A Conversation With .. Bif Naked
People have a serious ‘love-on’ for this iconic Canadian figure. Women see her as a voice and a survivor who speaks straightforwardly about issues that most influence their lives.
By Bill King
When I mentioned through social media Bif Naked was dropping by my Thursday morning radio show, the postings lit up. I mean, people have a serious ‘love-on’ for this iconic Canadian figure. Women see her as a voice and a survivor who speaks straightforwardly about issues that most influence their lives.
I thought this interview was timely in a week of high tension between Canada and the US and NAFTA negotiations; and the fact that the incredibly talented and fluid Chrystia Freeland has been at the helm of these sensitive, stressful negotiations. South of us, a rising tide of women candidates are running en masse in every region of America’s mid-term election. No longer is #Metoo just a catch-phrase but instead has become a rallying cry for all women who are willing to name names and to demand their right to take a seat at power tables.
BK: Can I call you Bif?
Bif: Everybody does. I've had Bif as a nickname since eighth grade of course.
Bif: I don't know what the real story was for sure, but when I was in Gorilla Gorilla, which was a band that I was in in college, I had replaced their male singer and they were pretty convinced that the punks would not come and see a girl, a chick, singing in the band. So, we had to be a little provocative and alluring. Everyone knew my nickname Bif and then they said, ‘see Bif, naked’. My best friend Lola was a peeler, an exotic dancer and when she was 18 put herself through to her masters in school. Anyway, they thought that I would be going in that general direction because that was who I hung out with. It stuck.
BK: You picked the right name.
Bif: It depends on who you are. Many a record company executive was not into the name and, not only that, radio would not play my songs in the early '90s. They told my manager he was a fool.
Jesse King: The early '90s, the same thing happened to the Barenaked Ladies.
Bif: That’s right. I've never played with BNL, which is a surprise. But I have a photograph that I took with them in 1996.
BK: That style of music came to you easily?
Bif: I just liked everything. It was a great time in music. I think that the late '80s/early '90s were very interesting. We moved from Winnipeg to Vancouver and the birth of grunge was happening - when all these ‘thrash metal’ bands started taking heroin and slowing the beat down a bit. No, I’m kidding. It was quite innovative. We felt like we had discovered something new and it was great.
BK: You saw the whole world change - the British scene, the New York scene.
Bif: England was consistently amazing with music. I don't mean to sound anti-Canadian: it's not that. They have a knack for that, and it's never-ending.
JK: I’m there quite often and if you are into grime, there are all these subgenres, and then there’s garage and that. I have no idea, but I think it has to do with tempo, - that’s what defines the sound.
BK: Does your music defy categorizing?
Bif: Stylistically, you know for me, I think that I was fortunate. I don't know if I could repeat it. When I was a young artist, and we were making the first solo record which was 93 or 94, I was lucky enough to work with a producer who was like - let's put on a metal song, let's put on a rap song, let's put on a downbeat song. It was all over the map. I called it eclectic, but it was a nightmare. I couldn't get a record deal. You know, people were like, she has to pick something, you can't have all this together, so we had to form our own company just to keep it all going.
BK: Labels usually want you to be something they are familiar with.
Bif: Absolutely. At that time, the girls that I was compared to, I always said the only thing we had really in common was genitalia. They would say you're an angry white female and I'd be like what does that mean exactly? That’s what they would call Alanis Morissette; you know her Jagged Little Pill record. She's younger than me. We can’t be compared or Courtney Love who is like tipsy half the time when she performs. I wasn't into that, so I never really found my kindred spirits.
BK: Alanis was originally a disco artist.
Bif: Its fun watching someone go into adulthood. Look at Gwen Stefani. She’s almost 50. She makes great records.
JK: Coming up and doing it the way that you did even with the troubles with labels, did that liberate you and allow you to pursue your voice?
Bif: What I discovered is there was Bif Naked before breast cancer and Bif Naked after and I found that I was on tour 360 shows a year for 18 years until I was diagnosed.
And I was like, oh thank God - I could take a break. And then when I came back to make music, we made a record during my treatment time, because I had nothing better to do literally. And it was very different. I think things had changed a lot. You know my hair fell out, and I put on thirty pounds from treatment. I didn't look the same. It didn't feel authentic to me. I couldn't jump around. I had this condition where all the blood would pool in my lower bowel every time I jumped. Everything had to change, and it just felt contrived. Suddenly, I had turned 40 and had survived this horrible thing. And I was like, I want to do acoustic songs - it felt correct. And that was okay. There was a certain type of fan that would attend those shows, but ultimately it took me a couple of years to figure this out.
The truth is like Judy Garland says, you got to give the people what they want. It was like these people wanted my version of “Proud Mary”, like when Tina Turner turned 75 she still had to go up there in a mini-skirt because that's what they want. I thought, Oh God, OK, I’ve got it! I have to try and get to a point where it's enjoyable for me to sing “I Love Myself Today” and pump my fist and spit. I had to get back to the place again.
Jessica Bellamy: Going through all your health issues. Who did you find were your strongest allies - the ones who were your constant?
Bif: The other patients in the room. Honestly, it was the greatest thing that ever happened because I developed this sorority of people I would have never met. From all walks of life, different ages, different cultures - we were all bald. We all had surgical ports and tubes. It was hysterical, we laughed hysterically every day at our peril, finding that camaraderie and I've never been in the military. But the only thing I can say is, once you've been in the military, around the world and for the rest of your life, you always have that connection with other people who have experienced that and the same is so true for cancer or any other catastrophic health concern.
B.K: Have you seen the Sharon Jones documentary? You must see it. It’s Jones going through chemotherapy and how she handled it and the absolute joy that was in that woman. She brought it to the room where she and other patients would sit with the chemo drip running and laugh together. It was like there was a stage performer named Sharon Jones that looked a certain way and then there was this real Sharon Jones offstage who was once a correctional officer. It's an extraordinary documentary.
Bif: My current recording – “Hot Box Girls”– celebrates girls. A lot of my girlfriends and didn't grow up in an era that had roller derby. We didn't grow up in an age that celebrated burlesque. You know that type of acceptance and joy in the beauty of whoever you are and whatever you look like and just being a strong female role model and this song is a homage I suppose, and a nod to all our burlesque friends and to girls night out.
JK: Where did you record this and who is on this track?
Bif: You're going to hear the voice of my drummer and my husband, and this was such a fun song to do. I wrote it with my bass player, David Martone. From beginning to end, we just were silly. You know it was really fun and the guitars too.
JK: I love the layered sound - it's got power. Everybody always needs that high-intensity energy.
BK: You moved from Vancouver to Toronto, when?
Bif: We looked and looked and looked. My manager of 30 years had moved back to Canada from France with his wife, and they moved to Oakville. When we came here to work, I stayed in his basement, and it became evident that we were going to move here. We started looking for apartments last fall, found something in October and finally moved in January.
BK: You must have truly enjoyed the ice storm?
Bif: We loved it all. The power went out in my building, and we had to drive from Petawawa on the 400 and the 401 which is close by, but I didn't know what it was called. I have a little Volvo hatchback and I drove because my husband wasn't driving. I'm always the designated driver and it was nuts. I loved it. I always say, “where are the cops?" I never saw any police except between Peterborough and Petawawa. There’s a police college on Evans or a north Toronto street or wherever in Etobicoke and they have tuition that rivals some of the more prominent universities here. Shocking actually!
But they have volunteer programs I would like to recommend to everybody. Look into local law enforcement civilian volunteer programs. It just takes neighbourhood watch, block watch up and nods where you have a Nexus pass style access to being able to snitch on bad drivers. That is important to me. People disregard the law. U-Turns in the middle of the street. I've never seen that in Vancouver. Vancouver is an extremely conservative society. I could go on and on. I could pontificate. But I won't. Toronto is not that way. The most significant cultural difference that I've noticed is in the complete disregard for the law. It's an amazingly lawless society.
JK: “I Love Myself Today”, you co-wrote that with Desmond Child. And he, of course, was behind Joan Jett and “I Love Rock n’ Roll.”
Bif: As well as Ricky Martin, and as well as “Who Let the Dogs Out”. He’s Mozart. I could die happy tomorrow, just based on some of the opportunities I’ve had in my life.
BK: What is the best recording session ever for you?
Bif: Well, I'll just say honestly it was being at the Hit Factory recording a song called “Letdown" and I was extremely nervous. I was with this guy Kevin Kadish and in the same vocal booth as where Whitney Houston sang her first record. It was the first time I was in a vocal booth. And now it's different. Everyone does vocals on computers, but I was in a vocal booth that had its own thermostat, so I turned the thermostat up to hot, and I mean no one could walk in there because, again, I’m vegan and always cold. And I found I was able to maintain singing, whereas previously, I would probably lose my voice doing those screechy yells. It was a bit of an ‘aha’ moment for me.
BK: In your many tours who did you want to meet the most?
Bif: So many but I would say James Hetfield from Metallica. I had one manager and then I had two managers as of 1994 - a couple named Jon and Marsha Zazula and they handled Anthrax, Suicidal Tendencies, Metallica, King’s X, Testament. I mean, my hero bands were managed by these two, and they had Megaforce Records and they put out the first few Metallica records and worked with them. I was able to meet James Hetfield, and I think it was 9’ and I couldn't talk. I was speechless. It was just embarrassing. Jay Leno was the same thing. I couldn't talk.
Bif: I don’t know. We were there to do his show, and we had done the rehearsal in the afternoon and it was just so overwhelming for me. I haven't met a lot of celebrities. I don’t really get out. I cook at home - I stay at home and I don't party, so I don't meet anyone as a result, but meeting Jay Leno and James Hetfield was special.
BK: Did he converse with you?
Bif: He was very gracious and met us before we went on his show, and it was like “Hi, it’s nice to meet you, I heard a lot about you”.
BK: Snoop Dogg?
Bif: He was great. A very down to earth family guy.
Great dad, funny you know, and self-made. He is very personable and very warm. It reminds me of this story I had heard about George W. Bush and the story was from someone who had worked with him who was telling about what a prankster he was and how all of the leaders of the world knew that. They all knew him for being this joker and that he would be the guy at the summits and would literally put the ‘Woopee Cushion’ under your seats. He laughs all the time and they think he's funny when they're not on the clock and I'm like, that blows my mind to think of this of these politicians.
BK: Who hit on you?
Bif: I didn’t have a lot of that happen to me because I was a foul mouth, tough, tattooed girl. They oscillated between assuming that I only liked women and thinking that I would, you know, ‘mully ti’ kick them or whatever it was. And I really didn't receive a lot of that type of stuff. Misogyny or any weirdness? You know, I was always and still am my own tour manager. I set it all up at the end of the night and I count in and count out the merch. I do the load-ins, and that's the only time I have that kind of contact. The only time anyone ever hit on me or made me feel weird was when there was money involved. I was trying to get paid.
JK: You still do your own tour management.
Bif: I have been doing this since I was 17. I mean, there were times when I couldn't do it and my manager would simply just come on tour and do it himself or his daughter.
JK: What made you do this?
Bif: You know, half the time I was the only sober one and the other half the time I’m doing the driving when it's not a bus. I got six cavities on the Warped Tour in 1996 because of ‘Charms Blow Pops’. We’d eat ‘blow pops’ and drive. From Denver to New York City. My dad was a dentist and said, “You’ve got to get another job.' It's tiring, and you're doing load-out at 2:00 in the morning then up to do morning radio sometimes between 5:00 and 6:00 a.m. It's not easy but I still like it.