Adelaide is a charming but sleepy little town in South Australia. It's a place I might never have visited, had I not been flown there to speak at the 2007 Adelaide Cabaret Festival. Performers from all over the world convened there for three weeks in the best panorama of cabaret I've ever seen. It took an Australian woman - the festival's then-curator, Julia Holt - to restore cabaret to the wacky, unpredictable splendor it had once known in places like New York and San Francisco.
No one but Julia would have thought of Jane Siberry, the Canadian pop-folk singer, songwriter, and poet, as cabaret. But posters on the Festival Centre walls touted three upcoming performances by "Issa," a name she had then adopted. I'd lost track of Siberry since the mid-'90s, when she made her biggest-selling album, When I Was a Boy, for Warner/Reprise. Many were touched by her song "Calling All Angels," a lost soul's plea for guidance from above; she sang it with k.d. lang on the soundtrack of Wim Wenders's remarkable film, Until the End of the World; it's since been heard on the Canadian TV series Supernatural. "Love Is Everything" became another of her trademarks.
For a long time, however, Siberry seemed lost indeed. Early on she sported an edgy, post-punk guise, visually similar to early lang. The video for Siberry's "Mimi on the Beach" showed her with a permed, choppy New Wave hairdo, writhing in a pink bathing suit. Her music seemed caught in a no-man's land between Debbie Harry and Joni Mitchell. Siberry must have felt crushing pressures as a major-label artist, because in 1998 she severed every tie with the industry - even dismissing her manager and agents - and set out to find her true self, alone. The year before she reached Adelaide, she sold her Toronto house and nearly all her possessions.
Today, Siberry is a wandering minstrel whose home is the road. She travels with two bags, a laptop, a guitar, and often with Tim Ray, her gifted pianist from Boston. Survival is a constant challenge. But Siberry has almost reached the end of her latest sprawling tour; she'll return to Joe's Pub, her New York headquarters, on December 11 and 12. I'll be there, for what I saw in Adelaide - and later in other places - was captivating. The artist then known as Issa (according to her Wikipedia bio, she's now changed it back) was a quirky vision in antique clothing, elbow-length gloves, and a chapeau. Her Mona Lisa smile and stoic air seemed at interesting odds with her voice; in this stark setting, it sounded childlike and fragile.
The theme of "Calling All Angels" pervaded her show. Without a hint of self-pity, she sang of her resolve to hold on - to place herself in the hands of a higher power and move ahead, staying hopeful no matter what. Her song "Walk on Water" equates the finding of love with a Biblical miracle. In "Mama Hereby," she speaks to her mother of their warring relationship and poses a truce: "Can we hereby agree/With love and dignity/From now on my life is mine, and you are free." A line of poetry that she uttered between songs still haunts me: "What does it take to feel safe, children ... Tell us."
After the show I ran to the lobby to buy her CDs. There on a table was an unmanned box with a slot for money; "YOU DECIDE" was printed above it. Several years ago, before Radiohead and Trent Reznor of Nine Inch Nails followed suit, Siberry pioneered the policy of self-determined pricing for her CDs and downloads. "It's a transaction between two parties, based on respect," she explains. "And I believe that balance is always achieved." She's so determined to strip music-making of its mercenary aspects that she's even pondered leaving her songs unpublished, so that no corporation can dictate the rules or the cost of their use. At a time when more and more artists, by necessity or choice, are going it alone, Siberry is a beacon of independence.
Photo by Jason George
Recently she issued two new albums, Dragon Dreams and With What Shall I Keep Warm?, on her own label, Sheeba. Both have their moments, but they can't approach the magic of seeing her live. I hope someday that this she'll release a CD of one of her live shows, unfettered by added production. She is an avowed minimalist, after all.
But at 54, she's hardly a soul at peace, judging by a message she sent this year to the people on her e-mailing list:
why do i feel like I should get a real job?
why would a 'real' job make me feel more part of humanity?
I am creating things that are the best I can do from the best of me.
but so what.
IS it just vanity? ...
She asked her fans to tell her "why ART may be more than a weakly-justified make-work project for people who can't get a real job."
So many people rushed to assure her of what she meant to them that her doubts, apparently, were eased. On she goes from town to town, showing independent spirits everywhere that we really do stand a chance.