Imagine no possessions

A FEW WEEKS AGO, JANE Siberry held what you could call an extreme yard sale.

"I guess I feel like things were weighing me down," she explains, insofar as she can explain it. "I don't know," she sighs. "It's still under investigation. I was impatient with feeling weighed down. I want to focus on being a musician, so anything that gets in my way ..."

As if that wasn't enough, Siberry is playing fast and loose with her one source of income, her music. Since 1996 she has run her own label, Sheeba. No more. The master tapes of all her 14 albums have been thrown in the bin; all that remains are MP3s, which she is selling on her website. Except she's not exactly selling them; the site now has a policy of "self-determined pricing", an honour system where you pay what you think is appropriate. If you want to download her entire back catalogue for free, then you can. "Maybe I'll just stop copyrighting my songs," she tells me, clearly on a roll. "What am I saying when I do that? I'm sort of pissing on something like a dog. Maybe people can take them if they want and if they don't treat them right that's their problem, not mine." She believes in trusting people, she says. "I hate locking my door and I often don't."

If Siberry's behaviour strikes you as eccentric, you wouldn't be alone. In many ways, she's Canada's answer to Kate Bush, a breathtakingly imaginative, fiercely individual songwriter who plays by her own rules and is frequently labelled "quirky" or plain bonkers for her troubles. If the name is new to you (she's better known across the Atlantic than here), delve into her back catalogue - while you still can, for who knows what she'll do next - and you'll find all kinds of treasures, from a 25-minute odyssey about dragons and lost innocence to a funny song about her dog.

Arguably, Siberry outdoes Bush for sheer range and invention. Her 1981 debut album was a more playful cousin to Joni Mitchell's Blue. By 1983 she was making something resembling synth pop. Then the songs got longer, more multi-layered and theatrical, with Siberry often playing several characters. In one of her most ambitious, The Bird in the Gravel, she plays a heartbroken maid, a truck driver, a servant and a kitchen full of noisy cooks. Then, just as fans were getting used to this, she started making country music. Then a jazz album. You get the idea.

All this won Siberry acclaim and a cult audience. Increasingly, though, her record label had no idea what to do with her, and suggested they choose the producer of her next album. Siberry said no, left, and set up Sheeba. "I'm such a different person now I can't really remember what all those things meant to me," she says when asked about this time. "I thought Sheeba would be a springboard for freedom, and it was to a certain extent." But Siberry soon became frustrated with the limitations of running her own business. "I had the freedom but I didn't have the cash to have other people on my label and have a great artwork team. I wasn't really proud of the company." If she couldn't do it properly, she decided, she just wouldn't do it.

I ask if she's an all or nothing kind of person. "Probably to my chagrin, sometimes," she responds. The decision to rid herself of all her possessions was, she says, "an organic, slow-building thing". "I have very few clothes, my diet's very simple. My lifestyle means I've removed all debt from my life, my bills are down to almost zero. I don't need that much to live well; I'm often on tour with just a suitcase. I'd go home and think, 'oh my gosh I feel like ate too much dessert, looking at all this'."

Since the yard sale, she says, "sometimes I feel pretty shaky. A lot of people say, oh gosh, I'd be terrified to do what you did, and that makes me nervous." But, she adds, "there's a recognition that it's brewing somewhere in their consciousness. I feel like a barometer of what's in the air." She believes people have too much "material baggage", and know it. At first, she says, "I kept one letter from each person I love, and one or two photos, then I thought maybe I should let go of that too. I threw out thousands of photos. It's odd with photos, you think, here's 20 of this little girl I adore, let's reduce it to two, and then one, and then I think, well, why do I need any? I can just go to her mother's house and look at them."

So where is Siberry living now? Hotels, mostly, since she's on tour (solo with backing track, another bill-saving device). When I called her she was in a laundromat, playing with a dog. Next week she plays in the UK for the first time since 1999. Catch her if you can, since it could be your last chance. After the tour she's just going to "follow the natural lines of energy flow" wherever they take her.

"Maybe I'll meet this great musician, rent a room for a few weeks and record and see what happens. I'm just trying to find a new way of doing things."

• Jane Siberry plays the Queen's Hall, Edinburgh, on 29 March.

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