Viking heart

Canadian singer-songwriter-instrumentalist Jane Siberry is forced to bump our interview back by a half hour because her plane is delayed. She's arrived late in her Nashville hotel room when I call, and has another telephone interview scheduled. Might we talk 30 minutes later to give the other journalist a chance?

No problem, Jane. Those of us who've followed her 14-year musical career--starting with the Windham Hill imprint Open Air Records in the early 80s, through four albums on Warner/Reprise and now onto the debut release, Teenager, on her own new label, Sheeba--would walk barefoot across a floor covered with scorpions for the chance to chat.

Luckily, no such test of faith is necessary: Siberry is on the phone when she said she would be, obviously exhausted and with what sounds like a slight cold, but unpretentiously poetic and fiercely intelligent--characteristics that have kept her music grounded through a series of mercurial stylistic flirtations. Her chameleon changes of sound never feel frivolous--she always keeps us wondering what she's going to do next, but we're utterly confident that no matter where her muse takes her, she'll deliver the musical goods.

"I don't make music to be flattered, or for noble artistic reasons," Siberry insists in her breathy, melodious voice. "Every song I write and record is because something has captured me. My fighting to get free of it is on the records. My songs are a power struggle: An idea has consumed me, and I resist it. That's the creative urge in everybody, the dialectic."

The dialectic between beauty and disintegration, love and anxiety pulses through the entire recorded canon of the 40-year-old Siberry. Starting with her first internationally distributed album, 1984's No Borders Here, Siberry proved herself a diarist of tiny moments writ with ambivalent--but blood-red--accuracy. (Her first collection of songs was released later. Siberry--who holds a bachelor's degree in microbiology--financed it through a full-time waitressing job.) In the electronic drum-laden "I Muse Aloud," she pledged her undying faith despite evidence of faithlessness ("I fill my baby up with so much love/He falls in love with all the girls"); with "The Waitress," she documented her own fear that with waiting tables, the means would become the end ("I'd probably be famous now/If I wasn't such a good waitress").

With the albums that followed, Siberry would assert increasing control--she always wrote all her own tunes, but her role as producer, keyboardist, and acoustic and electric guitarist took the fore. So did her restless imagination, which transformed tight little synth-pop ditties into 10- and 20-minute suites of yearning and lamentation.

There are minor miracles in the music of Jane Siberry. The first is that these operatic forays rarely sound self-indulgent, thanks to the triple threat of her amazing voice, which marries the hopeful whispers of a precocious child with the torchy wail of a woman screwed-over; her lyrical descriptions, which employ self-conscious romantic fantasy, self-deprecating humor, and a scientist's eye for physical detail; and most important of all, her apparently bottomless well of intricate, maddeningly memorable melodies. Her 1988 masterpiece The Walking, now unfortunately out of print, showcased a variety of extended meditations on searching using an evocative guitar-keyboard-layered vocal recipe that treated each piece like its own symphonic movement.

"Some songs are assembled from pieces of different songs," she says of her complex structures, "and others are recorded straight through in one take. I cut a nine-minute song called 'The Vigil' (from 1993's When I Was a Boy), then turned around and, to my surprise, my computer had been on the whole time. I was able to sequence the original demo, insert the sounds and voices I wanted right there."

The second miracle of Siberry's music is that she was able to convince a mammoth international label like Warner/Reprise to finance her elaborate musical visions on her own terms. It's not like her songs are difficult and uncommercial, manna for cultists--listen just once to "Love Is Everything" from When I Was a Boy or the jaunty, folksy title track from 1990's Bound By the Beauty, and chances are you'll be humming them to yourself for days. It's just that they're so damned eccentric, such an intimate collage of memorable harmonies, choruses, bridges, and instrumental interludes, all shaped in styles from tight, acoustic honky tonk-ish swing (Bound By the Beauty) to meandering cocktail-lounge jazz (1995's Maria).

When told that her melodies are more maddeningly diverse than those of most other contemporary artists, she demurs. "There's a definite shape to the music that I love, and there's a shape to music that makes me physically ill," she claims. "The key is to take the music and trace an outline of yourself with it. Of course, we all have many shapes, and that's what I've tried to trace with my songs--all my different moods."