It Won’t Rain All the Time

Issa sent me a youtube link to “the song from ‘The Crow’ that I did” a week or so before her April 23 show at City Winery, “the song,” of course, being “It Can’t Rain All the Time.”

“There is a video for it that was never released,” she said, then added, almost as an afterthought, “you might like it.”

Might like it? She knew full well I would love it! I vividly remember seeing “The Crow” at a screening and being surprised by the song during the end credits and saying to myself, “My God! That’s Jane!”

Jane Siberry, that is—or was. She changed her name to Issa–pronounced eeee-sah–in 2006.

So I clicked on the link and watched the video—and asked her how it came to be.

“I’m not sure who did it, but I flew out to Los Angeles to do it—and they never released it,” she said. “I found it in my boxes when I divested myself of most of my things and saved it for exactly this.”

I wasn’t sure what she meant.

“It’s more like an offering than a promotional thing,” she explained, and that’s for sure, since there’s little for her to capitalize from anyone viewing a clip for a song from a movie that came out 15 years ago.

The song itself is one of many she recorded for films and other outside projects–that you probably only know if you’ve seen the film. Remixed and re-edited for the video, it intercuts scenes from the extraordinary and tragic comic book-based action thriller starring Brandon Lee (Bruce Lee’s son, who died in a freak prop gun accident during the filming) with Issa’s stunning blend of spoken word and singing—her setting surreal surrounded by candles.

Haunting on so many levels, it starts with a solemn recitation on faith, then gives way to a depiction of despair that builds into intensity before love prevails with the chorus:

It won’t rain all the time.
The sky won’t fall forever.
And though the night seems long,
your tears won’t fall forever.

See if you don’t cry at the beauty of the uplifting song, the singing and the sentiment–and the dual fictional/actual context of love transcendent. “Without this song, ‘The Crow’ couldn´t be the great artwork that it is,” wrote one youtube viewer. Said another: “I heard this in the theaters during the closing credits back in 94. Fifteen years later it still gives me goosebumps.” The most poignant response: “I chose this song for my mother’s funeral service. She died of cancer on February 4, 2009. Her friends and family miss her more than words can express.”

“I co-wrote the song for the soundtrack with Graeme Revell in Los Angeles,” Issa recalled (the prolific Revell wrote the original music for “The Crow” with Trent Reznor; he had previously scored Wim Wenders’ 1991 film “Until the End of the World,” which included Jane Siberry’s best-known song, “Calling All Angels”). “He added a keyboard after I sang it that made me sound out of tune. It was re-sung and remixed for the video.”

I remembered that at the time she had made a spiritual connection with Lee.

“I had been very moved at the circumstances around Brandon’s death,” she continued. “When I worked on the lyrics, I sent him a message that this was a good time to say anything he felt he’d left unsaid. I felt the tingle that I feel when I have been ‘heard’ and felt his presence when I was writing the words.”

Revell wrote the chorus, but she changed a key word.

“The line ‘It can’t rain all the time’ is from the movie. But I sang ‘It won’t rain all the time’ as it made more sense to me. They weren’t too pleased but I couldn’t seem to get the other words out of my mouth. ‘Can’t’ implies the heavens do not have the ability. ‘Won’t’ implies that there is a greater power with a will.”

Brandon Lee’s heritage and stature as a martial artist in his own right naturally brought him a following in the martial arts community, and many martial artists were thereby turned on to Issa through “The Crow.”

“I am amazed at the underground stream of Brandon Lee lovers,” she said. “It’s so neat. And every now and then a ‘Crow’ fan–usually someone interested in the martial arts–comes to a show of mine. What adventurers they are! And it’s a wild ride for them–expecting something else. But they seem to enjoy them. They’re very sweet people.”

She could very well have been talking about my martial arts/life-in-general teacher Simon Burgess. I first brought him to see Issa 10 years ago, maybe, and I brought him to City Winery as well.

But I made a point of not looking at him the whole time. First of all, while all Issa shows are different, this one was even more different: She brought along two guests—Amy Ziff, of New York female rock trio (like Issa, they have a substantial cult following) and a longtime Issa friend and music associate, and Peter Jöback, a multi-platinum Swedish singer and friend of Amy’s—and gave them pretty much equal time rather than just serving her material. And even Issa’s solo shows vary so much that Simon might have liked all of it, part of it, or none of it.

So I didn’t want to see him looking bored, irritated, or otherwise annoyed at me—all of which I’m too used to. Plus I didn’t want him to feel obligated to act like he was enjoying it to make me feel better, which he might have done—being a very sweet person–and might not have, being a painfully honest one as well.

Issa figured Si didn’t like it from his lack of obvious reaction (we were sitting very close to the stage so she could see us), but I was delighted—and surprised, in that it was such a different kind of Issa show–that he loved it. He was especially moved by her song “You Don’t Need,” a stark observation about a lover’s independence—or is it her own?

“Who knows, mate,” said Simon (he’s English), not responding to my confusion but to my wondering why he was so affected by that song in particular. “It was a shock to me, I can tell you. If you want some b.s. I’m sure I could make some up.”

He could have done so easily and I actually asked him to, but I didn’t hold him to it. How could I ask him to explain anything relating to Issa, when I’ve been trying to do it nearly 25 years (I’ve written liner notes on several of her albums and can be heard briefly on “A Day In The Life,” her novel 1997 29-minute sound collage of a day in New York City made up of voice mail messages, cab conversations, arguments with hairdressers, moments from yoga classes and excerpts of studio adventures with the likes of Joe Jackson and k.d. lang–that she put out herself to raise money for future recording projects) and still can’t get it right?

So I let Simon off the hook. The show, the songs were wonderful. We both knew that much, at least, whether or not we could explain it to anyone else. Me? I favored Ziff’s hysterical Issa imitation, which involved poking fun at “Mimi On the Beach” (the incredibly complex yet captivating early Siberry classic mood-shifts from tranquility to lightheartedness to imminent danger and back around again as its internal one-way dialog proceeds), “Everything Reminds Me of My Dog” (Ziff added in her own dog barks), “Bound By the Beauty” and “Love is Everything,” and the group’s encore of “Calling All Angels.”

It was entirely different from the last time she performed in New York, at Joe’s Pub last year. Then she was trying out a lot of newly recorded material–her first since her name change.

The new name had come to her in “a pure, positive way,” she said then. “It felt so good, and then I found out afterwards that it means many things: It’s the name of a Japanese haiku poet, and lots of Muslim boys are named Issa! It’s also the name that the Indians called Jesus in accounts of ‘the lost years’ when he was said to have traveled in India and Tibet. And it’s the name of a cleaning industry association!”

The Toronto native changed her name, then sold her house and most of her belongings–again in order to fund future recording projects while keeping living costs at a minimum and being free to travel.

“I set up my life to devote myself to creativity, and started writing,” she noted. “In two years I had 33 songs and stopped writing and started finishing them.”

Refining them during a three-month tour, she decided to release the new songs in three CDs (“a story told in three parts”), starting with “Dragon Dreams,” her first album recorded as Issa, which has just been released to stores via CD Baby/Ryko following its prior availability directly through her Sheeba Music label. But she wasn’t looking to make a physical CD, as she had decided to distribute her music in MP3 format solely via her web site.

“I decided that CDs still need to be made because people continually request them,” she explained, “and from my viewpoint, lazy as I am, I felt it would be careless just to release everything as just downloads: It didn’t seem that would properly honor all the work that went into it—which I hadn’t taken into consideration.”

“Dragon Dreams”’ initial release, Issa added, was sold according to her revolutionary concept of “self-determined pricing” whereby her fans were given four choices in obtaining her music online: They could pay their own “self-determined” amount immediately at time-of-transaction—or pay later after giving it some more thought. They could also pay the “standard” industry price of 99 cents per single song download, or $15 for the physical CD.

But the fourth option—and the one she openly encouraged–was the most radical: just download freely as a “gift from Issa.” This, by the way, was all well before Radiohead did essentially the same thing with “In Rainbows.” But Issa went another step further with “Dragon Dreams,” giving away a second “ambassador” CD with her request that the buyer pass it on to someone who might not have heard of her or couldn’t afford one—or a favorite café or radio station.

“From the letters I received, people took this very seriously and considered the recipient of their ambassador CDs with care,” she continued, adding, “most people paid the standard CD price, though a fair number chose higher, and a few chose lower.”

Self-determined pricing, she noted, was the product of “a long process of thinking how to operate from a place of trust. Everyone’s struggling with the same things, so I tried to rethink the whole music release process with my goal being to have it available to whomever might enjoy it without going the standard media promotional route. While I wanted the media to let people know the release existed, I wanted to use my fans primarily for promotion and either offer them the free CD to give to someone else, or ask them to burn CDs or send MP3s to three people they thought might enjoy it. It seemed to me that the peer route was the best way to go.”

Issa now is finishing production of the second of the three-part story begun with “Dragon Dreams,” for expected release in early autumn.

“There are lots of threads going back and forth across the three CDs, so at the end you will see the ‘whole story,’ so to speak,” she said. “And while I was moving toward selling single song downloads, I guess I’m going in the other direction now, and think people will want to hear the song sequences and the three CDs because there is purpose and direction to it. That is the kind of thing I like, anyway. As much as I don’t want the extra work, I can’t forgo the good storytelling aspect of stringing it out.”

And she also can’t forgo touring, though her touring focus now is less on clubs than on her “Issa Music Salons” concept. These have evolved out of the three-part, weekend-long Siberry Salons, which she began in the late 1990s and consisted of two performances, a science/poetry workshop (she began her career in music while earning science and microbiology degrees at the University of Guelph, Ontario), and dinner at intimate, non-typical venues such as art galleries and loft apartments or homes.

“It is a great thing in that it opens up the possibility of bringing your favorite artist to your community even if you are not anywhere near a normal touring route,” she said of the 90-minute events (not including CD signings and artist reception), which can be public or private depending on the wishes of the hosting saloniere. “People can create a ‘sacred space’ for something they value and want to share with the community.”

But these salons wouldn’t be possible had not Issa built her own committed community/fan base.

“My email list is so resourceful and creative—it’s like gold to me,” she said. She stays in touch with her list regularly via her email “Museletter,” which announces her activities and whereabouts: A recent one directed fans to her website for musings, concert announcements, poems and for-sale paintings, as Issa is now selling paintings online as another means of supporting her independent artistic endeavors (her site also promises to soon provide a template of her online store so that others can make use of her self-determined pricing system).

Her Museletter also sent them over to youtube to see the “It Can’t Rain All the Time” video. There are tons of other Issa/Siberry clips up there, by the way, including several from City Winery (you can even see Ziff’s brilliant Issa spoof). But I strayed over to the video that accompanied “One More Colour,” that was directed in 1985 by Devo’s Jerry Casale, and shows Issa walking a cow through the Canadian countryside. I was so mesmerized by this clip when I chanced upon it on MTV that I made sure to see her shortly after when she played the Bottom Line. That show was with a full band, including two female musician/backup vocalists. Issa wore one of those microphones that were strapped around her head to free up her hands, and she did all those expressive gesturings that you can see sometimes in the videos, except that she was also able to move about the stage.

Suffice it to say, that show changed my life.

“I did a video for ‘One More Colour’ in Canada but it was too literal and spoiled the song,” she said when I told her that I ended up spending at least an hour watching it and “The Crow” clip over and over. “It also had a scene in it where the director had drawn eyes on my eyelids, and then I open my eyes. It would have scared little kids.”

Luckily Reprise—her U.S. record label at the time–wanted to do a new one.

“I wanted to just sing the song walking a cow so the song would come alive in people’s imaginations–rather than die in their imaginations from being too literal,” she said. “Jerry added a lot of the bells and whistles. The bridge of the song was inspired by a friend who is ‘simple,’ and very sweet. His joy about small things affected me and I put it in the song. That is what the scene with the child-like people is about–though it is slightly reminiscent of ‘Night of the Zombies.’”

She offered more necessary information about the cow: “I was in the make-up trailer when they brought the news that the truck with the cow had arrived, but the cow was missing. I was really upset. They eventually found the cow grazing beside the highway, but brought in another one. This was a more experienced cow, having been ‘Door No. 3’ in a TV game show.”

Filmed in Los Angeles, the clip cost over $100,000. “Everyone’s third cousin was in the crew,” she continued, “but the budget for editing was miniscule and i had to fight hard to get the time to do it right. The next video I did with them, I made them guarantee a proper post-production budget. But it was fun to do this video.”

I looked again at some of the youtube comments and found two that hit home:

“It’s hard to pick a ‘favourite song’ but if I had to…this would be it. It makes me feel as if my soul is connected to something glorious that I can’t comprehend.”

“I loved this song since I was a kid…. I always remember her walking the cow and finding that quite strange…but hey, it worked. Twenty years later and thats all I remember.”

Yes, it was Issa walking the cow that grabbed my attention visually, but if I had to, maybe I’d pick “One More Colour” as my favorite song, too, and I also can’t comprehend exactly what it is, but that it is indeed something glorious that my soul is connected to.

Notice the typically poetic Issa lyrics about the beauty of nature (“the goatless ledge `neath the honkless geese in the speckless sky”) and her singular sensibility in envisioning a dotted line that to follow “you must make a jump each time,” or a carefree vendor who sings loudly and says only “it suits me fine, that`s the way I am.”

But what on earth is “this thing you won’t believe” that she has seen, that is so big (“well, at least as big as me”)? And does it matter? And her wonderful directive “speak a little softer,  work a little harder, shoot less with more care”: Shoot less with more care. Would that we would all shoot less with more care.

But it is the chorus “Here, all we have here is sky/All the sky is, is blue/All that blue is, is one more colour now” that tells all—whatever it all may mean. And it’s the final repetition, when she sings “one more colour” three times, each increasing in splendor and magnificence, that never fails to make me cry.

And I really don’t know why that is, either.


Manhattan movie ticket prices being what they are, I waited for “Slumdog Millionaire” to come out on DVD. But I had a bad feeling about it, just like I always get whenever virtually everyone is raving about something–that and my friend Stephen Holden’s four-word review when I ran into him at a press screening for another film.

“It’s a fairy tale,” said the brilliant film/music critic for The New York Times, and he didn’t mean it as praise. Of course he was right: “Slumdog Millionaire” is a fairy tale—and despite its great cinematography, not a pretty one. And so is the notion that its many Oscars and other awards will open wide the door in America to Bollywood. A fairy tale.

This was clear from a Bollywood fairy tale of a different sort that I did see when it came out. Actually, I attended the New York premiere of “Chandni Chowk to China” on Jan. 8 at the AMC Empire Theater on 42nd Street. It was freezing, and there was a long wait to get in, mainly because its star Akshay Kumar hadn’t arrived and there was a big crowd of South Asians outside hoping to get a glimpse of him.

Kumar is Bollywood’s star-of-the-moment. A veteran action hero (he has heavy martial arts experience), he had come to “Chandni Chowk to China”—abbreviated in Bolly media as “CC2C”—off his star turn in the action/comedy/romance “entertainer” (a wonderfully succinct Bollywood term) “Singh is Kinng,” one of the biggest Bolly hits of 2008 (featuring, notably, a soundtrack contribution from Snoop Dogg). He, along with “CC2C”’s gorgeous female lead Deepika Padukone and director Nikhil Advani (he directed the huge 2003 romance hit “Kal Ho Naa Ho” that was set in New York), had starred that day at a press lunch for local South Asian media, also attended by Warner Bros. film executives.

“CC2C,” you see, is Warner Bros.’ first Bollywood co-production (the company also distributed the film in the U.S.), following similar Hollywood-Bollywood partnerships from Walt Disney Pictures (last year’s animated “Roadside Romeo”) and Sony Pictures Entertainment (the 2007 drama “Saawariya”). It also followed last year’s news of Steven Spielberg’s DreamWorks studio’s billion-dollar joint venture with India’s Reliance ADA Group to produce as many as 35 movies over the next five years—which came two days after 20th Century Fox cut a multiple-film production deal with “Singh is Kinng” producer Vipul Amrutlal Shah.

Described as the first-ever Bollywood kung fu comedy, “CC2C” opened on over 125 screens in over 50 markets in the U.S. and Canada—making it the biggest release to date of any Bollywood film in North America. With elements of comedy, drama, romance and action, the film fit the masala mold of Bollywood cinema—“masala” being a mixture of spices: Kumar, playing a simple-minded cook in the Chandni Chowk marketplace of Delhi, journeys to China in the guise of a reincarnated war hero in order to defeat a vicious smuggler (played by Gordon Liu, star of the kung fu movie classic “The 36th Chamber of Shaolin” and the “Kill Bill” films).

Unfortunately, “CC2C” was way too simple-minded itself to have much of a chance, not only in North America but worldwide and Bollywood, even. Despite plenty of hype, it was a box office and critical failure—as it should have been. Screenwriter Shridhar Raghavan cited numerous  influences, from Bollywood’s legendary “curry western” “Sholay” to kung fu classic “The 36th Chamber of Shaolin” and more recent kung fu comedy fare from Jackie Chan and Stephen Chow. But “CC2C” was more silly than anything else, in character, plot and action. Nothing remotely to commend it as another “Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon,” say, even with that arty Oscar-winner’s veteran martial arts stunt coordinator Huen Chiu-Ku as stunt choreographer, let alone Kumar’s legitimate martial arts credentials.

The “kung fu curry” of “CC2C” had another inherent problem for success in America in that it was subtitled rather than dubbed—foreign language being a traditional obstacle for mainstream American theatrical success. Director Advani recognized this at the press conference, and rightly noted that if it had been dubbed into English—like so many early kung fu movies—it would “lose the flavor” of the original language.

“You have to accept it for the kind of film it is,” he said. And that’s what American audiences will have to do with Bollywood. Far and away the bulk of Bollywood cinema is musicals—very long, three hour-plus musicals (including the interval, or intermission). And while they feature fabulous songs and singing and incredible dance productions, they differ from the great Hollywood musicals of Busby Berkeley or Fred Astaire or Leonard Bernstein’s “West Side Story” in that they cover all genres—comedy, romance, melodrama, action, war, crime, suspense, even horror. So while it would be hard to imagine “The Wrestler” or “Milk” as a musical, it would be impossible to imagine a Bollywood remake—and Bollywood remakes American movies all the time—as anything but.

“Slumdog Millionaire,” then, barely qualifies as definably Bollywood, being that the only musical/dance number, the Oscar-winning “Jai Ho,” came during the end-title credits and had nothing to do with the rest of the movie (this sort of gratuitous film musical extravaganza is known in Bollywood as an “item number”). Contrast it with the last two Bollywood movies I’ve seen: “Fashion” and “The Last Lear.”

Partially based on a true story, last year’s “Fashion” was a highly acclaimed behind-the-scenes look at the backstabbing Mumbai fashion industry that earned luscious lead actress Priyanka Chopra and supporting actress Kangana Ranaut coveted Filmfare awards (Neha Bhasin and Shruti Pathak, notably, were also nominated for best female playback singers—a major awards category in that most Bollywood stars lipsynch their songs to tracks sung by equally renowned playback singers). Salim-Sulaiman (brothers Salim Merchant and Sulaiman Merchant) composed a hit-filled soundtrack, and the film also featured numerous stars in cameo appearances as themselves. But I found the story entirely predictable and nothing to warrant watching former Miss World Chopra for its entire 178-minute running time. (By the way, it only seems like every Bollywood actress is a former Miss World: Chopra and Sushmita Sen are, while Aishwarya Rai and Lara Dutta are Miss Universe holders.)

Clocking in at a relatively mere 130 minutes, “The Last Lear,” on the other hand, is truly great. Starring the extraordinary Bollywood legend Amitabh Bachchan (the star of “Sholay” who is idolized by the autograph-seeking young Jamal in “Slumdog Millionaire” and is the answer to the first “Who Wants to Be a Millionaire?” question), the absorbing film concerns a reclusive Shakespearean stage actor who is brought out of retirement by a young film director, thereby exploring the conflict between generations and the difference between cinema and theater. Like “Slumdog Millionaire,” then, it’s hardly a “Bollywood” film either, though it does star its greatest actor—along with fellow Bollywood stars Arjun Rampal and the always delightful and immensely talented actress Preity Zinta.

No songs, no dancing, but great acting and a great story. That’s how Bollywood can impact Hollywood—barring an innovative film like Baz Luhrmann’s acknowledged Bollywood-inspired “Moulin Rouge!” And it’s already starting to happen: Rai has tested the English film waters with “Bride & Prejudice” and “The Pink Panther 2,” and now Bachchan has signed on to costar with Johnny Depp in Mira Nair’s forthcoming “Shantaram” (Nair has directed the award-winning films “Salaam Bombay!,” “Monsoon Wedding,” and more recently, “The Namesake,” a deeply moving drama largely filmed in the U.S. and starring Irrfan Khan [the police inspector in “Slumdog Millionaire”] and “Harold & Kumar”’s Kal Penn).

“Slumdog Millionaire”’s biggest star, Bollywood veteran Anil Kapoor (the game show host) has been signed on to the eighth season of “24,” while young lead Dev Patel is on board for M. Night Shyamalan’s forthcoming “Avatar: The Last Airbender.” Predictably, Woody Allen has cast Freida Pinto, the young actress who played opposite Patel, in his next film, and it would seem only a matter of time before “Slumdog Millionaire”’s genius composer A.R. Rahman is asked to write for Hollywood—if he hasn’t been already.

Otherwise, filmgoers will have to accept Bollywood for what it is and on its own terms—which is total entertainment. A genre unto itself. Like opera, it’s an acquired taste, perhaps, but trust me: Though the masala more often than not may be a bit much, it’s still well worth the acquisition.