CANADIAN songwriter-singer Jane Siberry has been described as intellectual, vulnerable, eccentric, unpredictable, quirky, and brilliant. Critics and fans have compared her with Joni Mitchell, Laurie Anderson, and Suzanne Vega. The Jane Siberry I heard here last week at the Bottom Line was all of these and considerably more. In the world of pop/rock music, where so much sameness abounds, she is a startling original.
Her concert opened with a red light playing on a smoke-screened stage, as she and her fellow musicians gradually emerged from the shadows. The opener set the tone for the rest of the evening, which combined the rich textures of Ms. Siberry's music with precise visual images. In fact, each song was like a miniature theater piece, often interspersed with wry and zany monologues.
Siberry herself is somewhat of an anomaly in the pop/rock world. She has a face like a 19th-century bisque doll, and a delicate and almost shy demeanor, yet the strength of her creativity transforms and molds the setting to suit her. There is a charming preciseness and carefulness about both her music and her movements on stage, yet she often burns with exuberant energy, too.
Siberry and her two backup singers, Rebecca Jenkins and Gina Stepaniuk, were dressed in variations on large white T-shirts over white tights. Siberry was barefoot, and her T-shirts were embellished with a white chiffon scarf tucked, skirtlike, about her waist, and a large, black pillbox hat with a fuchsia scarf tied around it. The three women dominated the stage, flanked on each side by band members John Switzer (bass), Al Cross (drums), Anne Bourne (keyboards), and Ken Myhr (guitar and guitar synthesizer). They moved and sang in loose but perfect consonance with Siberry's music, acting more as an alter ego or a mirror than as mere backup singers of the doo-wah sort.
The songs, with titles like ``Seven Steps to the Wall,'' ``Extra Executive,'' ``The Empty City,'' and ``Symmetry,'' are all written by Siberry. They are full of abstract imagery, and they reflect her sense of irony as well as a fascination with order and simplicity. We met the day before her concert, and she talked about her music:
``I didn't put a finished song together until I was 19. Before that I was trying to write songs, but I could never do anything simple enough. But then, once I'd written one song, it was OK. I got better at reducing it.''
Siberry majored in microbiology in college -- ``I started out in music, and I didn't enjoy that at all. Then I took a science course, and I would go out of class just in heaven because I had understood something really simple and found a real aesthetic in it. I always had a love of patterns and the way they moved together.
``I love to draw the abstract out of everything. That's what I like so much about cartoons -- there's no filler there. Cartoonists take the essence and magnify it.''
A rather reserved person, Siberry shuns crass emotionalism:
``I'm not comfortable with things that are too blunt, right in your lap. I think all my songs are really personal, but I lyrically remove them so they're not too autobiographical.''
She finds it's just as effective to say things in an oblique or a funny way: ``I can get the point across, but in a way that's acceptable to me. Then I can put it out there and if they get it, they really get it.''
Her interest in science shows in her music, too. While, on the one hand, she appreciates the order and balance in the physical universe, she feels that the tendency towards static equilibrium is detrimental to human life, especially to art. So, she fights against this and seeks to express another kind of balance in her music.
Siberry has recorded three albums. The first was titled simply ``Jane Siberry'' and was self-produced and financed. ``I waitresed. I was a file clerk, typist, whatever. . . .''
When her second album, ``No Borders Here,'' came out on Open Air Records, the opening song was titled, appropriately, ``Waitress'' and contains the line, ``. . . I'd probably be famous now if I wasn't such a good waitress.'' Now that waitressing is far behind her, it's one of her most requested songs.
``Music,'' she says, ``is to arrange something beautiful, and that's what I'm doing when I set a table, or work on a poster, or write a song.''
Siberry's third album, ``The Speckless Sky,'' was released in conjunction with her current tour of the United States and Canada, which ends in San Diego on June 21.