JANE SIBERRY at the Church at Berkeley (315 Queen East), Friday (December 19). $30. 416-870-8000. Rating: NNNNN
You can fight all you want, but you may already be infected with the Christmas virus. It starts spreading the minute savvy retailers clear the spiders and jack-o'-lanterns from their window displays every first of November and all of a sudden seasonal symptoms break out like chicken pox. Sparkly red-and-white Santas leer from every storefront, and dogs sporting felt antlers skulk sheepishly down the street.
The worst part, though, has got to be the auditory plague of kitschy carol muzak. You know what I'm talking about - on any given day, you'll hear at least five different synth-souped versions of Joy To The World or White Christmas piped out of café speakers and mall PAs.
That's what inspired Jane Siberry's latest album.
"So many of these Christmas songs are beautiful, but I can't stand the commercial stuff," confesses the ethereal local chanteuse over a cellphone before a gig in BC. "It started out as a straight-ahead Christmas record - or more specifically, an alternative to typical Christmas crap - but in June it changed direction."
The switch happened when Siberry was reading the Book of Esther with her mom and stumbled on the phrase "Shushan the palace." She decided it was a fitting title for the seasonal disc she was working on to raise cash for her next original project. She dumped the cheesy moniker Snow On Snow, and polled her savvy fan base via e-mail for song suggestions.
Instead of tired yuletide standards, Siberry suddenly found herself reinventing beautiful hymns by the likes of Mendelssohn, Bach and Handel. The result is her elegant new Shushan The Palace (Sheeba) disc, a classy set of classical tunes that shine through the singer's typically angelic delivery.
The hitch is that the straight-up godliness of the Shushan songs makes them difficult for anyone uncomfortable around organized religion - including herself - to stomach.
"The Christian thing was tough," she sighs. "I'm hoping people can squint a bit with their ears. It was tricky - there were some 'saviours' and 'Jesus Christs' that made me nervous, so I tried to combat them by saying, 'damn!' after every verse!"
Siberry hasn't dropped a disc since 2001's City, which was actually more of a collection of rarities, collaborations and soundtrack work. In the meantime, while trying to settle back into a writing headspace, the singer's been performing, pining for her adopted home of New York City ("The only place I really felt a sense of musical community," she asserts) and popping up on other people's projects - such as Emmylou Harris's recent Stumble Into Grace (Nonesuch) disc.
Working with Harris, says Siberry, happened after a chance meeting backstage at a McGarrigle Sisters show (the Canuck duo also show up on Stumble Into Grace).
"I don't think she knew my strengths and weaknesses or much else about me, though, She didn't push me to go beyond one take," she recalls, sounding slightly peeved. "But we're both very strong in terms of production, so we worked together on that. Her engineer hadn't told her how to use Pro Tools - she had no idea she had more vocal tracks! Through clever subterfuge I told her she could add more."
The savvy businesswoman's also been running her self-started Sheeba label, which she recently moved from Toronto to Vancouver to accommodate a highly important team member.
She's not asking for special favours, though. Siberry's the first musician I've ever heard dismiss Canada's arts grant system.
"When I started Sheeba, I didn't apply for grants for a long time, because I felt I'd had a lot of advantages. When I finally applied for - and got - two grants, I felt a bit sick afterwards. There's a strange phenomenon that happens with grants: you get grant-head and start talking in grant-speak and you produce grant art. It's like your vision shifts. Call me crazy, but I want to feel like I've pulled my own weight."