Bif Naked: Stripped Back and Smiling
Photos courtesy of Bif Naked / Feature image: Karolina Turek
June. 24, 10 p.m. | Mavericks
19+ / Tickets: $30
“To be honest, I prefer the acoustic versions,” isn’t necessarily the thing you expect to hear from musician covered in tattoos and married to a dude called Snake. As she’s proven time and again, you just can’t slap a label onto Bif Naked because she’s apt to tear it off and grind it up before the ink has a chance to dry.
If you flicked on any radio in the summer of ’98 there was a good chance you’d find yourself rocking out to “Spaceman”, a cut from the album I Bificus that rip-roared Bif into the Canadian music scene like a chainsaw cutting through a silent night. But things were not so quiet on the Northern front. Canadian music was making an impact, a loud one, with Our Lady Peace, The Tea Party and Big Wreck all providing rocking relief to the many who felt as though they might just lob themselves into oncoming traffic if they heard that damn Titanic song again.
Actually, that might be a pretty fair comparison to Bif’s music back then. It slammed into you like an out of control semi skidding on black ice. It was raw, it got your adrenalin pumping and it kinda’ made you want to slam dance even if you didn’t have a crowd to bounce off of. If you caught any of her interviews on Much, you saw the cover matched the content. Raven black hair, tats, piercings, Bif was an indie rock poster power pinup.
The B-side, however, for those who dove underneath the focus on her image and the edgy album cuts, was the story of Beth Torbert. Born in New Delhi to a pair of private school teenagers, Beth was adopted by American Methodist missionaries and later moved to the U.S. Partially raised in Kentucky, she’d be uprooted again and this time head Canada, settling in Winnipeg with her family where she studied theatre, ballet and began reciting poetry at the age of three.
“I grew up in the performing arts,” she said recently, reflecting on how her life as a performer hasn’t changed despite how her gears musically have shifted in recent years to performing more acoustic sets. While she acknowledges that I Bificus was a pivotal album for her –it would see her getting airplay in the U.S. and be featured in shows like Buffy the Vampire Slayer and Charmed– these days she feels the record she’s writing now is the best representation of who she is now as an artist: laid back, reflective and ever the optimist.
She returns to Mavericks on Saturday night for what will be a more intimate encounter with the musician and music fans may remember having a bit more kick in their original studio recordings. The stripped down acoustic renditions don’t make the tracks more venerable or exposed, but actually accentuate the strength and often touching tenderness found in the words. Take “Tango Shoes”, for instance, a song for which the video sees Bif rolling through a city while fist pumping from the top of a tank. While that image certainly exudes power, it’s in the pared back form where you really catch the significance of lines that focus you more clearly on a message that speaks of blazing through your adversities, whatever or whomever they may be:
I am transformed
Suddenly I’m taller your smaller
I am reborn
With new courage
Expanding her bone deep, open and honest lyrics into book form, last year Bif continued to bare all (well, perhaps, mostly all) in a memoir named after her popular 90’s release. She explained that she felt it was the album most people knew her by so it made for a natural progression as the title of her book. Pulling no punches, she focused on themes of death, unrequited love and wrote of her battle with breast cancer after a 2008 diagnosis. Through the lows she says she always maintained a firm grasp on positivity and says her spirituality is as important in her day to day as breathing.
Coming up on her first year of marriage to Steve “Snake” Allen, she says that she’s never been happier and through her side career as a motivational speaker shares that people can rise above their dips in life with positivity, perspective and forward motion being the keys to breaking through just about anything. If she needs a reminder of that herself all she has to do I glance down at her left arm.
There, her favorite tattoo reads just one word: survivor.
Ottawa Life talked more with Bif about how she maintains that outlook, her love of social media, kicking cancer’s ass and her spiced up twist on hummus.
Ottawa Life: Early on it really seemed you were being painted out to be this badass rebel rouser which, the more I have read or seen you talk, seems to be true in a sense (your kickass music and activism) but there's much more than the bangs, tattoos and rockin' outfits.
Bif Naked: When I first began to tour and perform as a solo artist, back in the early 1990's, there were probably not as many "tattooed tomboy women" such as myself. I have learned, as I grow up, that my deepest frustrations, heartaches, and feelings come out on the stage…whereas in my personal life and off the stage I am pretty much a soft hearted animal lovin' yoga practicing humanitarian person. The perfect balance for a Gemini Girl!
I know I'm guilty of it myself asking you about your look, right? I mean, I chatted with Amelia Curran recently about the image we in the media create mainly for female musicians and how that sometimes becomes more a topic of contention then, say, their music. What has been your experience seeing as how your look is a rather iconic one?
Over the years, as my music became more well-known, and I was on things like television and the videos began to get airplay, that definitely my tattooed-tough girl image was, often, more notorious than my songs. That has never bothered me, to be honest because if people are drawn to discover more about an artist (like me) or become curious about an artist and look them up…they will ultimately come across interviews or artist statements that they may not have expected (ie: social activism or, in my case, vegan stuff, fighting for the rights of the folks on the streets or in social housing, etc. or even discover things about breast cancer). I am happy with any avenue a person may stumble across to discover me and what I stand for.
I’ve always wondered, while some seem to get inked just to get inked, I’ve suspected your tattoos have a lot of personal meaning. Am I off the mark there?
I love getting tattoos as a personal milestone marker, a religious or spiritual statement, or as a form of expression. I have lots of Hindu symbolism and art, words in Farsi, Hindi, Sanskrit, and now (sadly) images and tattoos to commemorate those in my life who have died. Tattoos are like storytelling with our skin. They reproduce our personal histories, our tragedies and our triumphs. I have about seven more tattoo ideas waiting in the wings, at any given time.
I Bificus was one of those 1990s Canadian rock rockets of an album. It was really like you couldn’t flick on much or the radio without hearing “Spaceman” –which was fine by me. How do you find, if at all, that release most changed you?
“Spaceman” was a simple acoustic song that I wrote with my manager, Peter, in about twenty minutes. It was easy because I was in an emotional space where I dreamt of being rescued from my life. Alien abduction seemed like it would really break up the week, and I wrote about that. I think the song was successful because of the way all folks could relate to the wish for a catalyst of some sort. We all need a change, from time to time, and wouldn't it be great if something could step in and take us away from our situation? I feel that I, Bificus was a real statement of my artistically growing up….but it would be trumped by Purge……Superbeautifulmonster…. and even The Promise. The record we are writing now, in 2017, is my very favourite. I can't wait to play songs from it for my sweet fans.
Creatively, you’ve said you never feel uninspired. What do you keep drawing on to spark that artistic flame?
Life is inspiring, everyday. Everything inspires writing. I drive down the street and see overturned garbage cans, and turn that into a writing prompt. Or songs about jail, or feeling incarcerated. Feelings of desire are a big theme, and feelings of wishing, longing. Anything and everything is an inspiration. I love it. The wonder of life never ever leaves me.
With your comic work, acting poetry and book you’ve taken yourself down a few different creative career paths. Why has it been important to you to remain juggling all this creativity as opposed, to say, focusing on just the music or writing?
I am a lucky girl to have the fun of making lots of art: songs, poetry, drawing, painting, even acting. The Performing Arts is where my heart is, and I love my work. I do not get revenue from most of it, and every painting I have ever made has been donated to a charity. My books are extremely exciting for me because I love to read them aloud (like readers' theatre or something). I love singing and rocking out, as well. I guess I simply can't pick just one medium to work in.
You’ve said that you get the most pleasure from volunteering and working with others, something you wish you could do full time. What have been some of the most rewarding experiences in that side of your work?
I don't even know where to begin! I love to be in healthcare, particularly, as I feel it is where my strengths can assist. I am not squeamish around anything and prefer to be a "Professional Handholder" or chaperone for anxious chemotherapy patients. If I could be a chemo surrogate for frightened patients, I surely would. I am good at it and don't believe in fear (for myself). I have had the privilege of working a bit doing peer support to palliative care patients and I believe that really is the direction my volunteering must take because there is such a need for people who can really be present and available for a patient. There is a school for "Death Midwives" and "Death Doulas" in Toronto and I am very interested in this field.
Speaking of which, in 2014 you tried to live on $3 a day taking the Welfare Food Challenge. I tried that myself once and really struggled. What was it like for you?
It was powerful and important. I have participated each year, and I was always astonished at how many people that I knew refused to participate in the Welfare Food Challenge (which draws attention to, and raises awareness about the sheer injustice of our country's social assistance program/welfare programs) and I am, seriously no longer friends with them. I absolutely cannot tolerate "classism" and will continue to speak out and speak up for the rights, the dignity, and against all of the injustices that folks living in poverty have to experience in this country. We HAVE TO help others transcend poverty, and we should try and uplift others. That's all there is to it.
You’re vegan, something that I’ve tried and slipped up at a few times. What are some tips you might have to maintain that type of lifestyle?
For me, veganism is like my religion. I have always been the only vegan in my family, in my band, and even in my circle of friends. I was left to my own food gathering on tour and became a raw food vegan for fifteen years because there was no "vegan cuisine" made available to me. I had to improvise and figure it out for myself. In the beginning, there was really no "internet" for me to learn about vegan restaurants in each city we toured in so I guess I knew a lot of Hare Krishnas and yoga studio people who were vegetarian and sometimes they might bring me some chickpeas or bananas to the show. It is easy for me to be a vegan, and I am never tired of eating the very same things every day. My band guys all eat meat and drink milk. Though I do offer gentle suggestions from time to time, I am not obsessed with what other people do. I can only be a non-judgemental humanist as that is what I am. I provide lots of opportunity for vegetarian or vegan meals for my husband (who eats fish) and I changed all his milk for cereal to rice milk. He did not even notice.
Last year, Michael Franti shared a tasty vegetarian recipe and I started to ask other veg musicians for cooking ideas. What is your favorite dish to make?
I love hummus and I make it so very simply with a little coconut oil, chickpeas, cumin, turmeric, lemon juice, and maybe tahini or almond butter…or peanut butter if I am out of the others. But if I make it for myself I just use a little cocnut oil and lemon with spices. Maybe if it's a Saturday night I might add red chili flakes.
Like many of your fans, I was elated to hear you had kicked cancer’s ass. I once read how you felt people were reacting weirdly because you were still maintaining your positivity while going your cancer treatments and sickness. What was it that kept your spirits up in a time when anybody would be forgiven to hit a low?
I was and remain very into positivity. Even when my kidney failed and had heart surgery after my breast cancer, I thought it was the coolest thing that ever happened to me because I was so interested in the mesh they implanted into my heart. I love science and I love everything about medicine, so breast cancer for me was terribly interesting. PLUS every other patient I met shared their story with me and we would then meditate or give thanks together it was so fucking cool! I am totally grateful for the experience and wish I could keep sharing it with every other cancer patient. I am writing a new book about exactly this.
You are also very spiritual person. How does spiritual factor into your day to day?
Spirituality is like breathing. Or pooping. It is a natural activity, and helps us maintain our health. I guess I was always this little spiritual empath and enthusiast. I always will be. I love it all!
You’ve always been pretty outspoken but putting your life story down was exposing a lot more of yourself. What was the process of writing the book, digging up some of the past and do you feel it was a cathartic experience?
Writing the book was like revisiting the past, some of which I put away. Certainly there were some stories I shared that I thought better of, frankly. But I had always woven these hard stories into the cloth of my lyrics for so many years, that I think the same stories were easier to tell, even in great detail. I probably could have shared more details had I just wrote my life story as a "fiction".
I imagine being so open about some of the more difficult parts of your life has been inspiring for people. What has touring this book been like for you?
I loved doing the book tour, and reading the selected stories and following them with a relevant song. I just loved it. We are hoping to do this all over the world.
You are a pretty active Tweeter. What are your thoughts on social media and how have you found interactions with your fans on the platform?
I love social media because I had never met another vegan until twitter. It's that simple. I have made a lot of friends through social media and I am just being myself. I am very fortunate to have been able to just keep it simple and consistently me, doing all the social media by myself. I am not very good on snapchat though, can't get "verified" on Instagram for some reason, and have to deal with different Soundclouds claiming to be me that aren't me (yet are verified?) so in that regard it's kind of funny. But you know, it should enhance our lives and help us communicate with each other. It should not dominate our lives. I tend to take a day off here and there every month, whether it's due to a hectic travel schedule or if I have a migraine (which I suffer from since chemo).
These are strange times for the world. As a motivational speaker, what is a common theme or message you feel you are sharing of recent?
Perspective is my favourite theme, right now, because people tend to future surf and worry about things that are not actually happening, or worse! Not actually happening to them.
Life is so hard for most of the people of the world, not for us here. I do appreciate that everything is relative and it really des depend on the person…but there is always someone going through something so much worse, that we need to remember this and stay positive and stay strong. We Humans can get through absolutely anything! We just have to keep going.
You revisited some of your tunes on your last album in a more stripped down format. How do like those more acoustic versions of your songs in comparison to the original cuts?
To be honest, I prefer the acoustic versions of the early recorded songs because that is how every single one of them was written. We do all our songwriting acoustically, just guitar and a vocal. Always have. It's natural for us.
Your last album came out in 2012. Can we expect some new music soon?
We have written two records and one has been waiting in the wings for two years. It's so hard to keep the songs secret that's why we have not performed them. They will be edited and the new songs we wrote this spring will be added. It's like having three different records.
Who are some of the more recent musicians you find yourself listening to?
I love all genres of music so very much. Music transforms what I feel and think. I love everything. Lang Lang, Grimes, The Riptides, Belly (the band), Drake, Tina Turner, DOA, KISS, Mastodon, Metallica, The Weeknd, De La Soul, and a thousand more!
You are about to celebrate one year of marriage. How has this new married life been treating you over the last year?
My life is better than it has ever been before. Snake is the love of my life and I am in mad love with him.