Jane Siberry

Lightness of being

Jane Siberry is ushering in a new phase, in her life and in her music.

By Naila Francis

It’s been a time of transition for Jane Siberry. A time of stripping away all that has become burdensome or tedious, of chipping away at a life defined too often by the exterior and the accumulated, and returning to the core of what’s essential.

And for the enigmatic Canadian singer-songwriter — who scored her breakthrough with 1993’s luminous and profound “When I Was A Boy,” featuring the k.d. lang duet “Calling All Angels” — that does not necessarily mean her music.

Siberry, who performs Friday at Sellersville Theater 1894 before a Saturday appearance at Carnegie Hall, is in pursuit of a lightness of being. And that pertains as much to the realm of her physical world as it does to her spirit and the ways she is choosing to nurture it.

Over the last few months, the pop-art chanteuse has with quiet determination rid herself of just about all of her worldly possessions — her house, jewelry, books, clothing, even her instruments and music, including boxes of master tapes and hours of raw concert footage — all gone primarily through a house content sale held in Toronto and an online auction.

These days, home is quite literally where her art is, as she has embarked on a tour, small suitcase in tow, which will take her on select dates in the U.S., Canada and Europe. It may seem a drastic decision, this liberation from all that roots her to a specific place and a certain way of life, but for Siberry, who turned 50 last fall, it’s a simplification that feels right and somehow filled with possibility.

It all began, says the artist, while speaking from a Laundromat in Newfoundland, with “a slow building frustration with not being able to get on top of things, things dragging me down, possession, responsibilities … I can’t seem to get on top of feeling lighter and the times when I’m really doing what I feel I should be doing, which is either being totally present in a Laundromat or immersed in music, are too rare, especially the latter.”

Bogged down by the business of running her own label, SHEEBA Records, which she started in 1996 after leaving Warner/Reprise, Siberry realized that the driving force behind branching out on her own — the desire for creative freedom — had no space to flourish with all of her day-to-day administrative duties, particularly the mail-order end of ensuring that her products, which included books, DVDs and clothing in addition to more than a dozen CDs, were getting to her fans. So she switched from a physical inventory of CDs and other merchandise to an all-electronic store, Log Cabin, offering downloadable MP3s, last March.

But her latest effort to downscale follows a perhaps even bolder move last November, when she transformed that store into a system for what she dubs “self-determined transactions.” Here, fans can download her music and CD artwork — with no set pricing. In a letter on her site, Siberry is specific about what this system is not: donations, pay-what-you-can, guilt trips or tests of fans’ integrity.

Instead, customers can get her music for free, an option called “gift from Jane”; immediately pay an amount they think is fair or the going rate of about 99 cents Canadian per song; or download the music and pay later, once they’ve had a chance to listen to it and can make what she sees as an educated decision about its worth. Rather than worry about the financially precarious nature of such a risk, Siberry is simply inviting others to live from a place of feeling — to go with their gut’s truth — and to, in a sense, pay it forward.

“I often pay more or buy a few CDs just to support the band when I go to shows anyway, so I’m just opening up my store to others that work that way,” says Siberry. “Also, the policing aspect of how we live, locking doors, you write a check and draw a line so people can’t add extra numbers, all those things we do that we don’t even think about, it’s all upsetting me and I’m just trying to remove all that from how I live and treat others the way I want to be treated.

“I don’t care if it works or not. It’s a respectful gesture. I just trust people’s sense of balance. It may mean that they talk to an old lady down the street longer. It doesn’t have to come back to me. There’s no guilt trip, so the energy’s positive. That can’t help to have good fruits.”

Her music is also going out to a lot more people, and for Siberry, that’s a gift that can’t be measured in dollars. For the artist whose career has been marked by daring reinvention and constant exploration — her catalog spans pop, jazz, electronica, experimental sound collages incorporating everyday noises, interpretations of classical Christmas music, as well as traditional hymns and spirituals and spare acoustic numbers — these changes herald a new phase in her life.

“I feel like I’m just beginning and inching my way to truly being a musician,” she says. “It feels like I’m just starting something.”

Since the release of her Canadian label debut, “No Borders Here,” in 1984, the fiercely individualistic Siberry has been revered by critics and fans alike for this adventuresome spirit — and for her unfailing artistic integrity and the fearlessness with which she delves into the mysteries of the human condition, her degree in microbiology allowing her to meld a scientific curiosity and detail-oriented precision with a bold creativity.

She admits that this uncharted territory may not yield the results that she hopes for — making more music — though there already are songs in her head.

“In letting go of everything, that includes letting go of wanting to do a record,” she says. “I don’t know what my next body of work will be. Maybe it may be a 40-minute single song. I also know that I hear different music in my head than I’ve ever heard in my head before, and it’s more appropriate to these times, more of what we need with our higher consciousness.

“Music is supposed to fill something. It’s a food, it’s a nourishment, so it has to fit with what your body wants, and I want to align every footstep with the greater good if I can.”

– The Intelligencer