MIA SHEARD and KITCHEN MUSIC at Ted's Wrecking Yard (549 College), Tuesday (November 14). $6. 928-5012. Rating: NNNNN
you believe Mia Sheard when she tells you the impetus behind her fantastical writing is that she's completely fed up with hearing stupid love songs. There's love, of a sort, in her recently released Reptilian disc, but you have to wade through some truly kaleidoscopic shit to find it.
Her images are at once beguiling and wholly weird, as if Lewis Carroll had decided that, after spiriting Alice through her byzantine adventures, he'd follow up by writing lyrics for a classically trained, Toronto-based mezzo who writes zig-zaggy pop. You know, for kicks.
It's doubtful, though, that he would have wrestled with the same jagged subject matter that she storms through. There's no Queen of Hearts here -- it's the men in Sheard's life who are the vain ones. And where Alice trips over the White Rabbit, Reptilian is more likely to recount someone accidentally witnessing a suicide.
It's accessible stuff, but little about the new disc points to anything else in the pop canon, and that includes the chick pop catalogue that numbers offbeat wonders like Björk, Tori Amos and Polly Harvey.
The ability to write words carrying this kind of freight is impressive. Sheard understands how crucial melody and atmospherics are to good music, but when it comes to lyrics, she'll try anything.
"Listening to (Rheostatics member) Martin Tielli's lyrics really had an effect on me," she says over Caesar salad and ginger ale. "He brings in the strangest images that aren't poetic but are just... perfect.
"I thought, "Why can't I write from the perspective of a turtle?' I also looked to J.D. Salinger in trying to say something really profound in very few words."
She's definitely into real life -- consider her extended travels through India and her work with learning-disabled adults -- but given these worldly pursuits, Sheard shoots from a pretty obscure place. And sometimes she pays for it.
"That's where I think I've failed," she says bluntly. "You always think people will get what you're talking about, but then someone will tell me, "Oh, that song is a love song,' and it's not at all. Maybe on the next record I'll be able to convey what I want to convey."
In the meantime, nothing is going to distract her from her favourite activity -- playing with words.
"With lyrics," she continues, "I'll sit and stare at a wall. Sometimes I'll have a line or an image in my head. The Tortoise And The Heiress (a Carroll-influenced lyric, for sure) was like that, except I had the feeling of the song before the words."
Sheard is a Toronto-reared girl from an established, WASPy (her word) T.O.-entrenched family. Relatives include a former mayor (her great-great-grandfather), a judge (her dad) and a writer (her older sister Sarah). She attended Jarvis Collegiate, where she met now-Montreal-based singer/songwriter Renann, who remains a dear pal.
"I had a singing teacher at Jarvis tell me I was good, and since I wasn't very good at practically anything else," she chuckles, "that gave me a lot of confidence."
She sang in choirs at school and took three years of professional singing lessons at the Royal Conservatory of Music, where she jumped waist-deep into Britten and Bach.
"It was heaven. But I knew I didn't have the voice to sing opera, which was fine because I don't like opera anyway. And musical theatre is too cheesy for my taste."
Before deciding to pursue music full- throttle, she acted, making her way into a Second City masterclass even though she admits, "I'm not a good actor and not especially comedic." Then there was a stint in a group called Bloorstation.
She's vegetarian, a Cancer, and she loves the songwriting of Luke Doucet of Vancouver's Veal so much that she covers a song of his on Reptilian, going on to plug his band in its liner notes.
Perhaps most significant, though, both to her music and to her life, is her marriage to famed record producer Michael Phillip Wojewoda (Barenaked Ladies' Gordon, Spirit of the West's Faithlift). Seeing them together -- or better, hearing them talk about each other out of one another's earshot -- is to witness calm, sturdy devotion.
While she is smart enough to tap into the charity that begins at home -- with Sheard, Wojewoda co-produced Reptilian, and she admits to using him as a songwriting sounding board -- she has also been stung by the snide skepticism that dogs every wife of a husband who's established in the same field.
Consider, for instance, a gig that Sheard was to play last August at the Railway Club in Vancouver. Since both Doucet and Tielli happened to be in town, the three decided to perform together.
"The possibilities of being overshadowed were very great," she recalls, though anyone who's seen Sheard flatten a roomful of people would find that unlikely.
"Anyway, apparently word went out that Martin Tielli and Luke Doucet were going to be playing the Railway Club along with somebody's wife. Interesting.
"But later, this woman who attended the gig told me she showed up expecting to see somebody's wife but was absolutely riveted by me.
"That was probably the best thing I've ever heard. There I was, holding my own. It's been a long time coming."
Which gives rise to another, somewhat more delicate point. While there's no questioning Sheard's talent or vision, at 35, she's getting into the pop game relatively late. These days, it's not enough to just attract young record buyers; any label worth its salt needs performers on the roster who might demand Clearasil on a rider before beer.
"True," Sheard confirms. And yes, she's indie, albeit with major distribution.
"But I actually think most of the record-buying population is closer to my age. I don't buy the idea that you have to be a 19-year-old ingenue to sell records. At that age, there just isn't that much life to write about. Hopefully, there are people wanting someone to express life."