Kindred spirits on a journey into sound

by Michael Pronko

The angelic voice of Canadian chanteuse Jane Siberry has graced a stunning series of CDs over the past 20 years. Since the early 1980s, she has released her own recordings and contributed songs to numerous compilations. Perhaps most famously, the lovely “Calling All Angels” was included on the soundtrack for the Wim Wenders’ film “Until the End of the World,” nestled between works by the Talking Heads, Lou Reed, Patti Smith and R.E.M. Her album “When I Was a Boy” was produced with help from Brian Eno, and the popular “Bound by the Beauty” included tracks recorded in the middle of a forest. Her singer-songwriter approach has never strayed from poetic images, uncommonly beautiful melodies and an earthy intimacy.

Siberry recently performed a standing-room-only show at Aoyama’s Mandala with Morgan Fisher. The audience was so enrapt by her performance that several people turned around to hush me when I happened to clink the ice cubes in my drink during a quiet pause. Such devotion, however, is unsurprising, given the care and passion with which Siberry performs.

Siberry and Fisher met after he e-mailed her about contributing a song to his “Miniatures” recording and they’ve been in touch ever since. Siberry will return the favor to Fisher by performing as a guest at his shows at Yokohama’s Motion Blue next week.

The singer took time to answer questions over coffee at the home of her friend, musician and producer Takafumi Sotoma.

Your lyrics are very poetic yet simple. Is that a conscious thing?

I do try to keep things simple, because as simple as you keep it, I think the audience’s imagination can extrapolate from my imagination. There’s always so much richness even in what’s simple.

So, you leave room for the audience to come into the songs.

I leave a lot of space just to feel. I don’t know what complex means, but I really resist feeling like I can’t reach the everyday person. That’s really important to me.

At your show, it felt like everyone was connected.

I hope that people feel that when they’re at my show, there’s a space for them. I want to transport you somewhere. Maybe that’s the role of the arts, to offer a place to go, or a journey that is peaceful. Someone was talking to me yesterday about a place in Shibuya Station, and she said there are thousands of people moving through the station, and you turn a corner and there’s this little quiet tea room. You can’t imagine you’d relax in Shibuya Station, but there’s this calm space.

So you feel your songs are like . . .

Yes, like a tea room in Shibuya Station. [laughs]

Where do your songs come from?

There’s lots of ideas in the air all the time. I recognize the symptoms. Something starts to magnetize. Often it’s just the lyric idea, or sometimes it’s a musical shape. To me, it is important to have everything connected. In music, everything is exaggerating everything else in it, so it should be a good marriage, or else you get a betrayal within the song. There’s a responsibility for a musician in that regard.

Does that mean you don’t want to include emotions like anger?

No, because in my music there is a lot of anger and frustration. I’m still a very angry person, but it’s more that when you’re going to sing about something angry, you want it to be effective. If you’re going to do it, then go to the heart of it. It doesn’t mean that sad things always need really sad music. It doesn’t work that way often. It’s just finding that perfect counterpoint.

So, you’re here in Japan for a month? What about after that?

I’m staying here with my friend Takafumi Sotoma. We’re collaborating on a work, then I’ll be doing two recordings, one for Sheeba, my label, and an original record. Recently, I’ve moved out of my house and gotten rid of many of my possessions. I shredded 25 trash bags of old stuff, letters, accounting, notes, journals and just threw it all out. Right now, I’m living out of a few boxes, trying to see what the least is that I can live with. I’ve sought to simplify. Maybe I’ll get rid of the house, too.

Fisher plays keyboards. Other than that, it’s hard to pigeonhole him. He came of musical age in Britain in the late ’60s, which may explain his a love of experimentation. As keyboardist with Mott the Hoople, he found himself smack in the middle of the progressive glam-rock scene. Not content with that, he moved on to the keyboard slot with Queen and later produced seminal punk band The Dead Kennedys. A collaboration with Yoko Ono resulted in “Echoes of Lennon” in 1990. Recently, though, he’s focused on his own diverse projects from ambient music to minimalist compilations, such as the excellent “Miniatures.” This CD is an eclectic mix of 51 one-minute shots from Fisher’s favorite musicians, including Siberry.

Fisher calls Tokyo home these days and has his own production company here. Next week’s shows in Yokohama will feature his lush compositions, the harmonic textures of The O.K. String Quartet from Japan, and Siberry’s poetry and vocals.

Via e-mail and phone, Fisher talked about his musical trajectory over the years.

Can you tell me more about what you describe as your contradictory mix of spirituality and humorous punk sensibility?

Well, spirituality is often considered dull, precious or boring. Humor and punk is often considered fun but not very deep. People are so afraid to accept that we naturally have these and many other qualities inside us, and love to divide and categorize.

Your influences have “electronic” — synthesizers, samples, ambient sounds — as a consistent thread. What is it about electronic music that appeals to you?

My experience of electronic music began when, as a teenager in the late ’60s, I discovered pioneers like Karlheinz Stockhausen and Edgard Varese [a hero of Frank Zappa]. These forward-thinking composers wrestled with the early technology and produced astounding music. Later, with the rapid rise of cheap, easily available technology and the simultaneous rise of disco music, electronic music became monotonously rhythmic. I am happy to see that in recent years, many artists such as Portishead have taken it to a much more intimate level, and indeed some of the textures they create hark back to the early years of electronic music. Computers and samplers which have, like a paint brush, no personality of their own, transform and transmogrify sounds and voices to take us into more complex realms. I always bow to the power of technology for allowing us to express wider, spiritual feelings, dreamlike images and inner emotions.

You’ve worked with a large number of very hip people. Were any of them particularly influential? Who left a lasting impression on you?

On my two “Miniatures” albums, I invited artists from numerous genres and cultures to contribute a one-minute piece of music. I was “simpatico” with most of them at some level, which is why I invited them — and learned something from all of them. Those that especially come to mind include Terry Riley, Phillip Kent Bimstein, Peadar O’Riada, the Penguin Cafe Orchestra, Hermeto Pascoal, Gavin Bryars, Chris Hughes, Linton Kwesi Johnson, Piero Milesi, Moondog, Robert Wyatt, Quentin Crisp, Ivor Cutler and — of course — Jane Siberry.

How did they all come together?

Initially I agonized for weeks over some kind of concept for the album. I even considered asking all the artists to record their own version of Chopin’s “Minute Waltz.” Thank God I rejected that idea! In the end, a minute of carte blanche seemed the best solution. Most of the artists enjoyed the discipline of haiku-like conciseness: Say what you have to say and kindly leave the record and make way for the next artist. No development, jams or variations allowed — one theme, expressed clearly, with as much depth and feeling as you can.

You draw your own bits and pieces from all over the map, with genres, styles and rhythms. How do you pull all those together?

I think a large part of it was having my brain cells permanently modified by exposure, at the tender age of 16 or so, to The Beatles’ later music. “Strawberry Fields Forever” was the ultimate rock collage, and I was gobsmacked by several Jimi Hendrix Experience concerts in small pubs in London. Rock suddenly became symphonic, oceanic and all-encompassing. There seems to be something in British rock that allows it to absorb virtually anything.

How did you end up in Japan?

I came here on a whim and on a vacation in 1985 and never left. I also love traditional Japanese culture, which was avant-garde long, long before the term was conceived. The way Japan, like a sponge, soaks up influences from here, there and everywhere, mirrors precisely the way I have absorbed influences of all kinds since I was a child.