Creative collaboration can be a wonderful thing wherein one plus one often equals more than the sum of its parts. The eclectic and multi-talented Jane Siberry, veteran pop chanteuse and touring world traveler, has mastered the art of creative collaboration. For this, her lucky thirteenth album, she has collected 15 rarities from other recordings that cover a wide musical spectrum of collaborators, countries, styles, instruments and projects.
The results are an intriguing and demanding listen, with a breadth of range that only adds to an already impressive career. If you are somehow unfamiliar with Siberry, she has a pleasantly calming voice (that can be haunting and atmospheric in the best of ways) and writes songs on piano and guitar that vary in style from folk with slight country leanings to ethereal new age anthems to less structured jazz free-for-alls. With Siberry, expect the unexpected.
City is further proof that Siberry is comfortable challenging her audience (her desire to challenge herself beyond the limits of a major record label led her to start her own company Sheeba in 1996). The diverse selection presented here shouldn’t be a problem for hard-core devotees. There’s a lot to like in this unique assortment, but only if you maintain an open and adventurous approach to your music.
In some 20-plus years, Siberry’s own professional career has crossed paths with countless others. Included in this new CD is a good sampling of her distinctive music from the past decade, with collaborators as diverse as Joe Jackson, French composer Hector Zazou, classical Welsh violinist Nigel Kennedy, the Klezmatics’ own Frank London, Scottish bagpiper Michael Grey, Japanese composer Takafumi Sotoma, ambient master Morgan Fisher, the British band Ghostland and even Barney, the purple dinosaur.
City‘s unusual selections never remain the same from one cut to the next. The one thread that connects these mostly slower tempo selections is that familiar Siberry voice and its range of spiritual context, from child-like innocence to the anguish of adult heartbreak and the difficulties of living in this world.
“Harmonix/I Went Down to the River” is one of two songs recorded in sessions with various musicians at Peter Gabriel’s “Collaboration Week”, wherein different combinations of musicians worked together each day to create new music. It builds with interesting noises and percussions to a dance/world beat, and features a variety of vocalizations as well, from spoken words to chanting and intriguing musical repetitions, giving us a variant of the Siberry we heard on When I Was A Boy.
The way Siberry’s voice and music cover a wide expanse of moods and emotional terrain makes her songs a natural for film, where images blend easily with music to enhance a soundtrack. Many Siberry songs have been chosen for films, and some notable ones are collected here. The sweet haunting dirge of “Slow Tango” was used by Wim Wenders to lend feminine energy to his Faraway, So Close, while the Graeme Revell collaboration “It Can’t Rain All the Time” (from The Crow) seems propelled by a heartbeat, as it strives toward finding its optimistic chorus. Siberry claims to have felt the presence of the deceased actor Brandon Lee as the song’s words were chosen to go along with the rough cut of the film.
In some ways, that song recalls Siberry’s “Calling All Angels” which first appeared in a Wim Wenders film (then on an album) and later was re-recorded for the movie Pay It Forward. That newest film version appears on this collection, as a good luck charm (for the song’s tenth anniversary) and also as the first single.
Toronto-native Jane Siberry began her career in the early 1980s as a guitar and piano folk artist in coffeehouses and clubs, where she established herself as a gifted singer and composer. While earning a microbiology degree at The University of Guelph, Ontario, she survived by waiting tables (in fact, one of her songs contends if she wasn’t such a good waitress, she would have been famous faster). With tip money and bartered studio time, she managed to finance her first professional effort, a self titled debut (in 1981) that led to signing with a small Canadian label that later joined forces with A&M/Windham Hill to release No Borders Here in 1983, and its hit single “Mimi on the Beach”.
Her 1985 effort The Speckless Sky earned gold record status in Canada and garnered two People’s Choice Awards for Album of the Year and Producer of the Year. The track “One More Colour” was used by director Atom Egoyan in his film The Sweet Hereafter. The awards led to being signed to Warner/Reprise and 1987’s release of the hauntingly beautiful The Walking, followed by a successful tour of Europe, Japan and Australia.
1989’s Bound By The Beauty was a more accessible effort, with Siberry returning to acoustic simplicity and a wry sense of humor. This album attracted the attention of producer/ambient music trailblazer/common crossword clue answer Brian Eno, who offered to produce Siberry’s next effort. That album, 1993’s When I Was a Boy was a commercial breakthrough for Siberry, including such memorable hits as “Sail Across the Water”, “Love Is Everything”, “Temple”, and the duet with k.d. lang that would become her calling card: “Calling All Angels”.
While Eno gave Siberry’s music haunting breadth and introspective spiritual space, Siberry refused to remain in any safe musical corner. 1995 saw the release of her jazz-inspired Maria, wherein she continued to explore new musical territory, perhaps to the frustration of some fans and record executives both.
Realizing then that no major label could afford her the musical freedom and diversity she craved as an artist, Siberry left Warner/Reprise to launch her own independent Sheeba Records. Since 1996, there have been seven recordings released by the new label, many of them idiosyncratic collections like 1996’s Teenager, comprised solely of songs Siberry wrote in her teen years, or the recent Hush, which features traditional American and Celtic spirituals and lullabies given new voice and meaning through Siberry’s unique styling.
Other Sheeba releases include The New York Trilogy a four-disc compilation of a series of themed concerts at New York City’s Bottom Line in 1996, including Tree: Music For Films and Forests, Lips: Music for Saying It and Child: Music for the Christmas Season. In 1997, Siberry created a 29-minute sound collage about a day in New York City called A Day in the Life, a mixture of voice-mail messages, cab rides, moments from yoga class and excerpts of life in the studio with the likes of Joe Jackson, K.D. Lang, Darol Anger and Patty Larkin.
With City, she shows a range that goes far beyond the pale. You get “The Bridge”, a Joe Jackson composition covering the deadly sin of envy, the Hannukah song “Shir Ammami”, the Gaelic “Nut Brown Maid”, the pretty ode of “She’s Like the Swallow” and a tribute to Laura Nyro (combining “And When I Die” with “Stoned Soul Picnic” into one medley) all in one place. Oh, and I almost forgot the song from the Barney movie (don’t worry—they edited out the little kids’ voices from the mix)—that one’s there too, along with a spoken poem that clocks in at 1:20, included originally as part of a Morgan Fisher collection of one-minute views from artists on the new millennium.
The poetry of Siberry is evident in her collaboration with concert violinist Nigel Kennedy. “Innig” is a poignant tale of reflection translated through the filter of music. “Spade and Sparrow”, created with Takafumi Sotoma, is a “memory” piece which floats easily in the ears like a pleasant thought of the past. This is music of space and beauty, and if you have patience, it rewards you.
Siberry called this one City because of the way these musicians rose around her like strong office towers. “The singers, songwriters and producers are beautiful people that came into my life and together we have created a particular city, a unique flavor the way an actual city pulses and sways with its own majestic rhythm”, she explains.
Sheeba is more than just the music. The website distributes “all things Siberry”, including her books (three of them actually) and videos. The always innovative Siberry currently is planning her own talk show and clothing line, among other things, while touring to raise money enough for her next Sheeba release.
In the meantime, Rhino Records is readying a two-disc anthology of Siberry’s 1988-1996 recordings for Warner/Reprise, due out in Spring 2002. She knows it has been five years since her last album of original material and as someone who “writes all the time”, Siberry is eager to do another record soon.
Whatever she chooses to do next, one can’t predict. However, it’s a safe bet it will be worth one’s while. City is proof positive of Siberry’s wide range as one who takes chances, challenging herself and her listeners alike. It may not always be easy to remain in her corner, and you might prefer one of her musical styles to another, but her growth as an artist demands respect and there is no denying her enduring musical talent. One visit to her City and you’ll hear what I mean.
We all know how critical it is to keep independent voices alive and strong on the Internet. Please consider a donation to support our work as independent cultural critics and historians. Your donation will help PopMatters stay viable through these changing and challenging times where costs have risen and advertising has dropped precipitously. We need your help to keep PopMatters strong and growing. Thank you.