Music

Women and song

Three releases shed light on the evolving role of the female singer-songwriter

Nicholas Jennings November 20 2000
Music

Women and song

Three releases shed light on the evolving role of the female singer-songwriter

Nicholas Jennings November 20 2000

Women and song

Music

Ever since Joni Mitchell’s confessional ballads first filled smoky coffee-houses back in the 1960s, Canadian women have been drawn to the singer-songwriter form. Although the instrumentation has evolved beyond no-frills guitar, Mitchell’s influence continues to loom over many female artists. Lilith Fair may have been Sarah McLachlan’s baby, but Mitchell was unquestionably the music festival’s midwife. Three recent Canadian albums reveal just how much the female singer-songwriter form has changed.

Three releases shed light on the evolving role of the female singer-songwriter

Toronto’s Jane Siberry launched her career as a coffeehouse singer while studying microbiology at the University of Guelph in the late 1970s. During the next decade, she released a series of critically acclaimed albums with unusual song structures and quirky poetry. Since abandoning a major-label record deal in 1996, Siberry has established herself as a successful entrepreneur (owner of her own Sheeba Records) and issued several live recordings, a collection of songs she wrote as a teenager and one experimental album that involved a 29-minute tour through New York City.

Now, with Hush (Sheeba/Sounds True Records), the always unpredictable artist has released her most surprising project: an album of traditional American and Celtic spirituals. Accompanying herself on piano, accordion, harp and harmonica, Siberry taps into the melodic purity of such classics as Jacob’s Ladder and O Shenandoah. While the world hardly needs another version of Swing Low, Sweet Chariot, Siberry’s exquisite readings of Pontchartrain and As I Roved Outranks, those old Irish ballads as moving as anything in current pop.

T ike Siberry, Sarah Harmer was bitten by the music bug during her college days, at Queen’s University in Kingston, Ont. After performing in the alternative rock band Weeping Tile, the singerguitarist set a solo course for herself and released a charming collection of her father’s favourite country tunes, titled Songs for Clem, which she recorded on her back porch. But with You Were Here (Cold Snap/Universal), Harmer has emerged as a singer-songwriter of exceptionable depth. Blessed with a distinctive voice that occasionally breaks into falsetto, Harmer deals with the emotional nuances of love gone sour in songs such as Around This Comer. She also captures the joys of romance on Open Window (The Wedding Song) and Lodestar, a vividly detailed sketch of a starlit boat ride. You Were Here signals the arrival of a major new talent.

Vancouver’s Kinnie Starr is herself a formidable young talent, but she has little to do with acoustic folk or pop music. Instead Starr, who released a startling independent debut album, Tidy, in 1996 and appeared in Lilith Fair the following year, prefers spoken poetry and the rough-and-tumble worlds of alternative rock and hip-hop. That eclectic mix attracted the attention of Mercury Records, which signed Starr to a recording deal. But Starr headed out on her own again after Mercury was absorbed last year within the Universal Music empire, and the selfdescribed “feminist half-breed”—she is Métis—found that she and the label had different artistic agendas.

Not surprising: it’s hard to imagine many major record companies issuing an album like Tune-Up, which Starr has released on her own Violet Inch label. Full of spiritual chants, baby cries, programmed beats and urgent rapping about love and unity, it’s experimental in the extreme. Some of it sounds raw, even unfinished. But the best tracks, including the slow, sexy Warm and the dark Miles have an undeniable power. And the patient listener who leaves the CD playing after the last song, Unspun, has finished, will be rewarded with two hidden tracks—one a sensuous bluesy number, the other an ode to “friendship and creativity,” both of which bode well for future recordings. Although she doesn’t fit the traditional singersongwriter mould, Starr is an artist with a deeply personal message that would make even Joni Mitchell proud.

Nicholas Jennings