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Jane Siberry's Twisty Path Leads to Jazz

November 13, 1995|MIKE BOEHM | TIMES STAFF WRITER

Not every pop singer takes a walk on the jazzy side, but then again, after sallies by Joni Mitchell, k.d. lang and Elvis Costello, among others, the path isn't exactly unfamiliar.

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Jane Siberry has been known to follow a twisting, off-the-beaten path of her own as a singer-songwriter. Since emerging from Toronto 10 years ago with the aptly titled "No Borders Here," she has recorded simple, yearning romantic ballads in the tradition of Joni Mitchell, whimsical folk-pop tunes and sweeping, episodic, obliquely cinematic narratives that draw comparisons to Laurie Anderson.

With its emphasis on coursing piano currents, mellow, muted trumpet solos and a free-floating rhythm section that includes upright bass, it is easy to peg Siberry's new release, "Maria," as her Jane-goes-jazz gambit.

It's a peg that Siberry doesn't want to be hung on because of its common, trendy connotations, but at the same time she admits she can't completely disown it.

"It wasn't in my mind to do a jazz record. It was just what I heard in my head," Siberry said during a recent phone interview from Chicago, a stop on a tour that brings her to the Veterans Wadsworth Theater in Los Angeles tonight and to the Coach House in San Juan Capistrano on Tuesday.

But Siberry quickly backtracked on her denial. "I don't know how honest I'm being about [downplaying] the jazz thing," she said. "I can't think of anything more boring: 'Now she's done a jazz record.'

"Maybe a part of me recognized how right the improvising spirit of jazz is. Not the sounds, but the freedom to work with musicians who work that way. It felt very natural to me, but I think there's a way to do it without it being a jazz record."

Siberry recruited pianist Tim Ray and drummer Brian Blade, both of whom had pop and jazz credentials, as the foundation of her band. David Travers Smith's trumpet is another key element (her touring quartet consists of Ray, Smith and a different bassist and drummer than on the CD).

The musicians played for three days in the studio, improvising around some sketched-out "shapes" while Siberry at times improvised vocal parts. The singer then went back and, over the course of several months, added or edited vocal parts to fit the music.

The album focuses on romantic rapture and loss, and addresses the subject of childhood both airily and darkly ("Mary Had a Little Lamb" is a motif).

As a coda to the main body of the work, Siberry offers one of her trademark extended suites, a 20-minute opus called "Oh My My." Incorporating a spooky children's chorale version of "Puff the Magic Dragon," it unfolds as a psychological epic in which Siberry seems to be striving to move beyond the wounds of growing up to reach a new understanding of herself.

"It's partly a song about myself, saying some things I wish someone had said to me, and partly coming from a place in my heart that's feeling worried for younger kids," she said.

At the heart of the piece is a long countdown of murmured declarations in which the singer, assuming the stance of a rather grim but ultimately hopeful prophet, ticks off the psychological millstones and milestones in a life that goes off track, then seeks a way onto a better path.

The litany begins with "You will be born into a strange and desolate place," and includes "You will give up your backbone to the TV," "You will discover drugs and alcohol" and, on the final upswing, "The journey forward includes movement into despair, and you will be gathering strength even as you don't understand . . . and then one day you will turn off the TV."

Siberry says she began a similar self-accounting during a lull in her work a few years ago as she sought a producer for her 1993 release, "When I Was a Boy."

"For the first time in a long time, I had time to shut my door and start healing certain parts of myself. Either you just lose it totally and spend your life in despair and depression, or you just get off your butt." Part of that process, she said, was getting into a 12-step program for alcoholism.

The complexities of "Oh My My" have kept the song out of her concert repertoire.

"I thought we'd fall into bits of it here and there, but it just doesn't want to be played live," she said. Siberry also has excised some darker songs that fans are used to hearing live.

" 'The Taxi Ride,' from my second album, is one people want to hear a lot. I'm consciously trying to walk on the sunny side of the street, to really lift myself into a place of greater positivity, and that's a sad song" that she no longer wants to play. "It doesn't mean I don't feel sad, but I have a different kind of sadness now."

Siberry laments that the fast rhythms of the music business--touring and promotion for a record following quickly after its release--don't give her albums the time she feels they need to catch on with programmers and the public.

"I'm not nervous about it anymore," she said of her status as a favorite of a loyal cult rather than a mass-market contender.

"Even though at different times I've said I don't belong in this business, the next thing I know I have an idea and it's halfway done," she said. "So many of my friends are still trying to get record deals, and I've had one for 10 years now, where my only goal is to make the best music I can make. I've been very lucky. I have great faith that I'm exactly where I'm supposed to be, and whatever happens is going to be absolutely right for me."

* Jane Siberry plays Tuesday at 8 p.m. at the Coach House, 33157 Camino Capistrano, San Juan Capistrano. $18.50. (714) 496-8930.

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