Skip to main content

'If you're going to get cancer, and you're a girl, go for the tit."

Bif Naked has a lot to say - no surprise there. And who would expect Vancouver's loud-mouthed, heavily tattooed, punk-rock chick to deliver a subdued survivor script in the same vernacular as Sheryl Crow, say, or Kylie Minogue?

A bone fide riot grrl, Naked's tough but sexy persona and provocative lyrics - she's written about being raped and having an abortion - not to mention her in-your-face bisexual lifestyle, has located her on the Canadian music fringe since her 1995 eponymous debut album. And her background - born in India, adopted by missionaries - provided just the kind of colour the press eats up.

"So, am I the new token Tit Girl?" she asks as we sit down to discuss her new album, about one year after her diagnosis with Stage 2 breast cancer. The challenge in her tone is impossible to ignore.

The album - The Promise - drops on May 5, and she's back doing a bit of press, the first since she announced she had breast cancer a little over a year ago. It's a fair enough question: There is no expectation on either side of the tape recorder that we'll be spending the whole time talking about her music.

There is, of course, her trademark bravado throughout the conversation. She trots out self-deprecating jokes about her appearance, shares the fact that it's a good thing her husband is an ass man and describes crazy photo collages of the "most heinous" self-portraits she sent to a good friend as her hair fell out and her skin changed colour.

It's a good show, but it feels familiar - a well-practised shtick designed to make us both more comfortable.

And it doesn't quite jibe with the woman in front of me, skinny and shivering in a yellow T-shirt and white cowboy boots. It's an unexpectedly snowy day in Vancouver, and Naked can't get the heat high enough in the townhouse that's doubling as her management's offices and studio. She looks cute in her pixie cut - although she'd probably hate to hear it. There are a couple of subtle signs of lingering sickness - a slight puffiness along the right side of her jaw line and the unnatural sheen of heavily applied makeup.

She wraps a thin cotton shawl around herself and I notice Band-Aids wrapped around her fingertips. Are they from too much guitar playing?

"No," she sighs. "The Docetaxel in the chemotherapy melted my fingernails off."

And with that, the small talk is over.

The 37-year-old singer was diagnosed with Stage 2 breast cancer in late 2007, just six weeks after returning from her honeymoon with new husband, Vancouver sportswriter Ian Walker. She had found a lump during her first ever self-examination and was immediately catapulted into treatment.

"As soon as I was told, I just said, 'Okay, what do I do now? Tell me where to go and I'll be there.' "

After a lumpectomy, 17 rounds of chemotherapy infusions (six with a cocktail of three drugs; a further 11 with a single drug), radiation treatment and a staph infection, she is still not done.

"I'm having an overectomy next," she says, matter-of-factly, before launching in to a no-holds-barred description of the procedure that will remove her ovaries and any chance of children. "They fill your abdomen full of air, in order to get the stuff in there to do it," she explains. "They don't go up you, they go down you - which is a little surprising."

She jokes about whether it means she'll be gassy for weeks afterwards, but admits she's just resigned to the seemingly endless process of ridding her body of disease.

Breast cancer brought with it a gruelling intensive treatment schedule at Vancouver General Hospital, including a clinical trial studying the effects of exercise during chemotherapy.

There were 16 women in the trial, and they trained together for one hour three times a week. They formed a team for the Canadian Breast Cancer Foundation's Run for the Cure in Vancouver last October.

"I participated as Beth Walker [her real name]- and I would never have it any other way," Naked insists. "I am fiercely protective of these women - they were a huge support for me and they didn't know what my job is. Maya's from the [expletive]Ukraine; she might be 75 years old. She's never heard of a Bif Naked and she doesn't care because we were in the trenches together and it would never be relevant. It still isn't."

When she talks about fellow cancer patients - from the women she shared tips with on wigs, to the old guys on the chemo ward she entertained with her best Don Rickles impersonations - there isn't a scrap of showbiz about her.

She says she didn't really care when her hair fell out - she made her early morning trip to the grocery store every day as usual, just with an "old lady blond wig I bought at the Bay and three inches of spackle on my face."

It wasn't until recently, when she realized she was going to be back in the public eye, that she started fretting. "My personal identity is the girl in the grocery store and at the dog park who won't shut up," she explains. "When it comes to work, it's a professional identity and an image I've had for 20 years. I hate Joan Jett's short haircut." Naked has often been likened to the U.S. rock star. "I don't want to be compared to her," she pouts.

She went back to work last spring. Her management moved offices to be one block from her apartment building and employed the band Neurosonic's lead singer/producer Jason Darr to collaborate on the project. "I had to make a record," she explains. "And Jason was the toughest producer I ever worked with - he never treated me like I was sick. If he didn't like my vocals - regardless of the bulls' testicles my lymph glands had become, constricting my throat - he would just tell me I was there to do it right, or go home."

For his part, Darr says, cancer or no cancer, it had to be the best it could be: "I knew she was tough, but to show up - as sick as she was, day after day - she deserved my respect not to compromise her career."

She recalls one day that she worked so hard, she spent the next 20 days in bed recovering. It was worth it though, because she is proud of the result - an indisputably angry record with myriad references to karma and fire. "We get what we deserve," she spits on the first track Crash and Burn.

"That is a tough one," she nods. "It makes me cry, I don't know how the fuck I am going to perform it live."

She's planning to tour? Is she up to it?

"I won't know until I turn purple and fall down onstage and they won't let me do it again," she counters. "I really won't know my capabilities until I try."

There's a practical side to her drive to get onstage as well: She needs to start earning income again. Many cancer drugs are not publicly covered - she spent $2,600 a month for one injection during her treatment. "But a lot of people have to take the bus to chemo," she notes, sadly. "People still have to cook and clean and look after their children. They have to work and the hospital appointments are a full-time job in themselves."

It's been a grind, but there are upsides: She believes her sickness gave her new marriage the solid foundation it may otherwise have lacked. Before, she was always on tour and home maybe two days a month. Without the cancer, she says, "I wouldn't have had the same opportunity to get to know Ian - we saw each other at our worst."

"It was basically just us," she shrugs. "And I don't know how we didn't self-destruct."

Many friends vanished overnight, but she says she understands. People don't know what to say, and then they leave it too long, she says generously - or they think breast cancer is just about buying a pin and staying hopeful.

"I call it the fluffy pink bubble," Naked says. "And I feel badly for anyone who doesn't want to be tied in a pretty pink bow - because it's almost expected that you'll run around with a pink-ribbon sticker on your car, or buy pink-ribbon socks at the drugstore."

The way celebrities present their own disease also makes a difference, she says, adding: "Christina Applegate goes around saying she's going to cut her tits off prophylactically and then get the perkiest new ones in Hollywood." Naked frowns. " [Applegate is]reinforcing what society expects and wants us to do.

"People see these beautiful blond Hollywood women who never went through chemotherapy and think that is what breast cancer is - when the reality is, that most of us turn into bald, yellow frogs.

"Breast cancer puts a lot of social pressure on women," she adds. "And you are expected to have an epiphany in the process. But you are who you are - and cancer doesn't change that."