The last time Sarah Gillespie had seen Jane Siberry in concert, it was at London's Royal Festival Hall on the South Bank of the River Thames, along with several thousand fans. Last Wednesday, Gillespie was able to see Siberry again, but this time in a much more intimate venue: Gillespie's own living room.
She and about two dozen other fans crammed into her shared two-bedroom ground-floor flat in Brockley, a leafy, nondescript southeast London neighbourhood, to catch Siberry during her swing through the British capital on her do-it-yourself world tour.
"Oh my gosh, I've been travelling through so many villages to get here," Siberry said as she took the stage, which was a patch of floor by the bay window.
"Have you ever heard of Brockley before?" a man in the audience asked.
"Never," Siberry replied, before kicking off her set.
The cozy concert at Gillespie's home in a semi-detached Victorian house was one of a dozen microgigs the Canadian singer-songwriter has played in London during her salon tour's British leg. The night before, she had played to 40 guests at a small organic café-bar in Bethnal Green in east London, where the organizers were also putting her up for a few nights. The night after, she was scheduled to play to 30 people at another Victorian house in Battersea in southwest London.
After becoming disenchanted on her last tour, Siberry decided to arrange this one mainly through word of mouth. She's using her e-mail list to invite fans to host her in their homes or other small venues, and is paying her own way through ticket sales, thereby allowing her to travel to places she might never have been able to go if she relied on a conventional concert promoter. To keep costs down, she's also asking hosts to give her a bed for a night or two, and to cook her up a dinner before she goes on.
And she's travelling light, with her guitar and her dog, a border collie named Gwylym. She's taking buses, trains and ferries. Any further erupting volcanoes in Iceland won't be able to stop her.
From London, she'll be making her way to Scotland and Ireland before heading to Sweden, Finland and Norway this month. In June, she's scheduled to be in Rotterdam, Warsaw and Paris. Many dates are already sold out, with tickets ranging from about $30 to $40, but she's encouraging other fans who want to see her to volunteer their homes so she can add more.
It's the latest innovation from the 54-year-old performer known for her relentless reinvention. She started out with quirky new-wave pop songs in the early 1980s, before branching out into jazz, classical, folk and gospel. She set up her own record label, Sheeba, in 1996. She gave away most of her possessions and moved into a cabin in Northern Ontario. She even changed her name briefly to Issa.
At Gillespie's concert, the do-it-yourself ethic was in evidence from the start. The songstress flicked on a light to brighten the room, tuned her guitar herself, and summoned backing tracks from her own iPod. Most of the audience perched on stools while a few others sat on chairs from the dining set. A lucky few slouched on the sofa. Two guys sat cross-legged on the floor at the front.
The set consisted mainly of songs from Siberry's most recent album, 2009's With What Shall I Keep Warm, and ranged from free-form jazz and ballads to punchy numbers strummed on her guitar to spoken word.
She upheld her reputation for improvising freely, breaking off in mid-song to deliver monologues about ordinary 9-to-5 workers, matchmaking, tai chi masters and other subjects. She brought the audience into her own mysterious, dream-like world with tales of a black dog named Magic.
During one monologue, she even explained to the audience why she stopped doing big tours. In an interview before the show, she had elaborated on that theme: "I would play at clubs and we'd go there and people wouldn't be prepared, or the dressing room would be filthy once again. So I'm standing there and these people have come from far, Detroit or whatever, and security guys are walking back and forth as if people are going to shoplift. It's so rude. Promoters are looking at the empty seats and waitresses are so bored, cash registers are going and it's against the force of music."
Siberry came up with the idea for the tour after receiving e-mail requests from fans in out-of-the-way places. "I don't have a promoter that's interested in bringing me over, and I thought, 'Am I just never going to play there because someone's a gatekeeper, but people want me?' So that moment I wrote an e-mail and said, 'If you miss me, invite me to your living room and find, say, 30 people at 30 dollars.' "
As she played, the sounds of the street filtered in through the open window. People walked past the house and whooped and cheered; a car alarm went off briefly. The noise added to what Siberry called the "magic" of the event. She sang about her mother, and about delinquent, unloved teenagers she observed while staying in an English village for a week.
Midway through When we are Queen, from 2008's Dragon Dreams, she abruptly stopped. "Next," she said, as she clicked to another track on her iPod. By the end of her set, the crowd was transfixed; some were weeping. They applauded as she dashed off-stage, into the kitchen. Returning for an encore, she said, "If you want to hear a song, just shout it out."
Someone immediately blurted out: " Everything Reminds me of my Dogs." Someone else wanted her 1985 new-wave hit, One More Colour; one woman asked for Calling all Angels. Siberry obligingly played snippets of the first two and a full version of the third.
As she thanked the audience for coming, her thoughts turned to her journey home. "If anyone's driving up to Bethnal Green," she said, "I didn't realize it was so far."
For more information on tour details, visit www.janesiberry.com.
Special to The Globe and Mail