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Music: Unconventional Wisdom

Jane Siberry's unique approach extends to her music, record label and, well, everything

By Gregory Gaston · March 1st, 2006 · Music
  With her own label, Sheeba, Jane Siberry asks fans to pay
Jason George

With her own label, Sheeba, Jane Siberry asks fans to pay "what feels right."

When you think of mavericks and iconoclast artists, a self-effacing, soft-spoken songstress from Canada might not be the first one who pops to mind. Yet in her quiet way, Jane Siberry has been defying expectations as well as molding and reshaping her eclectic musical vision for years.

Probably best known for her stirring soundtrack contributions to movies as diverse as Pay It Forward, Until the End of the World and The Crow, Siberry has been releasing records since the early '80s when she started in Toronto. Anything but a traditional singer/songwriter, she began with vague folky leanings and tapped into the same well of poetic lyricism as another, more celebrated Canadian artist, Joni Mitchell. But that was a long time ago, and she has shed many skins since then.

Her acclaimed 1993 release, When I Was a Boy, put her on the map and gave her a higher profile with the transcendently gorgeous "Calling All Angels," a self-penned song duet with k.d. lang. If you've heard it, you can instantly recognize the haunting, otherworldly grace that has characterized Siberry's best moments on disc. Film directors such as Wim Wenders have relied on her music for a kind of emotional shorthand in certain dramatic movie moments. She has also collaborated with Brian Eno and Peter Gabriel, for starters.

After shuttling between record labels such as A&M and Warner/Reprise for much of her career with moderate success, she decided to start anew in 1996. She wanted to control her music and destiny, so Sheeba Records, Siberry's Internet-based label, was born.

Since then, she has put out several exclusive CDs, ranging from 1999's Child: Music for the Christmas Season, in which she blends classic hymns with some originals, and her latest from 2003, Shushan the Palace, which offers her ethereal renditions of Classical compositions by J. S. Bach, Handel and others.

"My traditional records are just chosen from my longtime favorite songs," Siberry says from her home base in New York City. "But I have lots of music left in me; I'm just waiting for it to arrive."

Though many artists have similarly seized control of their careers, few have sketched out such a unique niche.

"I take some of my best ideas from my fans on my Web site," Siberry says of her Net approach. "It has become a communal thing." That's an understatement, to say the least. For the last five years, she has adopted a one-of-a-kind approach to selling her new material. She calls it a "self-determined transaction," which means that anyone can download her work, songs or CDs and pay whatever they figure to be fair.

In an open letter to her fans on the site, she writes, "You decide what feels right to your gut. If you download for free, perhaps you'll buy an extra CD at an indie band's concert. I am making a choice to work this way and take full responsibility for whatever it may bring to me. You make your own decision and stand by it too."

In this era of music file-sharing lawsuits by labels and bands, it's hard to believe such sentiment still exists. Her generosity withstanding, this is how she has decided to live her life. "I want to be treated the way I'd like to be treated." Familiar words, but they usually ring hollow when spoken by so many others in our glib world today. Siberry means exactly what she says; check out her site if you're unsure.

A few major changes will happen in Siberry's world during 2006. For years, she has shuttled between coasts and countries. "I have lived in (New York) for a few years but have also been moving back and forth between Vancouver and Toronto for the last five," she says. "Canada feels younger to me than America, and I like that. But I also like the sense of community between artists in New York."

However, she recently decided to sell her New York home and adopt a nomadic lifestyle. "I feel a huge release since I made this decision," Siberry says. "I sold my house a few days ago, and I'm ready to start a new life. I don't need much money, because I've stripped things down to what's basic."

In conversation, her voice pulses with a tentative confidence. In taking these risks, Siberry believes the universe will align itself behind her choices. And if you listen, you can hear that implicit faith in her music. From her angelic voice to the dream-soaked arrangements of pieces like "Love is Everything," she is ready for the next stage -- whatever it might be.

This life change takes on even greater significance for her in the context of 9/11 and what has transpired in America since then.

"I put my own authenticity before God," she declares. "But it's time for drastic measures. We shouldn't be intimidated by bullies like Bush anymore. I dreamed I was looking at the earth from a long way away. I saw it enveloped in a white cloud and thought the worst. But now I see that as just the culmination of people's impatience with the way things are now. It's all connected."

Just for good measure, in case these other life changes aren't revelatory enough, Siberry potentially has another on the horizon.

"I will change my name soon -- I'm just waiting for the spring equinox," she says. So for the time being, keep your eyes posted for all things Siberry -- until that too changes with the seasons.

JANE SIBERRY plays a solo set at Jack Quinn's Emerald Ballroom on Saturday.


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