipsism… is what people call “indulgence” in the arts? When someone is just too absorbed in themselves and they can’t really hear the listener anymore?
I’d agree with that in a certain light. I also think that since leaving Reprise and going independent, you’ve prioritized the artist-to-audience relationship and found the means to evade solipsism in favor of direct address. You’ve found several ways to nurture it: I think of the salon-style performances and your early championing of self-determined pricing. There’s sort of a punk ethic to me in eradicating the external noise around you and making it entirely about a direct handshake between you and your listeners.
(pauses). Wow, you’re so… rich.
(laughs). Thank you.
You are. It’s a pleasure to talk to you.
Thank you, Jane.
Yeah, there was a certain point where there was a big shift and I thought, I’m not going to smoke people out anymore. Times are speeding up. I want to say “you” as much as I can instead of the abstract and letting people enter it or not. It’s like, ok, if we’re going to be here together, it’s going to be 150% both. Or let’s not. I learned that partly when I was touring the salons. I often didn’t have a mic or anything, so I could move. It was like thirty people in a room and I could sense when people were drifting away, so I started chopping my songs up. I thought, “why do I need to sing the chorus over again?” I saw a bit of restlessness like, (singing) “love is everything… next song!” And it trained me in becoming so much more direct and not allowing energy to feel wasted ever. Like in speaking to you, I felt like I could hold people’s attention more. We’ve all got so much to do, we better make it count when we’re together.
I remember playing in Ottawa which is the capital of Canada, lots of government employees—a perfect place for what it’s supposed to be. Anyway, I left, and they were maybe a little bit drunk, but I felt so dissatisfied. A couple people said to me, “Oh, that was nice!” And it was like, no. I’m not going to do this again if it’s just “nice”. Nice isn’t life.
Nice is not life.
Yeah, no. Joy is life. But nice? You don’t need me. You can get that somewhere else. So I really understood in myself that I wouldn’t bother doing this if it was just pleasant. There’s got to be more to it somehow. I have that drive. So I guess that’s reflected in my music: I want people to talk to me the way I talk to people. I don’t really consider it music when I see people repeating themselves over and over again. To me, that’s not music. Music is more what you said: it’s constant roaming, roving, searching for new combinations of things that activate the life inside us.
Absolutely. Without counting chickens…
…I feel like we might see this practice of salon-style performance pop up more in a post-pandemic world. I think we’re hungry for this kind of connection.
I wanted to give space to return to your self-determined pricing. It was long before a band like Radiohead or a platform like Bandcamp adopted similar strategies. In terms of the nascent digital landscape at the time, what was the catalyst for that mode of commerce? How do you feel it’s evolved since others have embraced it? I don’t know if you’ve been following the Bandcamp Fridays for example…
Yeah, well that’s not pay-what-you-want, they just take a cut?
The pricing is ultimately determined by the artist. Many who are able to push whatever they make towards mutual aid or other organizations.
Yeah. (pauses). It’s sort like an old bazaar principle, from the bazaars of the Middle East—let no one walk away from your table. But it’s not in our culture right now, that’s like—“if people can’t afford it, they can’t have it!” Which doesn’t fit into other things I believe. I’m not a formal anything, but the parables in the Bible are so rich. Like when someone from the back of the crowd came forward and had no money and gave someone all their money, which was a penny—the value of it was way higher than the rich rabbis who offered something that wouldn’t hurt them to lose. It’s a different way of thinking.
I think our society is so sick. Every time I see a poster that says “let’s get back to normal”, I keep thinking I should make a t-shirt that reads: “normal” is fucked, let’s move forward.
You know what I mean?
Yes, I do.
Musicians and creative people have a whole different sense of what’s right. I really hope more people come forward following that. You can bet that the sharks are circling around what the music industry’s going to become, but for everyone to hold it steady… if it bugs your stomach, don’t do it. For years, I struggled with mentioning my CD on stage because it just broke what you’d work to create with the audience. It would just shatter in a second. You’d say “support me…” Support is wrong. All the words are wrong. Tips, donations…
“Tips” is the worst, that’s the terminology Spotify used when they began their COVID artist fundraising program, bad enough that their cut is so low. They called it a “tip jar”. You just want to kick it over, you know? (laughter).
Yeah, throw it right in their faces.
I feel what you’re saying about the reluctance to promote on-stage. At that point, your art becomes a commodity.
Speaking of that and of forward momentum, I wanted to talk about 2006. That year, you made the decision to sell off all your possessions and your home in Toronto, effectively decommodifying your life in favor of a nomadic lifestyle. The same year, you changed your performance name to Issa. Am I right to think that these changes were connected, and in retrospect, what was the impetus for having turned over this new leaf?
You’re so sweet. (pauses). Well, I thought I was dying. I felt heavy, too heavy to be alive. Possessions, accumulation, reputation. I felt limited and choking. So I had to take strong action. I would have never expected to do that, but… yeah, I wanted to put away the Jane Siberry thing. I thought it was too big, that there was no front door. People couldn’t find me. I really wanted to connect with younger kids because I felt I was writing songs I wish I had heard when I was younger. That felt like my path, that felt like my template for this life. Something was out of order and I had to break it down and start fresh.
I re-did all the artwork, I put it tightly away in a box. I asked the Ottawa Archives if they wanted all my documentation, lyrics, all that kind of stuff. They never got back to me, so I just pretty well burned it. Not the tapes—I kept all the vinyls and CDs for everything. Even afterwards I thought, how precious am I, thinking that they might like to see my handwritten lyrics. Wow. That doesn’t fit life.
What prompted the return to Jane?
I never expected to, I thought maybe I’d have the name of Issa and another name later. Anyway, one day I was walking with a friend in a small town in northern California on tour, and we were talking about how people couldn’t find me anymore. Something about the late-afternoon light on the wall as we walked beside it made me understand it was time to go back to Jane Siberry in a flash. There was no doubt. So I ended up using my name again. But not going backwards. I didn’t feel like I had put something to rest and then I could move forward, something entirely behind me. That’s how it happened, I don’t know if it was smart or whatever. Lots of people felt upset that I changed my name from Jane and wouldn’t call me Issa. (laughs). Really tells you something about someone, doesn’t it, that they won’t respect that kind of deep respect.
As someone who has gone through a creative name change myself, I can relate to the forward momentum.
Well, I recently just started using my own name with my music.
You used a group name, or…?
I was an electronic producer and I used a performance alias.
That’s cool! You’re experimenting. How did you feel with a different name? Did it free you up in some way?
Well, I started this project in college making beats. Initially it was an anonymous name and that changed once the music got around, which was very fast. As opportunities presented themselves I found myself getting increasingly wrapped up in the invented identity of the thing, that I was starting to lose myself as a person. I had to step away from it to learn to live life before deciding to return and conclude the project on my own terms. I self-released the last record and was in the process of planning what would be the last tour. Ultimately, I decided I didn’t want to stretch myself and assume the role anymore. So, I backed out, and then COVID hit New York about a month later…
I’m not surprised because musicians are so aware, even if you don’t know why, but it makes sense that your timing could reflect the greater somehow. It’s so important, we should be treating people like you or other musicians and say: wait a minute! Don’t put pressure on him to keep his name! Give him all the space and let him do exactly what feels right because he’s going to give us information by what he feels is right.
I was surprised in the music industry where they wouldn’t say “hmm… actually, your demo sounds like Top 40. Can you send me something really original that sounds like you.” It’s always the opposite. But you forsook that pressure and you did what you felt was right. That’s so good to hear.
That means a lot coming from you. I don’t know how we’re doing on time…
Cool, I don’t want to keep you for too long. Going backward again… when asked about collaboration, you’ve mentioned that you want whoever you work with to exaggerate their essence. Who comes to mind?
(pauses). Well, Ken Myhr, who played guitar with me. You couldn’t stop him from being who he was. That was part of why I wanted to work with him. A lot of singers are far from their essence I think, including me.
Why do you feel that way about yourself, out of curiosity?
I’ve got some notes missing on my vocal piano. They’re directly related to me as a person in life. I’m still less free than I’d like to be vocally, and I hear it in my voice and just have to let go of it and keep going. People don’t know how telling it is when you’re a musician how much it says about personal things you don’t want people to know about. Especially singers, in my opinion. Are you a singer?
I’ve sang before. I’m primarily doing production for others these days, but I’m trying to find my voice again between projects.
Yeah, what an adventure that is, isn’t it? It’s an amazing journey. And when you’re in the presence of someone who’s connected to their voice, it’s really—not that many people in white culture, anyway. You have to learn from people who are connected. Everyone’s teaching everybody, all these cultures going back and forth, it’s amazing.
On the subject of teaching, I know you spent a good part of 2020 hosting a handful of livestream meditations and conversations with antiracist activists on social media. How did you put together those talks and get these community-oriented endeavors off the ground?
Well, the meditations—I think I started it when there were all those fires burning in Australia. Myself and Rebecca Jenkins and Mary Margaret O’Hara were going to do a group meditation with anyone who wanted to send energy or hold energy, whatever the word is. That didn’t really work out with the other two, but I kept going by myself. When the pandemic started, I could feel how unnerved people were and how important meditation was. I had one every Sunday, and eventually I thought, “I think we should just do it every night, get it into ourselves.”
So I did a month of Sunday meditations. It was really good for me too, it was an anchor every day for a lot of people. Remembering that this actually is a blessing and something’s been really sick for a long time in all of us in what we call normal. I talked about how to keep the energy clear and speak in terms of vibrations—we can’t measure it yet because we’re more sophisticated than science, but we know the difference between a higher vibration, or sitting beside a pregnant woman whose vibration is naturally high. You think different thoughts, and you aren’t as interested in the lower vibrations such as smoking. When you’re low vibration and depressed, you can only think certain thoughts, you can’t feel pure joy.
So, it was really important I sort of put myself way out of my comfort zone to do it, but it felt good. At a certain point, I was so relieved about the Black issues coming forward, and then I felt it slip. I thought, do we have such a short attention span that we can’t talk? And yes we do, but I tried in my own way to keep it going every week so that people from all over could remind us of what was going on in different countries about racism because it was all coming to the surface like boils on
the back of the neck. It was really important. I was a little bit disappointed that the energy didn’t go on its own, so I stopped pushing when it felt right. But it’s underground.
I have a song, I wondered if you might like to hear it—it’s not quite finished, I’ve played it for enough people just to make sure that I’m not saying something that would unconsciously rattle people. It’s sort of about language—the microcosm is the bailout system in the U.S., but the macrocosm is the idea that we’re supposed to take care of our brothers and sisters. So if you want to hear it… I was going to release it, but I’ve shut my website down. Just when you wanted to do the interview (laughter), I shut everything down. I don’t think I want to be available 24/7.
Understandable. I would gladly be a set of ears whenever you are ready to share it.
OK, I would! I don’t know what it means or what it is, and I was planning to release it and it’s just sort of fallen to the wayside. So, yeah! No pressure. But it might be a good idea, I’m getting the feeling. Some mirror from you or whatever.
There isn’t a lot of oxygen for artists or people in general. Everyone’s doing with less oxygen than normal. To be clearer, I don’t feel oxygen coming towards my particular flame to make it grow. The solidarity stuff is not enough oxygen. Everybody’s got to think about what’s important to them. Are you going to continue producing?
I just finished a record. Actually, I wanted to ask you a rarity in your discography that sort of relates to it—it’s about A Day In The Life. I discovered this release shortly after we booked this interview. I was immediately drawn to its form, not only as a New Yorker but as someone who uses field recordings and collage strategies, particularly on this thing that I just finished. I would love to know how that was assembled, the collaborations documented, and your time in the city in general.
I don’t know, I kept thinking about these gems that would go together really well. One thing I couldn’t capture was a Jehovah’s Witness that kept coming to our apartment and ringing. We never let her up but we became quite fond of her. I only got one snippet of her. That kind of thing tickles me and that might have been part of the impetus. So I just started collecting, but we didn’t have phones then, and it wasn’t so easy to record things. We had to get little cassette players and stuff.
Did you record it on DAT?
Probably. But it was a collage thing, and to me, like you said, it’s a different kind of photograph. I find that kind of thing meaningful. A lot of people didn’t really get it, no reaction from it. But it’s got the “bottom line” guy that answered the phone all the time, he was so great. He had the deepest voice (imitates low voice) “Bottom line!” And Jim Bessman, who’s a well-known New York writer for Billboard, he’s on there. It just seemed to… I don’t know. I’m glad you enjoyed it!
I definitely did. It’s not quite a prototypical concrète piece, but it definitely feels cut from the same cloth in its use of quotidian found sounds. Seeing your signature linearity and forward motion in a more or less raw, non-musical state, I don’t know... I was just blown away that that release is something that exists.
Well, as you know, when you work on something for a while, you know when everything’s connected like a spiderweb. Even if someone heard it once, they won’t get the same enjoyment. It’s like a long song once you get to know it, it all makes sense. But all the parts, it’s like there’s a hidden magnet in it and the parts are attracted into it. And my mom’s message about the moon… it all feeds itself. It’s not random. You get to hear it as a long song, and other people who might give it another shot. It’s almost like a classical song structure, the way it builds and certain threads start repeating like choruses. You know how that is. Lots of people don’t get it, but you get it, and it’s trustworthy, isn’t it? And that’s when you stop working on it.
It took me a long time… it took using my name, actually, to get in touch with that trust.
I think so. I don’t know. I’m 28, I’m still developing…
Oh, so am I…
I mean, it never ends, right?
Oh, I hope not. That’s when you die, I suppose (laughter).
Shifting gears, I want to ask you about “Dancing Class”. I think it’s one of your most poetic tracks, certainly your most vivid. Using a dance class as a symbol to explore a confrontation of corporeality, a breaking of personal boundaries, borders as it were—especially during this period where we’re all in our own little bubbles—it gets me every time. Was this lifted from an actual dance class or personal experience?
Yes, I went to a workout class, and I realized that a year before that I had gone to one yoga class… (pauses). Yeah, you go back to the same thing like a uniform. You go back to the same thing and realize how you’ve grown if the thing is the same. So the thing that was the same was being in a physical class, dancing or whatever. It’s like a lot of unique singers, but you get them all to sing “In My Solitude” like a uniform, and then you actually know much more clearly how uniquely different they are. So yeah… and there’s always a guy.
(quietly) I might have been that guy. (loud laughter).
You’re way more sensitive.
I mean, I haven’t taken a dance class, but I definitely would have been the guy.
Oh, man… my favorite thing is when I see big bruisers… Cruisers? Bruisers? Big bruisers, you know... doing yoga (laughs). It’s so right! I love it. It just opens it right up. Many more sensitive guys as we should all be.
What were you thinking about in the final verse? The narrator finally finds themselves 200 years old… the passing of time…
Can you remind me of the words?
This is the last dancing class you’ll have / the announcement came tonight after the class / she said, “you’re 200 years old now / there’s no one left to hold you / this is the last dancing class you’ll have, girls”.
Oh, yeah. (pauses). Yeah, it sounds like I picked that up from hearing old people speak. All your friends are gone. Maybe that last little bit, how that must feel.
One more question—in gathering all the material for this, I found an interview shortly before your name change where you were asked to share a personal motto. You said that you make all decisions based on faith and not fear. Just to close, can you riff on that?
That decision came when I became aware of how many decisions we make based on fear, fear of losing something. We’re not really being ourselves… (pauses). I don’t believe fear and faith can exist at the same time. It can’t. You’re either fearful or faithful, you can’t be a blend, it’s on or off like computer data. It’s not the way I am, but it’s a goal—if I can catch myself—to make decisions based on faith. I notice what I say to people is based on a fear that I won’t get what I want. But if I catch myself, then I find a rule that I mostly adhere to that I have to do it. Like if I’m afraid to go to a party because I feel shy, then I have to go because I usually have a great time. Or I’ll start speaking faster because I’m afraid someone’s getting bored, instead of being… that’s not a good reason to speak faster and say more than you want to say. So I try to guide myself into being… I think that’s what people actually call being authentic.
When we’re being authentic, we’re like the noble elements in the periodic table. Over on the right side are the noble elements, and they have a full plate of electrons in their outer shell, so they’re the kind of people who can sit at breakfast and be comfortable alone. And then on the other end are the ones that are really needy and say things they don’t mean to say, they’re not themselves. So the noble elements are like authentic people. Have you ever taken authentic movement?
No. What’s that?
Like, where you don’t move until it comes from within? It’s such an interesting concept, because if you stop yourself from moving and wait for the impulse to move, it’s… so interesting. Like the people who you wait to hear what they’re going to say because it’s pithy. Someone who operates on faith—everything’s fine, you’ll take whatever, everything’s interesting—I think that’s one of the keys to a good life and more joy, more lined up with your template, your potential. I don’t want to be afraid all the time, and I used to be very, very afraid. I’m very different now.
Thank you for sharing that, Jane. Is there anything else you want to speak about, or are you happy to close it off here?
No, but I’m really glad to connect with you. I really, really care about people growing up and doing the bigger growing up in this day and age, and you’re 28, so… I just really feel for you because it’s an amazing world and it’s a heavy time to be growing up with all this shit coming from humans in this amazing world. Like, it must be—you must have felt or feel like things are insane! Because there’s so much that’s not connected to common sense. And what I mean by common sense is… things that should follow natural law, like gravity. It must seem insane. But I’m so glad to hear such brightness that you have. I hope that you stick to your guns. Because I think musicians and creative people are so important, but most people haven’t really thought it through, and are still responding to commercial-speak and all that kind of stuff. I think it’s important to be stubborn and just guided by your gut. Who else is going to be guided by their gut more than creative people? I mean, we’re the hope, in a way, as part of a huge organism to keep changing and growing and trying different combinations, with the slant being towards greater joy for everything on the earth. I’m very pleased to talk to you.
I hope you stick to your guns too, Jane, and I hope you stay stubborn as hell.
Stay stubborn as hell! That’s good.
Thank you so much for your time.
Feel free to stay in touch. I’ll send you that song!
And I’ll send you that record.
Cheers, Jane. Have a lovely day.
Jane Siberry’s music can be purchased at Bandcamp.
Thank you for reading the fifty-fifth issue of Tone Glow. Stay stubborn as hell.
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