In a culture fond of neat definitions, the work of singer Jane Siberry defies description, encapsulating everything from spoken word to folk. Her newest album, With What Shall I Keep Warm, written on the fly in studios across Europe, represents the culmination of three years living with few material possessions, under a new name ( Issa ) . For some people that sounds like the witness protection program, for Siberry, that's merely the path she chose.
Windy City Times: What led you to change your name to Issa?
Jane Siberry: I felt the need to make some strong changes in my life. It seemed important to change my name, so I did. I changed it to a name that I thought was simple, an empty cup. I had never heard the name Issa before, and it turns out to have some wonderful meanings, including a haiku poet in Japan, and the name that Jesus had in India. But two weeks ago I officially changed my name back to Jane Siberry. I felt with the name change, I had gotten in my own way, in terms of devoting myself to my career, making my work available to people. So, Jane Siberry is my name again until further notice, but I feel richer from having been Issa for three years.
WCT: What was it like to give up most of your belongings?
JANE SIBERRY: I love beautiful things, and I reached a point where I had amassed quite a bit. It felt like change or die, that's how heavy I felt, never able to get on top of my to do lists or devote myself to music. So, I kind of metaphorically took my arm and swept everything off my desk. It's been a really good discipline, to do without. A lot of people think about doing it, and as a creative person, you tend to be a bit of a barometer for what's in the air.
WCT: When your tour hits Chicago, you'll play Space, a society designed to preserve art, and you'll also play a house concert. What drew you to these venues?
JANE SIBERRY: I've lost all interest in playing normal clubs. There's this carelessness and disrespect, sort of a thuggish energy. You get there to find no posters, no preparation. You came all this way, and though you don't mind making not too much money, you do mind wasting your time. I'm trying to book only in communities that are hungry to hear something.
WCT: Describe the creation of your new album.
JANE SIBERRY: After changing my name, I didn't know if I'd be in the music industry any more. I ended my tour in Brussels and stayed there, waiting till the universe told me where to go. I found a little studio in someone's home, and wrote a song every day. I continued that through London, Australia and Vancouver, writing in studios, which meant I'd go in with no idea and sit there until I had an idea and then get them to put up whatever tempo I wanted. At the end of the day, when the songs felt pretty together as far as loose structure and concept, I would stop and then after song number thirty-three I went back and worked on arrangements and finished the words. The record out now is part of the thirty-three song series.
WCT: An older song, "Calling All Angels," is a mainstream hit, and was used in movies and on TV. What's it like to create something that takes on a life outside of you?
JANE SIBERRY: I feel proud of the little song going out and doing so well, like a child I guess, although I don't like the child imagery that artists often use. It's lovely though. It's turned around so that I'm almost its child, so to speak. It's brought me more gifts than the energy I put into it.
WCT: What new song are you most excited to play on this tour?
JANE SIBERRY: "Phoenix." When I wrote it, I was concerned about kids, about the whole system. I had a huge force in me, I couldn't sleep well, I couldn't eat, and when I play the song that same mysterious force comes to me, and I don't quite know where it's from. I am really concerned about young kids, that they have no self-esteem. It seems like a very hard time to be a kid. I think we're passing along low self-esteem from generation to generation, and we have very few moral structures to lean on. So much is insane in this world right now. You talk about love and then on every TV channel, someone is trying to hurt another person.
WCT: Is there anything artists can do?
JANE SIBERRY: I believe the power of voice is much more than it appears. I know how songs have affected me, giving me magic words to cling to, so although artists can get in their own way by being too mental about it, if they work from their higher selves, they can make people feel they're not alone, or give kids the right words. I hope there's something in what I write that seems sane to kids. I write a lot of things I wish someone had said to me.
Issa will play Space, 1245 Chicago, Evanston, on Thursday, Dec. 3, at 8 p.m. Tickets are $20-$32. Learn more about Issa at www.issalight.com/Issalight/news.html or blog.myspace.com/issalight.