Jane Siberry: Minimalist celebrity

Canadian singer Jane Siberry, who briefly went by the name Issa, decided a few years ago to get rid of almost all of her possessions — and recently decided to free her music, too. She had been using a “pay what you think it’s worth” price structure since 2005, but recently ended that method because of her frustrations with the payment system. From her website:

i have let paypal go. old-fashioned wheezy paranoid beast. and i can’t find a simple enough new solution. so, all music is pay-it-forward.

All 16 of Siberry’s albums can be downloaded for free from her website, if you’re interested. What interests me, however, is the unique story behind the woman and her dedication to simple and minimalist living.

From “Jane Siberry makes real lounge music” in the London Times:

Siberry travels lightly through life. In 2006 she closed her office and gave away almost all her possessions. Insofar as she has a home now, it is a log cabin in northern Ontario that’s inaccessible in the winter. “It was about removing everything that was at odds with my concept of music,” she says.”

More about her minimalist life from a May 3 article about her in The Scotsman:

There is, arguably, no performer in the world quite like Jane Siberry. Kate Bush, Joanna Newsom and PJ Harvey all show a similar fearlessness, individuality, and defiance of the usual rules in the way they approach what they do. But what other Western performer has gone quite as far as Siberry in paring back their creativity to its absolute essentials? Most people, as they get older, cling on to material possessions – letters, photos, clothes – for dear life. It’s proof that you’ve lived, that you’ve had relationships, that you’ve had some success, that you exist. Siberry, now 54, has discarded it all, in a bid “to find a new way of doing things”.

Some people, of course, may cynically regard all this as rather self-indulgent and hippyish, and may feel like repeating John Travolta’s quip in Pulp Fiction, after Samuel L Jackson tells him he’s going to give up his hitman ways to “walk the earth”. “So you decided to be a bum?” says Travolta dismissively. It’s a good joke, but an easy, cheap shot, the kind designed to keep someone in their place. Siberry, though, has never seemed very interested in doing what’s expected of her. In a society obsessed by material things, in which art has become a commodity, a lifestyle statement or just background noise, she embodies a different approach to living.

Learn more about her in her eye on jane section of her website.

17 Comments for “Jane Siberry: Minimalist celebrity”

  1. posted by LB on

    She has no possessions, no obvious form of earning money, and a home that she can’t even physically get to for a large part of the year? Where does she sleep, shower, toilet? How does she buy food? Maybe I am cynical, but this is silly and self-indulgent.

  2. posted by DoktorH on

    the full Scotsman article mentions she is touring and doing shows, so that’s income right there. Also a good excuse for keeping her home minimal if she’s not there very often. Sleep/shower/toilet are available at hotels, which is where she’d be during the winter months when the cabin is inaccessible anyway.

  3. posted by jane on

    Why is Jane admired while Vincent Kartheiser was slightly mocked?

  4. posted by Kathleen Hoppes on

    Interesting, but not very practical for 99.99% of the population.

  5. posted by Pammyfay on

    I found some of the newspaper stories about Ms. Siberry interesting. Like some other musicians, she’s done “living room tours”–she’s performed in someone’s living room for only about 20 people in exchange for room and board. It’s an interesting arrangement. She says she sells just a fraction of her CDs now as she had when she was not recording under her own label, but isn’t that the point of music–getting it out there? Sounds like she’s willing to trade thousands of “sometime fans” for a smaller core group of the faithful (reminds me of a hard-core Van Morrison fan I know! He will travel anywhere to see him.) I can understand how being under contract with a big label can constrict someone, feeling pressured to go commercial, tho.

    Concerning her minimalist living style in a broader manner, I think it’s so hard for many of us to wrap our minds around it because it’s so outside our capitalist ways. LB’s comment immediately leads me to one possible descriptive word about her: a moocher. But she’s getting on, maybe she has everything she needs physically and emotionally–we are not in her mind, so we don’t know. I can grasp the concept of being in a commune or in a kibbutz, but those are just my concepts of people doing equal work and sharing the rewards (and not everybody has to buy, maintain and store his or her own lawnmower! Ha!).

    One of the interesting comments I saw on her download site is a concern about her struggling to find a way to “tether” herself. I think this probably speaks very strongly to a lot of us here. Some of us think that our possessions, our cozy home tether us. I know that everytime I return from a vacation, I breathe a huge sigh when I walk through my front door. My bed, my shower, my paint colors even. There’s something very tethering, comforting about all that. I couldn’t imagine myself in Ms. Siberry’s “wandering” position.

  6. Avatar of PJ Doland

    posted by PJ Doland on

    Kartheiser was mocked for not having a toilet.

  7. posted by Peter on

    So not surprised to find immediate mockery. People can’t help but feel threatened when confronted by something so different.

    I admire Jane for having the courage to explore and find a better balance. There are times I feel it’s all too much and then there are times I’m too scared to let go of anything. So I get status-quo. Stories like this inspire me to push myself a little outside of my comfort zone.

  8. posted by James on

    I agree with Peter’s comment. I admire people who walk the talk. No matter how silly or self indulgent others may view it. As mentioned, I think she deserves extra kudos for making such a drastic change later in life. Especially when many, if not most, aging performers tend to rest on their laurels.

  9. posted by Lyn on

    I’m not sure if this is ‘self-indulgent’ or not, but if it is, why is that bad? I don’t see that her choices are really affecting anyone but herself. Now, if one thinks it is merely an attention-getting scheme, that’s a whole other thing…

  10. posted by Cole on

    How is this any more self-indulgent than having a house full of junk?

    Also, (trying to help conversation), why is this not practical for 99.99% of the population? Thus far I’ve found on a lot of minimalist websites a reaction of anger against those people who have “broken free”. Why anger/annoyance over the way someone else has chosen to live?

  11. posted by Lose That Girl on

    I haven’t heard about Jane for quite some time. I used to listen to her music in the 80s. Good to see that she’s still about performing. I give her kudos for such a minimalist lifestyle. I couldn’t do it.

  12. posted by ali on

    i don’t understand how this choice is self-indulgent.
    i don’t see that jane’s personal responsibility is being diminished.
    how is your conclusion reached?

  13. posted by LB on

    I think it’s self-indulgent because the article only presented her life as freeing, exciting, choosing to be possession-free while neglecting to describe how the subject deals with real facts of life such as eating, bathing, and sheltering herself. It only presents the “positive” side of her life. On the surface, the article sounds so nice, so earthy, so laudable. HONESTLY – did no one else but me think “so what does she do to earn a living? how does she buy food? is she snowed in the cabin during winter or does she live somewhere else, and if she’s in the cabin, how did she buy the food she’d need to stockpile, and if somewhere else, where?” And the ultra-right-wing-conservative in me thought, great, she gets free healthcare and contributes nothing via income tax or sales tax. That’s definately self-indulgent.

  14. posted by luminousmuse on

    I continue to be intrigued by Jane Siberry’s experiments in living. I saw her a few years back, and though I was initially frustrated that she didn’t do any of the old songs, by the end of the night I was totally captured by her presence.

    For anyone interested, I discuss her ground-breaking early work here:

    http://luminousmuse.wordpress......rt-2-of-3/

  15. posted by Stephanie on

    This is really interesting. Good for her for choosing her path. Yet, I’m trying to pinpoint the negative feelings I experience when I hear about artistic or spiritual people who choose such different ways to live.

    Maybe envious because she doesn’t have to take care of anyone but herself. On the other hand, maybe guilty, because I really don’t want to live her way she chooses. Maybe guilty because I enjoy my home and stuff and my frivolous comforts. Myabe guilt for being a conventional worker bee. Maybe resentful, because the conventional worker bees with junky houses and the disposable income to enjoy her concerts are the ones who make her lifestyle possible to a certain extent.

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  17. posted by ali on

    perhaps it is the way our societies have been conditioned – the ‘acceptable’ or ‘right’ way to think and live as being to fulfil duty and accumulate belongings – which directs one to think that a life less polluted by obligations and chattels is one of self-indulgence?

    history shows the world is laced together by those whose radical ways and ideas proved uncomfortable to others: for example, how long after Copernicus and Galileo died did the world really run with the notion that humans weren’t at the centre of the universe?

    i don’t mean to suggest that Jane Siberry and Vincent Kartheiser are revolutionaries – just that their choices support the idea that ‘society’s way’ isn’t necessarily always the ‘right way’, and is certainly not the ‘only way’, for everyone and that, essentially, our personal experience of this life at any given moment comes down to the responsible application of our free will.

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