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Jane Siberry: When I Was A Boy

Interview | Artist
Published April 1994

Jane Siberry's unique‑sounding music has attracted collaboration from musicians such as Brian Eno and fellow Canadian Michael Brook. But she's still in control, as MARK PRENDERGAST discovers...

Listening to Toronto‑born Jane Siberry is quite unlike listening to anybody else. Her voice comes in like a whisper, then curls itself up the register to a plateau that would even make Liz Cocteau shiver. Jane also plays guitar, keyboards, synthesizers, computer keys and is a fine producer and mixer. Her sixth and latest Reprise album, When I was a Boy, features the talents of both Brian Eno and fellow Canadian Michael Brook, in addition to session regulars like Robert Ahwai (guitars) and James Pinker (drums/percussion). All of the album's 11 tracks convey a sense of compassion and a wistful exploration of the themes of love and human bonding, and there's a beautiful duet entitled 'Calling All Angels' with country songstress k.d. Lang. The overall sound is best described as spatial, with Jane using both acoustic and electronic instruments to underline her emotional lyrics.

What's striking about Jane is her almost complete control over her work. In an industry which still matches female vocalists to male songwriters and puts them on the road with a backing band, Siberry opts instead to call all the shots. Live she opens her set by talking to the audience. She raps, jokes, recites poetry, shows her own videos and confronts the audience in a way reminiscent of contemporary American stand‑up comedy. Yet this is living, breathing rock music which borrows freely from folk, house and world styles.

I asked Jane what drove her to become a professional musician.

"I've always written music, always heard it in my head. I would improvise when I was young and I always wrote poetry. I always captured things in words, but I didn't put the music and words together until I was 17 when I started to play the coffee houses in Toronto in the late '70s and early '80s."

Because of Jane's unique performance style, I was keen to discover her influences. Her current style is a kind of electronic folk music but with synths, treatments and lots of atmosphere. It seems far removed from the coffee house scene.

"I listened to eccentric things like The Women Folk from San Francisco. I knew all their songs and their harmonies. I also liked Herb Alpert's Tijuana Brass Whipped Cream & Other Delights. When I like something I want to capture it. It's not art, it's a power struggle — when something captures me, I want to capture it back. I was particularly intent on capturing things on record. I would work, save my money and then record on an 8‑track machine. I assumed that nobody would be interested because it wasn't what you heard on the radio, so I released a record independently. I was going to do the same with The Speckless Sky, but I had a good following in Toronto and there was interest from record companies — so I signed."

Your new record took two years to produce and involved both Brian Eno and Michael Brook. Can you describe the process?

"I started by getting a band together to rehearse the music, but after the first day I felt it was wrong, so I decided to work on the framework of the songs myself and then bring people in later. Brian Eno contacted Warner Brothers about the last record, Bound By The Beauty, saying he really liked it and that it should have had more support. So he entered the picture."

Brian Eno seems to have the knack of getting a lot out of the person he works with rather than adding his own obvious influence. How does this work?

"I can't say what he added other than he added myself in a bigger way. He is very curious in that he can stay very centred in the midst of a great volume of activity. He took a perverted delight in being brought into my record to make me more accessible. I think he thought that was very funny."

Michael Brook has worked a lot in ethnic music and there's an ethnic side to your music which is very interesting.

"Well, I would call it organic. Ethnic things are of the earth, and they're around everybody, whether they are living in Africa or wherever. The river makes the same sound in Canada as it does in Lake Victoria. I met Michael at Peter Gabriel's recording week and he offered to produce the single 'Love is Everything'. He added a very beautiful quality to it and it turned out much better than the version I did. I played Hammond organ and stuff in a very simple way and James Pinker did some great drums. I also met the guitarist Robert Ahwai through Brian and he was fantastic, especially when he was playing the Stick bass."

In The Studio

How do you work when you're building up your tracks in the studio?

"People get frustrated with me because I've got the stuff in my head and they don't know what I'm getting at until it's mixed. 'An Angel Stepped Down' was all put together in pieces — but I knew what I was doing. 'The Vigil (the sea)' was written in one pass and amazingly enough I had my computer on at the time.

"I do a lot of sequencing at home. My main setup is a Mica 16‑channel board, a DX7 with my own sounds, one Akai S900 sampler and an ADAT 8‑track. I have a Macintosh running MOTU's Performer, and I also use the Mac for editing film and sound scoring direct onto hard disk. I put my own sounds into the DX, but Brian can manipulate them — that's his strength."

How did you work with the additional musicians who played on the album?

"I went up to Vancouver with an engineer and guitarist, Ken Myhr. I took Ken out partly for the guitar and partly because he and the engineer were going to look after the sampling side of things. We laid down all the basic sequences and then sampled live drums to replace the original sounds. Then the guitars were added, then pianos and other things. I went back to Toronto and worked on the vocals — I did my vocals quite a few times.

"It takes me a long time to find the right approach to a song if I haven't sung it live. And often I'm finishing the words at the same time, so I can't stop editing as I'm singing. My songs have a lot of lyrics; rap music almost matches me for the volume of lyrics on a record and I'm always having to fight for enough cards in a cassette case!"

"I would work, save my money and then record on an 8‑track machine. I assumed that nobody would be interested because it wasn't what you heard on the radio, so I released a record independently."



"When I write, I can't remember what I've done, so I just put the tape recorder on, open my mouth and play what I'm feeling. Later I'll listen to it two or three times, and if I feel love when I hear anything, I'll take those bits and put them all on one tape. So I end up with one tape of favourite cuts. I took those bits on tape and put them over a groove. I kicked everyone out of the studio for two days while I worked. And it was a tricky song to sequence. After working on it with Eno, I stripped off a lot of the sampled drums and replaced them with loops."


"This was from a 20‑minute improvisation I did with Ken Myhr and Erdyl Kizilcay in Switzerland in 1991. We were a bit high that night so we had to redo the guitar and vocals — and I discovered on that tour that I couldn't dance to my tapes! So I wanted to make sure this record felt good. I really liked the push and pull rhythms of John Bonham on 'When The Levee Breaks' which were re‑done for Temple. The 'Mmmm gimme' was done as a loop. My original mixes were really shocking, they were so loud."