Jane Siberry And The Real Definition Of 'Art Rock' | Features | LIVING LIFE FEARLESS

Jane Siberry And The Real Definition Of ‘Art Rock’

Ok, so there are many out there who will challenge the credibility of Wikipedia. Yet, these days, with the possibility of practically anybody being able to post their definitions, there are quite a few now done, if not by ‘real’ experts, then those that can qualify as one.

So, whoever worked on the definition of art-rock seems to have drawn on the essence of what that term signifies:

“Art rock is a subgenre of rock music that generally reflects a challenging or avant-garde approach to rock, or which makes use of modernist, experimental, or unconventional elements. Art rock aspires to elevate rock from entertainment to an artistic statement, opting for a more experimental and conceptual outlook on music. Influences may be drawn from genres such as experimental rock, avant-garde music, classical music, and jazz.”

Art rock aspires to elevate rock from entertainment to an artistic statement

It goes on, not everything there you could or should agree with, but what does that have to do with the Canadian singer-songwriter (another, wildly broad term) Jane Siberry?

Well, looking at her career as far back as the late ’70s (when she first appeared on the scene), in many ways, you can say that Siberry is one of the artists that has covered practically the whole ground set in that definition of art-rock, and beyond. That beyond relates to the fact that Siberry even covered that ‘dreaded’ dance music category some art-rock theorists try to exclude as being art.

What is even more important is that Siberry at times through her career had not only critical but also some commercial success, at the same time garnering that cult artist status so many other musicians strive for but never achieve.

From Stewart to Siberry

Siberry was actually born Jane Stewart and took up the surname Siberry from the family name of her maternal aunt and uncle. Many years later, she would explain this choice by stating, “this woman and her husband were the first couple I met where I could feel the love between them and I held that in front of me as a reference point.” This statement in many ways is an indicator to which direction Siberry was striving in her music and art.

As some of her biographers explain, Siberry learned piano from the age of four, predominantly teaching herself and developing her own concepts of notation and structure. At school, she learned conventional music theory (as well as French horn) and taught herself to play guitar by working through Leonard Cohen’s songs. Her first song was completed at the age of seventeen, although she had been developing song ideas since much earlier.

This woman and her husband were the first couple I met where I could feel the love between them

Talking about it, Siberry says, “I started out in music, but switched to sciences when I realized how much more interesting it was to study than music. I would leave the classes ecstatic about tiny things.”

She began her career in the so-called ‘royal city’ of Guelph, Ontario in a folksy rock band Java Jive. Leaving the band, Siberry also left her university studies, supporting her work as a solo performer by working as a waitress, earning enough to finance and tour her debut album, the folk-influenced Jane Siberry which was released in 1981 on Duke Street Records. The album was relatively successful for an independent release, enabling Siberry to sign a three-album deal with A&M Records via the Windham Hill label.

For her second album No Borders Here(1984), Siberry holds up to the album’s title ― she switches gears from folk in favor of what some would call ‘electronic art-pop.’ On the album, Siberry came up with one of her real hits and signature songs/compositions.

It was “Mimi On The Beach,” a seven-and-a-half-minute single, that fits that definition of art-rock perfectly. The song benefited from the art-friendly broadcast support at the time (and from its video made by Siberry and friends). Both factors earned it heavy MuchMusic and college radio play.

On The Speckless Sky (1985) that followed, Sibbery continued to refine her art, producing one more critical and commercial favorite, “One More Colour.” Some critics described her lyrics on this (and other albums) as “unencumbered by reality (think Laurie Anderson on hallucinogens), but the top-notch musicianship on the album helps Siberry keep at least one foot on the ground,” via AllMusic.

Getting (More and More) Surreal

Moving on to the big Reprise label, Siberry came up with The Walking (1988), one of her defining albums. As some reviewers noted, it contained a set of intricately structured songs, many of which were lengthy and shifted between narrative viewpoints and characters. Of the six songs on the album, only one clock in at less than six minutes.

Jane Siberry And The Real Definition Of 'Art Rock' | Features | LIVING LIFE FEARLESS

While the album certainly was not commercial, the critics at the time were less than welcoming, to say the least, and broadcasters found it unsuitable for airplay. These days the album is considered as one of her best, not the first instance that the opinions shift as time passes by.

Lack of success of The Walking possibly prompted Siberry to shift the direction towards more simple and direct song forms for her follow-up that was Bound by the Beauty (1989). There, Siberry was exploring quite a few pop forms, from country to Latin music.

Coming up with another album, When I Was a Boy (1993), seems to have been an arduous process. Not only did it take a while to get made, but it was also the first time Siberry used outside producers, in this case, the duo of Michael Brook and Brian Eno. One of the reasons for taking her time may lie in the fact that this was the period in her life when Siberry was trying to fight her longstanding alcoholism.

Jane Siberry And The Real Definition Of 'Art Rock' | Features | LIVING LIFE FEARLESS

The album also meant another shift in musical direction. This time around, the influences were influenced by funk, dance, and gospel music, and Siberry and her producers featured extensive use of layering and sampler technology. It also featured what would become Siberry’s best-known song, “Calling All Angels” (a duet with k.d. lang which had first appeared as part of the soundtrack to Wim WendersUntil the end of the World and as a track on Summer in the Yukon (1992).

Prior to the release of When I Was a Boy, Siberry performed in Edinburgh as the opening act for Mike Oldfield’s premiere of Tubular Bells II. She was met with a disastrous rejection by the audience. Initially, Siberry was devastated (later describing herself as having “cried for two weeks”) and had to make a serious reassessment of her perspective on her work. From this point onwards, she chose to reclaim her art for herself and decided “I took back all the power back that I had put outside myself trying to please (others). The worst show of my life has become the best show because it’s given me the ultimate freedom to care only about what I think is really good. How my career does is secondary.”

From Jane Siberry to Issa…

This could have possibly been the reason for another musical shift. On Maria (1995) Siberry moves more into the direction of jazz. Seemingly taking a cue from Van Morrison’s masterwork Astral Weeks, Siberry employed a group of experienced jazz musicians, recording the album in three days and then editing and reworking the recorded material into fully realized songs, most of which featured various perspectives on innocence.

Then another queue, and another shift. Picking up on the iconic Beatles song “A Day in the Life,” she makes that the title of her next album (1997), which includes song excerpts, but is actually a sound collage, representing her typical daily experience in New York, where Siberry was residing at the time.

This was certainly a recipe for commercial disaster, and Siberry’s indie label Sheeba was running into financial trouble. She folded the label in New York, returned to Toronto and re-established it as a one-woman operation. Everything from songwriting to licking the envelopes.

When I put Jane away, I went silent for 24 hours. Not a word to anyone.

As biographers note, to finance Sheeba, she also began to experiment with what was then seen as unorthodox promotional ideas, such as the weekend-long “Siberry Salons” (a concert-cum-seminar featuring two performances plus a workshop and dinner, which were hosted at intimate and unusual venues such as art galleries and loft apartments).

Through the label itself, Siberry issued three books of poems and a set of three live albums that included unreleased songs and those recorded for film soundtracks.

Early in 2006, Siberry closed her Sheeba office, then auctioned and sold nearly all of her possessions via eBay ― including her Toronto home and her musical instruments. She retained one traveling guitar, but none of the other instruments featured on her albums and in her concerts.

Beginning of June the same year, during her tour of Europe, Siberry changed her name to Issa. She told The Globe and Mail that she chose the name Issa as a feminine variant of Isaiah. She stated that her older music would remain available for sale under the name “Jane Siberry”, but her new material would be released as Issa. At the time she also stated, regarding the change of identity, “I had to do it right. I had to be serious about it and I had to convey that. When I put Jane away, I went silent for 24 hours. Not a word to anyone. And then Issa from that point on.”

… and back

In autumn 2008, as Issa, she finalized the ideas for a trilogy of albums to be called the “Three Queens” sequence, first of which became Dragon Dreams.

In 2009, Issa released the second album in the “Three Queens” trilogy, With What Shall I Keep Warm? However, it was plain that her identity was no longer fixed, as both of the names she’d used as a musician ― “Issa” and “Jane Siberry” ― were included on the cover. In December 2009, she notified her fans that she had recently changed her name from Issa back to Jane Siberry, feeling that the process of working under a different name had run its course.

The last installment, With What Shall I Keep You Warm was released the same year, and three albums followed. Meshach Dreams Back, was released later in 2011 and was the first album to be credited to “Jane Siberry” in eight years. Angels Bend Closer and Ulysses Purse came up in 2016 and 2018 respectively, with Siberry currently hovering somewhere in the shadows, probably coming up with yet another shift in direction, adding another line in the description of ‘art-rock.’

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