A summons from the Queen always brings forth a sense of both adventure and stark raving terror. You know there will be a journey. You know you will be tested. You know that at some point when you least expect it, fireflies, dragons or shooting stars may issue from between those painted lips. So you go. You wouldn’t miss it for the world.
The Queen has many names. She’s the artist known as Jane Siberry, formerly known as Issa, formerly known as Jane Siberry, formerly known as . . . never mind. I think of her as Glinda, the Good Witch of the East. She calls on me when I need her most.
When she invited me on tour in December 2009, it was a dream come true - from Victoria to Halifax, San Francisco to New York. Nevertheless I set out with no small amount of trepidation. Why would an experimental artist like Jane would want a hick like me opening her show? Would her audience like my stuff? Maybe I should choose songs she might have influenced. And what should I wear? Lose the hat? Unthinkable. But I knew I’d have to kick it up a notch. I’d be traveling with the queen.
Jane herself carries only one backpack containing a change of clothes, two fabulous dresses for stage, and accessories. Having chosen each piece to work with the others, she is always dressed beautifully, but her most essential item is her Blackberry. She does all her own road managing and promotion, so with endless minutiae to consider, it’s good sense that she’s always trying to simplify.
In recent years she closed down her office, sold her house, and created a web store that allowed users to download tunes for a suggested .99 cents or nothing at all - dreaming of a day when nobody had to cart around CDs. But once she’d sold all of her merch, she found people still wanted a physical memento of their concert experience – a CD.
Therefore, we suffer “The Happy Bag” - a sturdy polka-dotted tote full of merch, which weighs a ton. When we sell CDs, we ‘re happier about the space we’re making than the money. It’s always a gamble packing CDs - you don’t want to come home with any, and you don’t want to sell out before the tour is through. I was pretty sure I’d over-packed.
It sure felt like it, most mornings. First the alarm. Twenty minutes later we’d be hailing a cab, off to the airport, train or bus station. We had a few comedies of error those cavernous spaces, losing each other, repacking overweight bags, and racing for connections. Once on the other side, another cab ride to the venue, where it was to be hoped, all was in order.
As the tour progressed, I got used to singing through top-notch gear, with talented people twisting the knobs. Unsure of my set list, however, I asked Jane’s opinion. “You should sing songs that are more “you,” “ she said maddeningly. What the hell was that supposed to mean? I wrote all these songs, so aren’t they all me? But gradually I came to understand what she meant. I was choosing songs I thought would please her audience, instead of telling my real story.
I had a lot to learn about that from the Queen. She has a genius for capturing an audience immediately, weaving her songs together with a poetic narrative that enfolds the listener in a world of wonder. She always ready to be vulnerable, exposing herself in ways most of us never dare.
The theme on this tour revolved around the potential to be superheroes in our own lives. We were always on the lookout for ordinary people doing an extraordinary job - like Tony the cab driver, who saves wounded birds from traffic. Theresa the night manager who placed the artificial flowers just so. The man at Air Canada who upgraded us to First Class – though Jane hoped aloud that he wasn’t giving us special treatment. I didn’t mind!
No matter how many times I saw Jane’s show, it was always fresh. When her encore included Calling All Angels, it generally turned into a hymnal sing-along, with half the audience in tears. The amazing thing was that she was able to produce this reaction consistently regardless of how she herself was feeling.
Because lots of times there were problems to distract. One day, we missed two flight connections in the Houston airport – getting lost literally going from A to B. We arrived a half hour late and had to put on a good show under less than ideal conditions. But Jane always delivered. Afterwards, she’d stand patiently shaking hands, signing CDs and listening to people’s stories. Meanwhile, I’d be manning the CD booth, explaining self-determined pricing and helping people make the right decision.
By the time Jane settled, I could always tell whether she was happy with the gig. One night, so frustrated by the promoter’s apathy, she refused payment. “Oh, the show was fine,” she told her agent the next day. “And you’ll still get your percentage. I just won’t deal with promoters who don’t care anymore.”
Afterwards, she’d pay the cab driver extra to drive us around and get a look at the city before checking in. Jane knows all the right places to stay, introducing me to neighborhoods like Harvard Square in Cambridge and the French Quarter of New Orleans. She always chose accommodation based on what she felt would enhance our experience. The grandest check-ins included the Latham in Philadelphia and the Lord Nelson in Halifax. The funkiest included the Austin Hotel and the Chelsea in New York. Every place we stopped, we met good people.
And the skylines! I’ll never forget the full moon over San Francisco. By the time it had turned into a crescent we were in New York, where it hung over Manhattan at five AM, lacking only a little boy with a fishing rod in its belly. Certainly for me the tour was the stuff of dreams, winding up with a sold-out two-night stand at Hugh’s Room in Toronto to celebrate Jane’s new record “With What Shall I Keep Warm.”
I’d played there two years before, so petrified that I’d said not a single word throughout the entire set. But after watching and learning from the Queen over thirty shows, I now felt only pleasant anticipation. I was relieved that my mother had Fed-Ex’ed me another box of CDs, as I had only five left to sell after the voracious audiences on the East Coast.
After a solid opening set, both mine and Jane’s CDs flew off the table all night like doves, and to my wonder I sold my whole box. We went home celebrating, wondering how the next night could possibly get any better. It was the last show of the tour, and beneath our excitement we were both sorry it was coming to an end.
That night, I told the audience that touring with the Queen is like a pajama party on a magic carpet ride. Through unexpected roadblocks and graces both large and small, each night Jane’s show reminded me that self-realization is possible, magic is real and that yes, love is everything. When I started singing, it seemed like her message finally sank in. I was flat out of CDs to sell, so I had nothing to lose. I fell into my set with an ease and naturalness I’d never before experienced. That feeling was worth more than all the CD sales in the world.
Herself looked more like Glinda than ever, transcendent in pink tulle, calling all angels to join us as she wove her spell. Along with so many friends, family, and fans, I was overwhelmed by her creative generosity, loathe to see the evening end. And when at last we found ourselves in our hotel room, she presented me, the worthy traveler, with a reward.
After countless airports, train stations, cabs and buses, the brand new bag I'd packed in early November was a beat-up wreck. So Jane sent me home with the sturdy "Happy Bag," in its place, now divested of its former contents and in near-perfect condition. Unpacking it, I couldn't help hoping I’d be packing it again soon.
And Jane? She’s always on the move. Whatever she’s looking for tonight, whether it be the address of a venue, a Starbuck’s coffee-shop, or the intrinsic value of any human exchange, I’m sure that she will find it. She has her Blackberry, her computer, and her common sense. God save the Queen.
As printed in BC Musician Magazine.