[Ottawa correspondents Ross MacDonald and Karen Coughtrey covered Bif’s recent show. Let’s get caught up. -AC]
AJOMT: In the lyrics to your song So Happy I Could Die you sing about being iron tough and needing to suck it up. You are considered by many to be a goddess of Canadian rock, an icon of female rock, do you feel pressure to maintain this strong, kick-ass persona despite everything life has thrown at you, for your fans?
Bif Naked: “That’s a funny question because I’ve always been a performer, no matter what. I grew up with a primary role model, which is my mother, my adoptive mother, who was shy to a fault. Polite to a fault. Non-confrontational , pleasant. Years later, as I was interviewing her for my memoir, I think that I covered layer upon layer of a little tiny girl who, who was worried everyone would get mad at her, basically, in her own upbringing. And so she brought up her three daughters the same way. And even though I can go on stage, and, you know, punch a stage diver as it leaves the stage, and can sing songs about sexual assault, and I’m not going to take it from you, and I’m gonna be emancipated, all these things, the truth is in my personal relationships, I’m that girl, I’m very nonconfrontational. I’m very fawning and very people-pleasing. But I’m a performer first, before that personal thing, because I’ve been performing since I was 17.”
“Like all of us, we think we’re so grown up when we’re 21 and 25. I don’t think I grew up until, you know, well into my 30s, maybe even later, and the whole time I’ve been an adult, I’ve been a performer. So I don’t know any other way. When I was going through breast cancer, for example, my world was awesome. And when anyone ever asked me how things were, I could have jaundice, I could have a blood clot in my surgical port, I could have no hair, my second marriage was falling apart, my dog died, It was just all happening during chemo and I would always say the same thing. Awesome. I’m awesome. How are you doing? And that’s just all I know how to do. So I think that on one hand, being a performer has served me very well because I feel like I can get through just about anything. But on the other hand, I am just as vulnerable and as human and as mistake making and passive-aggressive, CIS heteronormative upbringing as anyone else is.”
“But pressure, it’s just I don’t know, any other way to do it. It just never occurred to me. I’ve never said no. Which made me popular in school. I never said no, which has served me well as a volunteer. Because even if I was fearful, and someone asked me to do something that would be out of my comfort zone. Like, for example, the first time I went into a palliative care ward, and the only reason I got access to this ward as a volunteer with zero training was strictly because I was Bif Naked and someone who was a patient had requested that I go to their bedside. So even though that’s a big ask for anybody, how can you say no to that, you cannot. What I discovered was that I needed to be there and I needed to put my body in that space of volunteerism because it was so underserved. It was just underserved. And I was like, Why does nobody want to be a volunteer here? They need people. I’ll do it. What I discovered was that I loved it and that I loved being able to help in any way I can and trying to live this life off the stage. I blame my parents, bleeding heart socialists that they were. They’re academics and socialists. But really, we grew up with the motto serve all, live in service to others. And my parents both walked with Dr. King, they were Martin Luther King activists and were in Selma, and they were in the race riots in the 60s. It was just like service is where you start every day and that’s just how I still am and being in palliative care has just been the greatest calling that I’ve ever had.”
AJOMT: You’ve been making music for decades now, some of your biggest hits came out in the 90’s and 00’s. Do you have a favourite decade where your music is concerned or in general?
Bif: “I do. I’m working on my second song with Ritesh Das from the Toronto Tabla Ensemble. And the first song we did is on the Grammy ballot this year. I feel like now, I’m coming into my own. ‘Spaceman’ was written as a ballad. And when I do book tours and read from the book, and then we play the acoustic versions of the songs that the stories I read are about, and we do ‘Spaceman’ as a ballad. I cry every time I sing it, because it’s such a song of longing. It’s such a song that is about loneliness and longing. And every time I sing it, it comes back, except when we’re doing the rock show, because it’s fun and bouncy, and it’s a different energy. So those songs I perform every night. ‘I Love Myself Today’ I end every show on, because we have to, I can’t not sing it. And ‘Lucky’ I always dedicate it to nurses. But some of the songs that were on later albums are much more meaningful to me, I felt like every time I did a record, I really wanted to be a better songwriter.”
“Every lyricist is going to try and put their clever twist on whatever things have been said a billion times before and so it’s a challenge artistically. And it’s a great challenge to have. Out of a kind of disillusionment, I didn’t make a record for nine years, I didn’t want to, I just thought it doesn’t matter anymore. You know, no one cares, they’re not going to ever buy it. I had a single from the same acoustic record as, ‘So Happy I Could Die’ called ‘The Only One’. And that was a song that was very meaningful to me and it got on Canadian radio, and international radio on pop, and pop doesn’t necessarily want my songs. And rock doesn’t want that song and even if they had any rock song, they always only play ‘I Love Myself Today’ anyway. So it’s really hard to get anyone interested in new stuff, even if I think it’s miles above the old stuff.”
“With the new record that we’re making, that I put on hold during 2020 and then in 2021, we were entering yet another lockdown and stay at home order and I just thought, people don’t need my voice right now. They need to take care of themselves. And they need to go to marches. They don’t need to do anything to do with what I’m doing. A lot of artists still put records out and had great successes in that. But for me, it just didn’t feel authentic, or genuine. So I’ve just been waiting, and in this day and age, we can just wait. And so when it finally comes out, [I’m looking forward to] everybody hearing some of the songs that we did. There’s a couple of songs that I just absolutely choke up trying to sing. And it’s not because I’m so damaged that the lyrics still bring out that in me. It’s because I know, and I felt the same way about ‘Lucky’ and ‘Spaceman’, when you sing that song, you know it’s going to connect with someone else in the audience who feels exactly like you do. That’s a sense of belonging that we all have, that we have had since we were 14 and it never goes away. Doesn’t matter if we’re 44, something will happen in a day or at a concert or in some event where that 14 year old who’s still seeking for belonging will meet someone or have an experience with someone and it is so powerful. And I feel that way about music obviously, and all art, even books, I really think it’s always worth the weight.”
AJOMT: Your website mentions an album called Champion , is that the record you mentioned was put on hold? The three newest singles have cover art of you with boxing gloves, are they going to be a part of that album?
Bif: “Yes, that’s the cover art for Champion because champion boxer was the original message. I did feel like a bit of a champion, in this day and age, to be able to still be in the game and be able to tour in summer and do concerts and everything. ‘Rollerdome’ was the first song we wrote for Champion. It was always slated to be the third single but in 2020, we put up ‘Jim’ because it was the most dramatic. And, you know, it was nice to be able to control the order of songs, which is not available anymore. When you put something out digitally, people can cherry pick what they want. And that’s great. But for me, I just wanted to put ‘Jim’ out first because it was so different and dramatic. And then ‘Broke Into Your Car’ was supposed to be out the same year after ‘Jim’ going into what I call Pride season, summer, because I have the wonderful opportunity to play so many Pride events but we waited until the following year. We spent the entire pandemic tinkering and now I think we’re probably gonna put out 27 or 30 songs, including spoken word very possibly. Why not? Because we can. And that’s the whole point.”
AJOMT: Your newest single is Rollerdome. Roller skating has been seeing a resurgence in popularity lately. Do you roller skate? Is it a new or older hobby?
Bif: “I am and I’m terrible at it. I was a roller skater when I was 12, along with both of my sisters. My older sister was a great roller skater and I could never skate as well as her. Then over the years roller derby became very popular and I think that roller derby is an amazing sport. It takes a lot of skill. But at the same time, the culture is fantastic because it kind of lent itself to a new fluidity about girls and about female bodies. I know there’s also men’s roller derby, which is rare, so they call it men’s roller derby. But roller derby was something, that I believe, really served to empower young girls. It really did. And if they would have had roller derby when I was a kid, I would have loved to have been involved in that. It was just something that, you know, as it grew in popularity, it just really changed things for a lot of young, impressionable adolescent kids as they went through the years.”
AJOMT: How did the relationship with ‘Drag Race Canada’ start and what was it like to be a guest judge where the contestants lip-synched to one of your hits?
Bif: “That was amazing. That was the most amazing experience. I’ve done a lot of film and TV in my life. I preferred the stage to doing film and stuff. I did a couple of feature films. I was 30 or 31. I loved it because I love the crews so much and you work with them. You know, basically all these people work under such strict parameters and time constraints and you develop real bonds so being asked to be a judge was absolutely a dream come true. I was terrible. Because I couldn’t say a bad word about anybody. I cried with all of the contests, I cried with every one of them. I loved them all like they were my children. They were so authentic and such lovely people, the crew and cast, they were all amazing. They were very kind. Brooklyn Heights is I think very possibly the most elegant, movie star woman I have ever seen in my life. I can’t even describe how glamorous Brooklyn Heights is in person. It blew me away. I think TV must be so much fun for them. But I was terrible. I couldn’t be judgy. I didn’t want anybody to get cut and I was just too huggy. And I didn’t want to criticize anyone. A judge needs to be able to do that, but it was just such a fantastic experience.”
AJOMT: Your tattoos are a big part of your image. What was your first tattoo? Do you have a favourite tattoo or one of particular meaningfulness?
Bif: “My first tattoo is the Eye of Horus. The all seeing eye. I got it on my arm. Of course, as they get older, a lot of the tattoos kind of blend, they just kind of look like black blobs, a lot of them. But on my back, I have the Taj Mahal. And I also have the word Azadi which is freedom in Farsi with a fist on one side, and on the other side, I have it in Urdo, and those have been my favorite tattoos for 20 years.”
AJOMT: I know you have a tattoo reading survivor that must mean a lot and that you also advocate and have written about health and are writing about navigating the cancer care system in Canada. Do you have any words of wisdom for those starting or going through the battle or other survivors?
Bif: “I have so many words. All you can really do is hold hands with another patient and jump in the deep end of the pool, because you’re you’re going in, so you might as well just jump in. And, you know, try and laugh every day at yourself, at the situation, at your predicament. I know this sounds so cheesy, but it’s true. Be gentle. Be gentle with yourself, because you’re going to be discovering, everything’s unpredictable. And there’s going to be days that are bumpy. Having cancer forced me to learn, being flexible, about every area of my life, whether it was how I would feel every day, how I couldn’t really make plans. I’d have plans and then I would wake up and in fatigue or whatever it was, I just had to be flexible. I would have to just say, Okay, today is not that day, and not like bemoan everything that was going on, I might as well, make fun of myself.”
“For anyone with a family member, or a friend or even a stranger or neighbour that’s going through cancer. I always say one thing, be a pest. In our health, it’s the polite thing to say where we say, no, no, um, because we don’t want to impose it. We don’t want them to feel obligated. What I discovered is, as a volunteer myself, I still need to be a pest, you have to just keep doing it anyway. So they’re fine, take a pie over for their family if they’re fine, because they probably take care of their kids. And in these days, sometimes it’s nice to, if the patient doesn’t want you to do something, you can still be a help to the family, the dad doesn’t have to, and he can stay home. Anyway, it goes for everything, you know, to be a pest and, and keep showing up.”
AJOMT: I know you also advocate for vulnerable people and champion social justice, anti-poverty, affordable housing causes. Was that impacted or did it change in any way because of the pandemic?
Bif: “Oh, most definitely. I think that the problems the pandemic has done and is continuing to do, is it exacerbated things that were already going on. So if someone is living in poverty, then that’s going to be amplified in the pandemic, of course, because they can’t access services. It’s been a nightmare for everybody, but it’s really been a nightmare for anyone living in poverty, and a real nightmare for seniors in poverty and a real nightmare for anyone who has to live with a disability in poverty. Tthey weren’t in poverty before, they are now. A lot of times, it’s hard to know how to help. It really is because it really is up to our government. And, you know, it’s hard to motivate them. It’s very, very difficult. And it’s for us to try and keep putting pressure on our local government, and hopefully, on the federal government, but it is daunting, because every other group also needs that attention. And every group believes that their group needs the most attention, and they’re probably not wrong.”
“For me, I get asked to amplify a lot of different voices and I want to, I really do but there’s a lot of different organizations that don’t need me. They have other people that are doing it, there’s lots of celebrities who can help raise awareness, and they’re already working with them. I always try to look at who needs me, who doesn’t have an extra hand. And generally, it seems to me persons living with disabilities, and their families, people living in poverty or who are vulnerably housed, among other issues, and it’s hard to know where to help.”
“When I started working with the animal advocacy, when I still lived in British Columbia, what I discovered was not everyone always works together, because they’re still all competing for dollars from the government and they’re still all competing for bodies and, and so it does get difficult because, you do have to try your best to choose the organizations that you can help the most. Sometimes it’s hard to figure out how, but just keep going and I love it. I think that it’s important to try and to amplify other voices because they need my voice more than I need my voice.”
AJOMT: Your site mentions a book of poetry and cartoons, Razorblade Chewing Gum. Is that still in the works? Can we expect to hear any of the poetry at your shows? Did you draw the cartoons? If yes, did you draw any of your tattoos?
Bif: “I love my book ‘Razorblade Chewing Gum’. It is basically trauma porn, or that’s what I call it because I have to make fun of it. It’s heartfelt poetry and prose and cartoons that have been kind of collected in five different nets, and then put into a book. A couple of publishers that I tended to to work with, they’re very afraid. They’re not familiar with spoken word for example, and they’re not familiar with sometimes saying things that are terribly impolite. I find that it’s a very conservative landscape in the big grown up fancy publishing arena. So we’re considering just putting it out with Champion as a bonus that people just will get.”
“I drew [the cartoons] and they are very primitive. I hand-lettered all my CDs and did my merch and drew my stick girl ,which is really just a little stick girl that says things that I wouldn’t say. So it’s a lot of different scenarios with that little inner child image of me.”
“No,I have not drawn any of [my tattoos]. But my husband did. Every time my husband had doodled on my day timer, which he does all the time, which is like the middle finger or a knife or these surprises that I find, I collect them and tattoo them on me.”
AJOMT: I read that you have started managing and mentoring new recording artists. Are there any we should be checking out or who are putting out music soon?
Bif: “Right now I’m working with Ritesh from the Toronto Tabla Ensemble and you should also check out Shiv and The Carvers, they’re a Toronto based band. I always say they are the second coming of Christ, they are a phenomenal Rock and Roll band, they are the future of Rock. You can find them everywhere that you find anyone. I am always looking and inspired by young bands, there are so many great bands nowadays.”
“The female hard core scene in Quebec is very vibrant and vital and the same goes for Manitoba. I’m biased of course because I cut my teeth in the Manitoba band scene, I always say it’s because it’s so cold, we’re isolated all winter. All we do is write hard core music in terrible jam spaces with no heat. It lends itself to making really loud music. There’s a million great bands happening right now out of Canada and we should just try and support them all.”
AJOMT: Who are you listening to these days?
Bif: “I am out of control as a music fan. There’s a playlist I have called Egyptian love songs for example. I’m crazy for compilations, I love middle eastern music, I love classical Indian music obviously. I listen to Nusrat Fateh Ali Khan a lot. There’s an Iranian singer named Andy, who I love. I listen to him everyday. There’s a Turkish singer, who’s a big star in Turkey named Tarkan. I love Tarkan so much. Of course D.O.A., of course Propagandhi and of course anything SNFU, I love it all, I’m such a huge music fan.”
AJOMT: You have already reached the pinnacle of rock status to many, what next do you wish to achieve?
Bif: “To make the quintessential Rock album that has never been done before. Honestly, there’s a couple of songs on the Champion record that I feel are the best writing that Doug Fury (My guitar player) and I have ever done together. There’s a Thrash Metal song that we have that gives me joy everytime I hear it. I think about it and I say “Is it okay? Is it okay for me as the artist Bif Naked to do Thrash Metal?” and the truth is it’s more than okay because it’s going to be so fun to play live and I’m just going to forget myself and it’s going to be pandemonium. I feel like what’s next is a louder, more confident bunch of Rock songs that are coming down the pipes and I can’t wait to perform them.”
Ottawa was treated to Canadian Rock Royalty Friday night as Bif Naked performed at the Bronson Centre. She was dressed simply in a camisole and skirt which let her still fine form, uniquely beautiful features, and tattoos draw all the attention of the mostly Millennial and Gen X crowd.
As Bif Naked recently appeared as a guest judge on the TV program Canada’s Drag Race and often performs at Pride events , it was no surprise that the show was presented in part by Capital Pride and opened by local drag artists, 2022 Mx. Capital Pride winner Mx. Caligula and TikTok sensation Saltina Shaker. The two had the audience screaming in delight as they took turns captivating the crowd through two numbers each.
The show felt personal and said the crowd reaction was causing her to have an emotional orgasm. She declared her love for our small world class capital city, she reminisced about being keynote speaker at the She’s The Change conference in 2018 and shouted out Jenn Hayward for the earrings she’d gifted her that she was wearing and would get down low to speak with fans standing close to the front. She would speak to the crowd between every song and these mostly one way conversations centered around a few themes.
She spoke about growing up and her appreciation of but also the ups and downs and expectations of family before her songs ‘Daddy’s Getting Married’ and ‘Let Down’ and love and marriage before songs ‘Yeah You’ , ‘Chotee’ and newest single ‘Rollerdome’. Other themes included betrayal ‘Jim’, freedom and empowerment (she spoke about several current global women’s movements) ‘Tango Shoes’ and she spoke about her volunteer work before dedicating ‘Lucky’ to nurses which she performed with the stage lit with a bright breast cancer awareness shade of pink.
Bif took a break of sorts mid way through the set to introduce her chosen family, her long time bandmates. She had long personal stories to share about each of them, and it was clear they have all been part of her music in multiple ways. The audience was treated to long solos by each member, guitarist Doug Fury (playing a guitar built by his nephew), bassist Peter Karroll and drummer Chiko Misomali. Peter declared “We are here to witness the power and the glory and the resurrection of Bif Naked” and if anyone in the crowd disagreed it wasn’t evident.
The audience ate everything up happily all night but the energy was kicked up a notch near the end of the night as she played a string of her most well known and beloved hits ‘Moment of Weakness’, ‘Spaceman’, and of course she finished with ‘I Love Myself Today.’
The crowd were treated to the perfect way to end the night, a surprise encore where Bif Performed a song that she said means a lot to the band, ‘Twitch’ from her 1998 album I Bificus. The crowd were itching and yelling for more but alas that was all there was to be heard.
Bif Naked – vocals
Doug Fury – guitar, backing vocals
Peter Karroll – bass, backing vocals
Chiko Misomali – drums, backing vocals