Viking heart

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Warner/Reprise was indulgent of Siberry's different moods up until the release of Maria. Like previous collections, the album contained a mixture of catchy, disciplined tunes (the bashful but teasing "Honey Bee," the big-band strut of "Loving Cup") and a series of free-form riffs with tinkling piano accompaniment and insinuating horn charts. Even a Siberry acolyte must admit that the album's 20-minute finale, "Oh My, My," is a bit of an endurance test. Into a shimmering ether of synths she improvises between the melodies of "Mary Had a Little Lamb" and "Puff The Magic Dragon." Oh my, my, indeed. Warner/Reprise wanted to bring in an outside producer for her next project; Siberry called their bluff.

"I've worked with other producers before, like Brian Eno," Siberry says. "But it all comes down to whether they'll let you be honest, say what you want to say. Nobody learns anything if you can't share your vision of the world.

"I had recorded four albums out of a contract for eight. Warner Brothers was no longer right for me. I wasn't selling records, so I was draining them financially; they were draining me of energy. I pulled out, and went into a long process of 'renegotiation,' which is what artists say when they have to camp out in the offices in protest to get their way."

Siberry's Toronto-based label Sheeba was born on May 17, 1996, in the midst of disentangling herself from her major-label commitment and studying the business possibilities of the Internet. She began Sheeba as a direct-mail distributor of her own recordings (the homepage address is www.SHEEBA.ca, the e-mail address, [email protected]), AND HAS SINCE BRANCHED INTO AN INTERNATIONAL PROMOTIONS SERVICE WITH 12 EMPLOYEES TO PROMULGATE "ALL THINGS SIBERRY." SIBERRY IS BALDLY HONEST ABOUT HER CAREER LEAP INTO CREATIVE INDEPENDENCE.

"I TOOK OUT A SMALL LOAN TO CREATE SHEEBA, WHICH I'M STILL PAYING OFF. I'VE OVEREXTENDED MYSELF FINANCIALLY. IT'S BEEN HARD ON ALL OF US. I'M ANXIOUS TO KEEP THE SHEEBA PHONE LINES RINGING. THE UPSIDE IS, I'VE GAINED AN INCREDIBLE AMOUNT OF WISDOM IN THE LAST YEAR, ABOUT MYSELF AND THE MUSIC BUSINESS. I'VE GAINED A NEW RESPECT FOR MONEY, AND THE ENERGY, THE POTENTIAL IT REPRESENTS."

THE VICTORIES HAVE INCLUDED A SETTLEMENT WITH WARNER/REPRISE THAT WILL ALLOW SIBERRY TO RELEASE HER NEXT TRIO OF ALBUMS, DRAWN FROM THREE DIFFERENT CONCERTS AT NEW YORK CITY'S LEGENDARY BOTTOM LINE WITH THREE DIFFERENT BANDS. SIBERRY CAN RE-RELEASE LIVE VERSIONS OF THE ORIGINAL MATERIAL SHE RECORDED FOR WARNER BROS. OF THAT ASSOCIATION, SHE SAYS PLAINLYo "I was glad to sign with Reprise, and now I'm glad to be away from them."

She cites Nashville, the city in which she's just landed and is set to perform that night, as an example of the trap she's just escaped. "This place is full of songwriters who don't write their personal view of the universe, they write what they think you want to hear. Where's the value? There's no exchange of ideas in that." The biggest sacrifice that jumping the major-label ship may entail is the current North American tour that's led her--for the first time in some 10 years--to play live shows in not only New York and Los Angeles, but smaller cities with a more uncertain fan base.

"I love performing live," she insists. "It's the touring I don't like, all the time that travel eats up. I always feel like there's so many other things I could be doing. And I'm still not well known in most of America's smaller cities, because I just don't get any radio play. It hasn't been prudent for me to tour a lot. But I'm traveling now to support the future of Sheeba."

Siberry admits to a more particular paranoia about multiple live shows across the continent. "Sometimes repetition is good, but there's also a danger in it. During concerts, I worry that I make the same small talk between songs in each city. There's something so false about that kind of canned talk; I can't stand it."

Teenager, the eighth Siberry recording, which she is now touring to support, is a brave, naked expression of her newborn hopes. These 13 supple, unadorned songs were recorded after Siberry had finished mixing her live New York City concerts, but seemed an especially appropriate debut for the Sheeba label. The stripped-down acoustic approach, she admits, "made it inexpensive to record." All the songs were written by her between the ages of 16 and 20, but they belie the sentimentality and excess one might expect from an adolescent who started off recording her own harmonies with two different tape recorders. Compared with some of the more frivolous entries on When I Was a Boy and Maria, they're confident and mature, even when addressing the most childish of pursuits. "Bessie" is a beautiful ode about a young Siberry trying to teach her favorite cow how to fly, but predictably, she doesn't neglect the potentially negative consequences ("I won't tell the Air Force/About my scheme/I know they'd just use you/For their flying machines"). Lovely, reflective tunes like "Puppet City" and "Viking Heart" offer thrillingly adult looks at, respectively, emotional paralysis and the enticements of a handsome, attentive stranger. She admits that some are directed to family and friends and some are purely fictional creations designed "to make a point." It's all in keeping with Siberry's careful tightrope walk between inviting her audience into her life, but not using them.

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Jimmy Fowler