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Beauty Bound (Part 2)

“I don’t remember who I was when I first held the cup.” Jane Siberry

So, I found this amazing album in Grade 9 that imprinted on me as much as any Canada Goose imprinted on Anna Paquin and Jeff Daniels. (It’s a bit weird that they were father/daughter in that movie and then then played lovers in the next project they worked on together, right? RIGHT?! I mean, that’s gotta be weird for at least ONE of them.) You can read about that album in my last post, (if you haven’t already). It’s called Beauty Bound Part 1 and you just need to click back one post. No, ONE click. You’ve gone too far. Now you’re reading about leap year. Click one forward. NO! You’ve gone back again. You’re on my Hamilton post. Hey, did you know the guy that plays Aaron Burr in that musical liked one of my tweets the other day? I’m pretty excited by that. Look, just give me the mouse and I’ll get you sorted. Oh wait, you’ve clicked off on my blog altogether. Wait. You’re done? No! Come back, I promise not to make you read any more stuff you don’t want to read. You can always come back to it later if you want. It’ll keep.

I’ll just summarize:

I found this album by this singer in Grade 9 that really stuck with me, and became a part of my “life soundtrack”, if that doesn’t sound too weird or pretentious. Where did I go from there? Well, back then I was a bit of a “completest”, by which I mean that if I found something I liked, I HAD to have every last thing by that person. There was a period in the mid ’90s when I set out to collect every appearance of Marvel’s Silver Surfer. Not just his own title, mind you, but EVERY DAMN APPEARANCE. If he appeared in one panel in, say, Captain America, then guess what? I was hunting down that issue. Trader Pete was a big help in that little obsession. Let me just link to that post here.

It was the same thing with music. I tracked down Jane’s first three albums and got them on cassette. I listened to them and enjoyed noting the evolution of her sound into what I considered near perfection on Bound by the Beauty, but I found myself just wanting to listen to Bound rather than explore her discography. One song, “Waitress”, was a standout for me from those earlier albums. It was this funny little song about a person who would have been so successful at all these other things, if she “wasn’t such a good waitress”. Her biggest hit from those early days was “Mimi on the Beach” and I also discovered parts 1 and 2 of “Map of the World”, (of which part 3 appears at the end of Bound by the Beauty” as previously noted last post. Don’t feel like you have to go read it).

Shortly into my obsession, I found out that Jane Siberry was coming to town on her Bound by the Beauty world tour, and I excitedly convinced a couple of friends to go with me.

It was to be my first concert, ever.

And it was wonderful.

She played a ton of stuff off of Bound, which really was the only album I cared about at the time, and to hear those songs played live was a revelation. She altered them just enough to make you sit up and listen. Before she started playing “Hockey” (the song that started it all for me), she said, “This song is about your grandmother when she was a child” and it really hit home. Not so much because of my grandmother, but of my Mom. My Mom DID play hockey on the frozen river in the wintertime when she was a little girl growing up in the North End, and people will know that her nickname as a kid (and yes as an adult too which is often embarrassing to me, is “Rough-House Rosie” Don’t Ask), and so there’s a part in the song when the kids are all being called home for dinner and one of the kids’ names is “Rosie” in the song, and so when I put all that together it really gave me shivers. Especially when you hear Jane sing, “Rooossssieeee!” in her high sweet soprano voice. Also, she subtly changed one of the lines from the third person to the second person, created all kinds of different emotions. The line in question went from, “He’ll have that scar on his chin forever, some day his girlfriend will say, ‘hey. where….'” to “You’ll have that scar on your chin forever, some day your girlfriend will say, “hey. where…..’. It’s a subtle change that many people may not have even picked up on, but it made me love her even more than I already did. The next line is really great too. Funny and sad at the same time. On the album it was “And he might look out the window…….or not.” And of course in concert she changed it to, “And you might look out the window…..or not.” and people laughed at it in the way they probably wouldn’t have otherwise, or not. I don’t know. I loved it.

I’m sure she played around with other things too that I didn’t pick up on, but that live version of “Hockey” stayed with me forever and sometimes I do look out the window.

 

My musical relationship with Jane Siberry continued to grow as I left high school and made my way through the ’90s. I saw her again three times in concert during that decade. The last time being in 1999. Sometimes she had a full band, and sometimes it was just Jane. Both kinds of concert experiences were enjoyable in their own way. One time, (I think it was that last time in 1999), she was so informal she played about 5 songs and then turned to the audience and said, “what do YOU guys want to hear?” and the rest of the night was made up of requests! Sometimes she forgot the words and chords but the audience was forgiving and sang along and it felt like we were sitting around someone’s rec room. She hung out in the theatre at the end of the concert (instead of leaving the stage) and people just asked her questions and got stuff signed and was one of the weirdest but coolest concert experiences I’ve had with her. I think she subtitled that tour “One girl on her own at the end of the Millennium” or something like that. Shortly after that time, Jane stopped performing traditional concerts and focused more on “house” or “salon” concerts in much smaller venues (like actual rec rooms), as she tried to make her own independent music label, Sheeba, a success.

Things took a turn for Jane in the mid 2000’s when she decided to make a drastic change. She sold off her company and virtually all her worldly goods, (including her Toronto home) and even changed her name to Issa and pretty much disappeared to roam the world as a musical ronin. Those of us who were long time fans were worried about her well-being. She actually released three albums under the Issa name, but Lord knows how you would ever find them? Even though I considered myself a bit of a Jane “completest”, I STILL haven’t heard any of the Issa albums. (After I wrote that last sentence, I went to youtube to see if I could find some of it. It’s there. I’m playing it now.) Um, I don’t think I’m prepared to comment on this Issa stuff yet. At first listen it sounds like its more on the “speak singing” side of Jane Siberry’s stuff. The stuff that is not really musical, but more like spoken word with music underneath. It’s not bad, it’s just…..an acquired taste, maybe? She was gone for three years. I never stopped listening to Bound by the Beauty, though.

A large percentage of Jane’s songs, (whether as “Jane” or as “Issa”) fall under this category. Stuff that would never get radio play, not even on the CBC, but grows on you after repeated listens. The trick is to find the time and patience to give these songs and albums the time they need to work their magic. I’ve come to appreciate these “less friendly” songs over the years, even if I don’t play them as often as I do Bound by the Beauty. There’s something about that first love that cannot be repeated. Jane’s gossamer melismas have become engrained upon my heart. It’s difficult to effectively explain your love of a person or a thing sometimes. Some things defy easy definition.

Over the years, Jane Siberry and I have “crossed paths” in a number of different ways. In the early ’90s our church had a fire that burned it to the ground and over the next two years our congregation held fundraisers to rebuild. One of the fundraisers (which I helped organize) was to write to Canadian celebrities to ask them to donate things to auction off. We had a great response. CBC’s Peter Mansbridge donated a tie he wore on the air one night when he anchored The National, Dr. Dressup sent a few of his drawings of Casey and Finnegan, and W.O. Mitchell sent a signed copy of one of his last books, to name just a few. I wrote to Jane Siberry and she sent a signed picture (and kindly made a donation to our building fund). I was the only one to bid on that picture that night. (I’m quite sure I was  the only one who knew who she was, actually.)

A year later, her next album after Bound came out. It was called When I Was A Boy. It seemed equally balanced between “song” songs and “long form spoken word” songs, and I especially connected to “Temple” (which is snippeted by Gord Downie on The Tragically Hip’s Live Between Us Live album), “Love is Everything” (which I still sing to myself sometimes EVEN TO THIS DAY) and “Calling All Angels”. I connected with this song (and this album) in the spring of 1994, after spending the winter on a psych ward being treated for Depression. There was no way When I Was A Boy was going to replace Bound as “my favourite Jane thing”, but there was something about the vulnerability of these songs that spoke to me after having all this new unwanted “life experience”. It was years later when I found out that “Calling All Angels” is actually about a man who is released from a mental health institution and the challenges he faces when he rejoins the world. Woah. Right?

At some point in the late ’90s, Jane released a live Christmas album. It’s really great, because it tries to not be a Christmas album. In fact, towards the beginning of the double CD, she tells the NY audience that she finds traditional Christmas albums “boring” and wanted to do something different. The payoff is that when she and her band actually play some traditional Christmas music like “O Holy Night” and “In the Bleak Midwinter”,  it’s beautiful and earned and you can sense the genuine appreciation of the audience. I love the way Jane adds liturgical elements to her song writing in an almost casual way, and you can definitely get her influences through her musical choices here. The last song on this album, (named Child), is called “Are you burning little candle?” It is so sweet and beautiful and I thought it would be the perfect thing for this folk choir I was in to sing on Christmas Eve. I didn’t know if I could just “sing” this song without getting permission, so I emailed her label, Sheeba, to see if we needed to pay royalties or anything and to my surprise I got an email back from Jane herself saying that she was delighted that we wanted to sing this song “in a church” at Christmas and asked for a mailing address. A week or so later a package arrived and in it was a copy of the sheet music “so we wouldn’t have to guess”. Amazing, huh? That Christmas Eve our little 10 voice folk choir performed “Are you burning little candle?” with Jane’s blessing and it was one of those little magical moments I’ll never forget.

In 2009, Jane changed her name back to “Jane Siberry” from Issa and started a new chapter in her life. This happened the same year our daughter was born. I’M NOT SAYING THESE CHANGES ARE LINKED IN ANY WAY, but I am just pointing out how Jane’s life and music seem to mirror my own and that’s all I’m going to say about that. After her “return”, I looked forward to see what kind of music Jane was ready to share with us, but that promised album never came. I still played her music from time to time, and it was still imprinted on my heart, but I was curious. What was next?

A couple of years ago, at the height of the “Kickstarter” craze, Jane got in on the action to crowd-source funding for a new album to be called Consider the Lily. I hadn’t “kick started” anything before this, but I happily plunked down my donation. I can’t remember the amount, but it was the amount that assured me a signed CD when it was released. I already had one signed CD from Jane from one of the concerts when I stayed behind to get her to sign it, but it wasn’t any more money to get a signed one this time so why not? I was going to buy the album when it came out eventually, so why not pay for it in advance? It was also around this time that Jane was beginning to tour again under her own name. Not counting the Issa recordings, or cover albums, or live albums, or compilations, Jane hadn’t released an album of original music under her own name since 1996’s Teenager, if you can believe it.

It was also around that time that I got into a email conversation with Jane over possible upcoming concerts. She hadn’t been to my city for a while, and I sent a simple request to her label about the chances of any concert dates here. I should have remembered my experience with “Are you burning little candle?” but I was still surprised when I received an email, not from a bot, or even a promoter, but from Jane herself. She started off by saying that she would like to come to our city, but she would need to have a venue lined up. (She was still thinking in terms of “house concerts” then), and for a crazy moment in these emails I considered trying to find a venue and arrange for a concert myself. Adding the title “concert promoter” to my credentials didn’t seem so crazy when it came to Jane Siberry. I don’t want to give the impression that I got into any deep philosophical discussions in these emails with Jane. They were all very businesslike (and yet polite) and in total we maybe wrote back three or four times before it was obvious it wasn’t going to work out. Still, to actually converse with an artist that meant so much to me when I was 15 almost twenty five years later was something special. I kept my cool, though. I never spilled my guts to her. I didn’t want to think of me as a WEIRDO or anything.

Siberry

Spotted on the wall at the WECC, where I saw Jane three times in the 1990’s. When will I see her again?

Then, just last month, after two years of kickstarter updates, I found a package in my mailbox. It was a copy of the new CD! (The title had changed in the process from Consider the Lily to Ulysses’ Purse, but still: the first new Jane Siberry music in 20 years, you guys.) As good as her word, it was signed. “To Trevor, with Thanks”. I knew it was her, from my previous signed CD. I wish I had more of a story to tell about meeting her that time in 1999, but you know how it is at those “signing CDs after concerts” things. There’s a hustle and bustle to it and I don’t even remember much of what was said or not said. I think I told her I was a big fan, (OBVIOUSLY, I mean why would I be there otherwise? DUMB!) and I think she smiled at me and said thanks and signed the disc case and looked like she wanted to make a connection with everyone one in line but there were so many people in line and she actually looked kind of tired and after all she was just “one girl alone at the end of the Millennium” and everything and well, I can vouch that it was her signature on her disc. I was so excited I had to tweet it.

ulyllses purse

It’s real.

Also, she included a second copy as an “ambassador disc” with instructions to give it to someone who might not be familiar with her music.

But you know what? I haven’t given it away yet. I’m just feeling a little funny about it. I mean, it seems a little “pushy” to just give someone a CD out of the blue, right? It’s not just that. What if the person doesn’t like it? Or worse: what if the person says they like it just because they think it will hurt my feelings if they don’t? Why, as a grown man, should this even be a problem? I should be spreading the word of Jane like the devoted disciple that I am without fear. Maybe I can’t decide to whom the disc should go? Maybe I want to listen along with the chosen person? Also, if I wanted to introduce someone to Jane Siberry, wouldn’t I start with her best album? the one that started it all for me? the one that still gets regular play? Bound by the Beauty?

In any case, don’t you guys want to know what I think of the new album, after all this time?

Well, you’ll just have to wait for Part III.

 

 

 

 

 

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Beauty Bound (Part 1)

“I don’t remember where I was, when I first was lifted up.” Jane Siberry

I was in grade nine, in my friend Steve’s basement. His parents had the best stereo of any of our parents, and we always seemed to gather there. One time over the Christmas holidays, Steve had me sit up next to the speakers and he put on this song. It started out quietly enough, with soft, rolling piano, and a sweet soprano voice singing about “Winter-time on the frozen river”. It wasn’t until she got to the line “You skate as fast as you can ’til you hit the snowbank…” that I actually recoiled on the floor away from the speakers. He had the bass turned way up and on the word “skate” these drums kick in out of nowhere really unexpectedly. It’s at that point when the song really takes off, and I really hadn’t heard anything quite like it before. The drumming was all uneven and irregular, improvisational even, and I couldn’t make any sense it, but then when it got the chorus of, “Don’t……. Let……… Those Sunday afterno-oo-oo-ons……getawaygetawaygetawaygetawaygetawaygetawaygetawaygetaway, break away, break away, break away”, I was hooked. I had to find out more about this song, this person.

It was Jane Siberry, and I had found my first real musical crush. (Okay, maybe not my FIRST musical crush. That honour probably still goes to Cyndi Lauper, but you know what I mean). My first ADULT musical crush, if you could even consider a dumb kid from the suburbs anything close to resembling anything adult, that is.

Truth is, I think Steve wanted to play that song because it had the “eff word” in it later on. He was always finding songs that had swears and he got some kind of weird pleasure from playing them for others. I remember Bruce Cockburn’s Rocket Launcher calls some one a “sonofabitch” towards the end, and Steve couldn’t get enough of playing that one for me too. You can tell this was a simpler time before N.W.A. and other such groups. (We didn’t discover those until high school). I don’t think albums were even given “explicit lyrics” warnings then, either.

I wanted to hear more of this album to see if it was just the one song, or if I had really stumbled onto something. I am happy to report that starting right from the first track, I knew I found a singer that got better and better after every listen. The album was called Bound by the Beauty and the title track really is a powerful thesis statement about the beauty and power of nature in comparison to our short fragile human timelines. Certainly ideas that were beyond this 14 year old’s radar at the time.

Then, Something About Trains, and if you know anything about me at all, you’d know that if you referenced trains, you were already preaching to the choir.

“Most of the time when I’m walkin’ the line I’m looking at the ground, but every time I hear that whistle blowin’, and every time I hear that old black crow…every time I hear that whistle blowin’ I find myself shiverin’ in my soul”.

And then you get Hockey, the first song of hers I ever heard.

Next up was a playful little number that actually got a lot of video play on Muchmusic, Everything Reminds Me Of My Dog. There’s not much to this one, except that it’s rather cute and shows that JS can be fun and quirky as well as deep thinking and esoteric.

The Valley is next. A beautiful, haunting love song that takes its time. (It’s over 6 minutes long, but you don’t feel it). It culminates with that lovely line, “I love the best of you, you love the best of me. Although it’s not always easy…”

AND THAT’S SIDE ONE OF THE CASSETTE BECAUSE I WASN’T SATISFIED JUST LISTENING TO IT IN STEVE’S BASEMENT SO I WENT OUT AND BOUGHT MY OWN COPY.

I didn’t really think this was going to be a track-by-track review of an almost 30 year old album, but here goes. We’re halfway there.

Side two opens up with what probably could very well be the most beautifully moving song that Jane Siberry has ever written. The fact that you don’t get to it until halfway through the album speaks volumes to the strength of all these tracks. What can I say about The Life is a Red Wagon that doesn’t immediately turn into nonsense gushing? The first line is “You watch the slow train moving, through the city late at night…” Trains again, guys. (I know, low hanging fruit, but STILL). And then you get that lovely sentiment in the chorus, “The life is the red wagon, rolling along. The life is the red wagon, simple and strong. The life is the red…is the red… o-oh it’s no big deal. But when the feet are dragging, woah-oh oh oh oh, you pull for me and I pull for you…”

After this, the album does take a darker turn, with Half Angel/Half Eagle full of ugly language depicting city life. There’s a powerful rhythm that carries this song all the way through, and the pain is palpable. I guess Steve never got this far into the album, because there are way more swears in this song than in Hockey. Who knows? In any case, I’m glad Steve’s love of vulgarity actually led me to something beautiful in the end. In my case, I knew EXACTLY where I was when I was lifted up.

This is contrasted by La Jalouse, a hauntingly quiet tale of domestic violence that is so tenderly sung by Jane playing the role of an abused woman and then switches roles mid-song and sings as the abuser. The changing perspectives, especially when she sings the words, “I grabbed your shoulders and then I threw you as hard as ever” will stay with you for a long, long time.

The album ends with a sweet little confection called Miss Punta Blanca that has a lively latin beat and it brings the listener back from the brink (where she left them at the end of La Jalouse). Listen to its playful opening line, “I coulda been Miss Punta Blanca, I coulda but I didn’t wanta…”

Just when you think the album is over, the final track launches and it is a doozy. After Miss Punta Blanca gets us back on our feet, we are treated to a peppy, almost six minute mostly instrumental number called Are we dancing now? (Map III) which ends with the words, “Oh, life is a mystery.”

  • Life IS a mystery.
  • This song was a mystery: What does Map III mean in brackets? Is there a Map I and II? (There are). Will I find them? (I will).
  • This album is a mystery. What a collection of songs! Starting with an ode to beauty in nature, and taking us through love, abuse, redemption, friendship, more abuse, and finally ending with dancing. It was an outrageous accomplishment. I even set aside U2 for a bit to let this cassette work on me. I couldn’t get enough of it. Of her. I was smitten.
  • This woman is a mystery. Who is Jane Siberry? (Many different people). Has she made more albums? (She has). Will I eventually meet her? (I will). Is there more to this story? (There always is).

Next time: what happened next? Stay tuned.

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