Back to basics is Jane Siberry's theme these days--and that marks quite a turnabout for a singer who has been among the most artsy of pop performers.
On her first three U.S. releases, Canadian Siberry was prone to challenging listeners with sprawling song-suites full of symbolic lyrics, abstract dialogue and hard-to-figure shifts of perspective.
Siberry--who plays tonight at the Coach House in San Juan Capistrano--has changed all that on her current album, "Bound by the Beauty." The music is direct, often rooted in folk-pop. The songs hew more closely to conventional forms, and the lyrics hold fewer puzzles.
Gone are the stacked layers of voices and the modernistic ambience generated by synthesizers and sampling keyboards, an approach that used to prompt comparisons with the avant-garde explorations of Laurie Anderson or the baroque constructions of Kate Bush. The warm, piano-based arrangements on "Bound by the Beauty" are more apt to bring Joni Mitchell to mind.
"I wanted (this album) to be straightforward," Siberry, 34, said over the phone from a tour stop last week in Austin, Tex. "I'm sure it was a balancing thing" after the complexity and lyrical impressionism of her 1988 album, "The Walking."
"I felt the need to be straightforward and be perceived" as straightforward, said Siberry, whose conversation, like her singing, oscillated between moments of offhanded near-detachment and surges of intensity. "I feel very proud of 'The Walking,' but I felt uncomfortable about the way I was being perceived. I guess (the perception) was that I was obscure, and I was too difficult. I don't feel like I am. The last thing I want to be is an elitist performer. I like to see myself as an every-person's writer."
So Siberry retreated to the countryside west of her hometown of Toronto and went to work in an unlikely setting for a modern recording venture: a studio in a Quonset hut in the middle of an apple orchard.
"This studio was perfect," Siberry said. "It was right in keeping with the spirit of the record--very casual. Neighbors who never heard of me before would come and watch. It made it just everyday and matter of fact, instead of being in a big, corporate studio."
The result was an album that features charming moments of whimsy, a few dark chills, and a moving, overriding sense of connection to the simplest, most basic thing we all share: the natural, reassuring presence of the earth itself.
On the country-rock flavored "Something About Trains," Siberry is able to comfort herself during a melancholy moment with the realization that she is part of natural life:
You walk the lonely valley .
You walk the line alone .
But this old earth is always there .
You don't feel so alone.
The album's title song is a rapturous love poem to the physical world, but it takes on an edge as Siberry contemplates the possibility that what delights her now could one day be ruined . Imagining herself returning to life 500 years hence, Siberry proclaims: "These things that I love . . . they'd better be here."
She almost bristled, though, at the suggestion that "Bound by the Beauty" might be seen as an intent to stir ecological concern.
"Definitely not," she said. "I don't even like to hear you say that."
To Siberry, the album looks intimately at her own response to nature, not outward to the politics of the environmental movement. Clearly, she does not want to appear to be jumping on the latest bandwagon for pop cause-seekers.
The album, she said, "is a reflection of somebody who has a great respect for natural beauty. The one thing that has kept me attuned to my love of life is natural beauty." If the songs relate to the concerns of the environmental movement, she said, it is only "as an aside."
"It's because of the times today that you could see it as an ecological record, but that's a crude label. It's inaccurate," she said. "These songs could have been written 20 years ago."
Along with her appreciation of nature, Siberry sprinkled "Bound by the Beauty" with other down-to-earth songs. There are warm reflections on romantic love (the pretty, affirmative hymn "The Life Is the Red Wagon" and the swooning Caribbean fling "Are We Dancing Now?") as well as whimsical tunes like "Hockey," with its childhood memories of frozen ponds, and "Everything Reminds Me of My Dog," which should find a spot in any canine-lover's heart (in Siberry's case, everything reminds her of a part-husky named Wolfgang).
In keeping with material that is more direct, Siberry has simplified her stage presentation. Gone are the backing singer-dancers and full band that she used in the past to reproduce, and sometimes play-act, her more elaborate songs. Instead, she is accompanied only by her longtime guitarist, Ken Myhr, and Teddy Borowiecki, who plays piano and accordion.
"I just had such a strong gut feeling about working as a trio," Siberry said. "People get a sense of who I am. It's more intimate."
Jane Siberry and Scott Merritt (see accompanying review) play tonight at 8 at the Coach House, 33157 Camino Capistrano, San Juan Capistrano. Tickets: $15. Information: (714) 496-8930.