In about 1992, I was browsing The Guardian, when I came across a short article suggesting it would be a good thing to check out a new CD compilation of a Canadian singer, Jane Siberry, who had released four or five albums, was completely unknown in this country, and was somewhere between Kate Bush and Nanci Griffith. I like both, although I have some doubts about Bush’s more recent music. It seemed worth a punt. The anthology was called ‘Summer In the Yukon’, and it was astonishing. (If you pressed me to choose ten desert island CDs, I would still include it, even though she has done equally exciting work since.) Here was a quirky lyricist, a really unusual arranger, and someone with a beautifully pure voice. It’s a compilation worth hunting down – you can get all the tracks on it on a more recent compilation ‘Love Is Everything’ , but not the very best track, the orchestrated, released-as-a-single version of a song called ‘The Life Is The Red Wagon’ (the version available is nice enough, but the single version is stunning).
Siberry – not her real name; she borrowed it from an aunt, I think – is an eccentric in many ways. A couple of years ago, she changed her name (or changed her pseudonym) to Issa, sold or gave away all her possessions bar a few essentials, even giving up her house, and went on the road. It seemed and seems a wilful piece of independence, in that, in doing so, she gave away the considerable publicity she had garnered in the US and Canada (a subsequent album, ‘When I Was A Boy’, is regularly voted on to lists of all-time greats by musos in music magazines). She seemed determined to keep herself the music business’s best kept secret. She had earlier, Ani DiFranco style, set up her own, independent label, and left Warner Reprise. The label – Sheeba – still exists, and operates through a website, from which most of her albums are available as downloads (she was one of the first to embrace the digital age, and also pay-what-you-want downloads). The two sites you need are http://www.janesiberry.com/ (listed as a ‘treasury’ site, i.e. pre-Issa) and http://www.sheeba.ca/store/index.php?cPath=21. (Some songs are not available to download except in Canada or the US, and you may have to hunt them down elsewhere, alas.)
Her music is nearly impossible to classify. You would have to file her most recent albums under jazz (‘Maria’), ambient (‘When I Was A Boy’), folk (‘Teenager’ – a collection of songs written when she was a teenager), sacred (‘Child’ – a collection of carols, and ‘Shushan’, a collection of hymns) – and then there are all the earlier albums, which are eccentric, indie pop/folk/what-you-will. She also turns up on film soundtracks and on other compilations (there is a collection of these rarities called ‘City’). There is also a montage (‘NYC’) of traffic sounds in New York and demos, which includes a great lo-fi song, ‘Haint That Funny’, subsequently recorded, but without some verses, thereby spoiling the narrative, by k.d. lang.
Kooky, offbeat, brilliant and twee – and she can be twee, it’s something a Siberry fan has to put up with, as when The Guardian published, much later, a series ‘A Day In The Life’, invited Siberry to contribute, and got back a soppy account of the day she was born – Issa/Siberry has probably the most haunting voice on the planet, certainly in the Western hemisphere. She is also a tremendous performer. I’ve seen her three times, and wish only that I’d seen her in the 1980s and 1990s, with a full band.
For many years (it seems), Siberry has been promising an album of new songs, rather than eclectic covers. For many years, we were promised one called ‘Lily’. Yesterday, she released her new one, ‘Dragon Dreams’ (it is on its way), so that is something to look forward to. I suspect that she has more in her vault (she appears to be both indecisive and perfectionist). Her fans (sometimes known as ‘Siblings’) are devoted, perhaps because they enjoy the private kick of her not having bestrode the recording world. It was a bold step of her to go independent in the first place (so independent that, if you rang her ‘shop’, you would get her on the phone, taking orders). She is also positively the only musician to whom I’ve ever sent a fan letter, something I really don’t go in for. It seems too naff. But with a voice like Issa’s (hard for me to use the new nom-de-plume), you feel you ought to offer a vote of thanks.
There she is. She gave away the iconic red guitar. But give her a try: she is astounding. I got married to her song ‘Sail ‘Cross The Water’, and one of my treasured possessions is her hand-written lyrics to the song.