There’s a skull and crossbones on her welcome mat, but don’t let that fool you. Bif Naked (born Beth Torbert) is all warmth; no need for a warning. Her almost-waterfront Vancouver condo is a testament to her promiscuous spirituality, the consequence of a multi-religious upbringing, mostly in Manitoba: Her family observed Ramadan – complete with daylight-hours fasting; they celebrated Passover; on Christmas, her parents threw a birthday party for Jesus. In her apartment, there are Buddha statues, menorahs, a large painting she made of her dog Niklas wearing a bindi. CBC Radio 2 is playing on the stereo and there’s coconut water in the fridge.
Bif Naked, 41, once the poster girl for Vancouver punk, all sexy and dangerous, is these days more likely to tweet a “Namaste” than scream obscenities from the stage. A breast-cancer survivor, she has embraced yoga, Twitter (68,000 followers and counting) and healthy living. With a spread of nuts, dates, granola bars and vegan chocolate cake before us, we talk life, death and music, on the occasion of her new digital release, Forever: Acoustic Hits & Other Delights, featuring pared-down treatments of hits such as Spaceman, Lucky and I Love Myself Today, as well as four new tracks. It’s been three years since her last studio release, The Promise, which she made while undergoing chemotherapy and radiation. Since then, she’s also been working on a memoir for HarperCollins. She’s just out of hospital again – a health scare involving her stomach – after undergoing heart surgery last spring.
You look great.
God bless you. I actually have as much makeup on as a kabuki. That’s my thing. I have a friend, she always says “Biffy, you’ve just got to put on the kabuki makeup every day. Screw ’em all, doesn’t matter what people say or think, doesn’t matter how you feel, throw your kabuki on and go get your groceries.”
Do you wear makeup every day, or is this just for our benefit?
Every day. When I was in chemotherapy, I didn’t have the opportunity to go through cancer treatment as a woman. I was Bif Naked in treatment. So literally I had to put my Bif Naked suit on every day when I went to the cancer clinic or the grocery store. That’s just how it was. So I had a bunch of wigs and I just went full on Nora Desmond every day. And I went about my business.
How long have you been working on the memoir?
Let’s see, my manager Peter [Karroll] started badgering me probably the minute all my hair fell out. He was like “Oh crap you’re probably going to croak, kid, so let’s get it written.” I’m, like, fair enough, I see the point. And then I started on it.
Let’s talk about the record. What was the thinking behind it? You’re calling it acoustic, but it’s not entirely acoustic.
It’s called acoustic because it was initially intended to be acoustic versions of the singles. I did a rock tour after I came back from all my cancer treatments and perhaps it was too early. It was probably three weeks after my ovarectomy, for God’s sake. But it was so different from my last record at that time because suddenly it was a sea of cameras. That’s all I saw; I didn’t see a face; I just saw iPhones. And I went back to the hotel and it was all over the Internet and I just looked like chemo hair. I had short hair and I probably was touring too early and I felt so stupid. I said I don’t want to do this. This does not feel natural for me. You know, I was a very high-energy performer, my entire career. And I was, like, it feels contrived. And then someone asked us to play acoustically as part of a [charitable] event and we did and I loved it. I loved playing Spaceman the way we wrote it, which was just acoustic guitar. And it was this sad little song about wanting to be rescued. I’m a dramatic girl. That’s how it was written. And so we started doing these acoustic shows. And I was always getting asked why don’t you have an acoustic record? Where can we buy these songs? It was a response to that.
The first track of your new record took me by surprise. It’s essentially a pop song.
That’s funny because Ryan [Stewart] and I wrote So Happy I Could Die as a ballad and when we do it acoustically, it’s a ballad. Everyone’s quiet in the audience. It’s really intimate.
Given what you’ve been through, when you sing those words, that must be quite profound.
It’s a fun song to do and it’s fun to perform because it’s cathartic. And people can relate to it.
Your writing has always been so autobiographical. How much has your illness played into the stuff you’re writing now?
I think that my illness didn’t actually factor in, because I outran it. I think the whole time I was in treatment, I was busy consoling a spouse, caretaking for other people. I think that it was part of me trying to disassociate from my own experience. I think that I created busyness. I think that women really do that a lot. I went to the studio every day, sick. Didn’t care. Kabuki. Wig. There were a couple times I think when I really felt incapacitated, but unfortunately I really didn’t have the opportunity to sit down and experience that, so … as a result, I don’t think it found its way into my writing. The Promise record that I did, a lot of that stuff was Jason [Darr]’s writing. He tried to encourage me to record my experience more. It was his idea to do the song Sick, for example, and more poignantly, make it the first single. I called it the Don’t Cry For Me Argentina single because I felt like it was overcompensating for the people who might think that I was not feeling well or was going soft because of my illness or anything like that. I’m proud of that record and proud of working with Jason, but in hindsight I think I was overcompensating a little.
Where do you think your career would have gone had you not gotten sick?
I always say breast cancer was the first vacation I ever had. Thank God. It was my cancer vacation. Thank the good lord. I was on the crazy train of work. I never stopped working. I started touring when it was 18 and at the time I was diagnosed, I was doing back-to-back North American and European tours, plus doing [MMA] Bodog Fight, where I was in Costa Rica and Russia as the MC. I mean, I was never home. I never saw my dogs. I was always depressed, which was probably why I never ate a damn thing. I was underweight, I was just faking it. I was just going as fast as I could to keep up, and I’m happy and I’m proud of the work I did, but I’m happy to be here. I really am.
This interview has been condensed and edited.