WHEN Radiohead self-released their In Rainbows album as a "pay what you want" download in late 2007, they were hailed as revolutionaries – a hugely successful band who were challenging all the rules about how the music industry should operate, and taking the power out of the hands of major labels.
It was a good story, except that Jane Siberry – a world-renowned Canadian singer-songwriter who has duetted with KD Lang, had her music featured in several Hollywood movies and released well over a dozen albums – did it first.
Siberry went much further, in fact. Since the late 1990s she had been releasing music on her own label, Sheeba, after becoming frustrated by major labels' desire to dictate the kind of music she made. Years before Radiohead, she began letting fans download music from her website for whatever price they wanted to pay (or, indeed, no money at all). Then, in 2006, she took a more radical step – she wound down the label, sold her house and almost all of her possessions, and decided to live her life as a kind of wandering troubadour. "I was impatient with feeling weighed down," she told me in an interview that year. "I want to focus on being a musician."
The last time Siberry performed in Scotland, in 2006, it was to a reverent audience in Edinburgh's Queen's Hall. Her return to the country next week will be rather different, reflecting her new approach to making and performing music. As part of her Salon tour of intimate, small-scale shows, she will play gigs in Portobello, Glasgow and Gatehouse of Fleet, two of them in people's houses, one in an art gallery and one in a community centre, each to not much more than two dozen fans.
If the shows themselves are low key, they're part of a somewhat epic world tour. After kicking off in Toronto on 6 January, the Salon tour has since wound its way across Australia, stopping off in a "cosy private lounge room" in Sydney, the on to New Zealand in a house in Oratia on the edge of a rainforest and a shed on a llama farm in Waitakere, near Auckland. After next week's Scottish dates Siberry will travel onwards to Sweden, Norway, Denmark, Holland and Poland, mostly performing in people's houses.
Eccentric? Only by the usual rules of the music industry, which Siberry has been casually disregarding since she released her first album back in 1981. Back then, she sounded like a more playful Joni Mitchell, but she went on to try synthpop, country music and jazz in quick succession, each with an idiosyncratic, witty approach that was part Kate Bush, part Laurie Anderson. Sometimes she wrote short, funny songs about her dog, other times she wrote songs that were 25 minutes long and about dragons. When she played the Queen's Hall in Edinburgh, back in 2006, she sang a 12-minute musical poem about a dreamlike journey through a forest, a 30-second version of What Shall We Do With the Drunken Sailor, I Know My Redeemer Liveth by Handel, and a song about a teenage crush that contained the line "by the way did you know that Presbyterians is an anagram of Britney Spears?" It's no wonder that record companies could never work out what to do with her.
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. Oh, and her songs are pretty great too.
• For more information on Jane Siberry's Salon tour, visit www.janesiberry.com/Jane_Siberry/tour.html