It is a long climb up two flights of stairs, past a wall of hanging hats, into Jane Siberry’s private world. In many ways, her third-floor apartment in Toronto’s west end is a typical artist’s garret: small, bright and sparsely furnished. And like her songs, which offer unexpected views of daily life, Siberry’s living quarters reveal an assortment of striking snapshot images: a sundrenched guitar leaning against a wall, an unused painting easel standing in a corner, a solitary oak table sitting in the front room. With a piano squeezed in next to the kitchen sink, it is an unusually modest dwelling for one of Canada’s most celebrated singer-songwriters. Yet, for the past year, Siberry, who was born and raised in suburban Toronto, has called it home. Overlooking a cluster of backyard trees to the north and the Queen Street Mental Health Centre to the south, it is also the place where Siberry wrote all the songs for her latest album, Bound by the Beauty, her most light-hearted collection to date. After five years of critical acclaim but little financial reward, those songs seem destined to bring the artist her first major commercial breakthrough.
Siberry has made a career out of turning convention on its head. Her 1984 album, No Borders Here, produced a surprise hit in “Mimi on the Beach,” a whimsical seven-and-a-half minute song about a woman floating on a pink surfboard Siberry’s next album, The Speckless Sky, earned gold-record status for Canadian sales of more than 50,000 despite an unconventional video for the single “One More Colour,” in which Siberry allowed herself to be upstaged by a co-starring cow. Then, after winning a U.S. recording contract with Warner Bros. in 1987, putting the mainstream within her grasp, she recorded a densely layered and ambitious album, The Walking, that failed to produce a hit.
Through it all, Siberry kept the support of her devoted fans and most music critics. When she appeared in England in 1988, the normally tough London reviewers gushed with such superlatives as “spellbinding” and “heart-stopping.” Now, with Bound by the Beauty, her record company is expressing optimism that Siberry has come up with a hit. Said Warner Bros. president Lenny Waronker: “She’s gifted, with her own musical identity. We don’t think of her as a Top 10 artist, but this album seems definitely more accessible.”
Unlike The Walking, a dark recording full of complex rhythms and images, Bound by the Beauty features sunny, joyful songs that brim with humor and romance. The upbeat title track expresses an unabashed love of the land, with Siberry—a former University of Guelph science student—singing about kissing “the fragrant forest floor.” “Hockey” is a shimmering, impressionistic account of playing shinny on a frozen river with “rubber boots for goalposts,” while “Everything Reminds Me of My Dog” is a toe-tapping country tune that compares a canine to everything from Einstein to artists “staking out their originality on the nearest tree.” And “Miss Punta Blanca” is a playful Latin-tinged song about a carefree vacation under a “Cuban moonlit night.”
Making The Walking coincided with the breakup of her relationship with bassist and producer John Switzer. And it revealed much of the pain that Siberry was experiencing at the time. With Bound by the Beauty, Siberry says that she wanted to find a “foil” to the previous album. “I didn’t want anything that seemed too convoluted and introspective,” she said in an interview. “I didn’t want to repeat myself. I veered away from anything that seemed too ‘Jane Siberry.’ It was expected to be unexpected. And the most natural thing was to try something new.” Apart from its brighter content, the musical tone of Bound by the Beauty is unusual for Siberry. Coproduced by Switzer, with whom she still works, it has a stripped-down acoustic sound bristling with energy.
Following her breakup with Switzer, Siberry moved with her dog, Wolfgang, to the third-floor apartment and began a relationship with Toronto film-maker Peter Mettler. The songs on Bound by the Beauty, she says, came out of a fresh perspective on the world. Added Siberry: “I became inspired by the beauty I saw around me. I felt good and more outward-looking.” She added that she likes her neighborhood, with its mental health centre, because it lacks the artifice found on the trendy strip of Queen Street just a few blocks to the east. Dressed in a tartan skirt, with streaked blond hair tied in a paisley kerchief, the 33-year-old Siberry said: “This block feels like a community. The people from across the street recognize me, and I recognize them. I find it very grounding.”
Still, Siberry’s close family did not want her to move to the area, which is on the rough side. Her father, George, a retired Toronto investment dealer, once encountered a naked man on the street. Some inner-city tension is evident on several new compositions, particularly “Half Angel Half Eagle,” a song that features the line “have a good time but don’t relax...be on guard.”
Siberry will soon be leaving her third-floor sanctuary to tour. Later this month, she plans to make a few appearances in southern Ontario with a band consisting of Switzer, guitarist Ken Myhr and several new musicians. Then, she performs in England before returning for a full Canadian and U.S. tour in early 1990. In the meantime, Siberry hopes to find time to pursue her other passion, film-making. With the cinematic vision she displays in her songwriting, Siberry has taken a leading role in the production of her imaginative music videos. She has directed her own 12-minute movie, called The Bird in the Gravel. And now, with Mettler, she intends to complete a 30-minute experimental work titled Vladimir Vladimir based on her 1985 song.
Her film-making plans, like the new album, reflect a new confidence. Bound by the Beauty is a surprise release from the normally shy artist. With its high spirits and fresh outlook, the record is bound to attract new fans to Siberry’s poetic vision—one that has evolved from dark enigmas to sunny reveries.
Originally published in Maclean’s magazine 9 October 1989
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