Bif Naked remembers, clearly, the photo shoot for the cover of I Bificus, her landmark 1998 sophomore album. The striking, steel-tinted portrait of her—sitting on a curb, wearing a jewel-encrusted crown, lip ring, and delicate black slip dress detailed with flowers—was taken by Seattle photographer Karen Moskowitz, the lens behind some of the most iconic shots of grunge pioneers Alice in Chains and Temple of the Dog. It was freezing outside, Naked laughs. But mostly, she was fascinated by Moskowitz herself.
“When I met her, her and her partner lived in a warehouse in an industrial part of town,” Naked recalls to the Straight, speaking over Zoom from her home in Toronto. “And they just lived like artists. I was so taken by their life and so influenced by the clothes that they had me wearing. I felt like a real grown-up.”
At that point, Naked was in her mid-20s and had only released her 1994 self-titled debut. She also, of course, fronted bands Gorilla Gorilla and Chrome Dog in Vancouver’s punk underground. But recording I Bificus—the 25th anniversary of which she’s celebrating this week with a special show at the Rickshaw Theatre—was, she describes, “labour intensive,” and she had to sing some lines “probably 100 times.”
Nevertheless, it was a “special” and “crazy” experience—especially when she recorded part of the album at Armoury Studios in Kitsilano. “I could’ve died happy,” Naked says. “It was just a dream come true.”
At the time, Naked used to frequent a tiny bookstore downtown—“I think it was on Robson Street, between Seymour and Richards”—that sold spiritual books. One day, Naked bought a devotional CD dedicated to Sai Baba of Shirdi, an Indian saint. (“I'm a Banyen Books whore,” she adds, with a grin. “That totally was my schtick when I was a young Ashtanga student in my early 20s.”)
Born in New Delhi before being adopted and eventually moving to Winnipeg where she grew up, Naked always loved devotional music. She listened to her Sai Baba CD every day and brought it to the Armoury in her backpack. When I Bificus’s recording engineer, John Potoker, saw it, he was floored. Potoker, Naked notes, was a Sai Baba devotee who pilgrimaged to India annually for the saint’s birthday.
“He thought it was so auspicious that I had this CD with the photo of Sai Baba on it,” Naked continues, smiling fondly—so auspicious that the album sat on the recording console through the entire production. “Sai Baba was famous for making ash out of his hands … it's called vibhuti. John had sacred ash on him at all times and had this vibhuti sprinkled all over the console the whole time.”
I Bificus includes some of Naked’s most enduring hits, like the gothic ballad, “Lucky,” which was originally recorded for her debut but didn’t make the final cut.
Naked had written it with her drummer boyfriend at the time, Brad McGiveron, whose rock band, DSK, had the rehearsal space across from Chrome Dog’s. The couple wrote it on the floor of the apartment they shared, where they lived on rice and broccoli, and the melody flowed out in five minutes. Naked chuckles at how earnest, how hopelessly romantic, the lyrics are—“You know, talking about making love in the roses and all this stuff. I've never made love in roses, for God's sake!”—but acknowledges what a “really nice chapter” it was in her life. “I was also deeply in love with this boy with whom I was writing the song. And, you know, it was special and it was just magical.”
Sony’s 550 label, to which she was signed to do I Bificus, had Naked record four or five different versions of “Lucky”. In the end, they went back to the original vocal. To this day, it’s still one of Naked's favourite songs. “It depends on the night, but sometimes I fight the urge to get really teary eyed when I sing it,” she says.
A few other songs shifted iterations during the course of the recording process. The furious pop punk juggernaut “Moment of Weakness” was also originally written as a ballad before producer Glenn Rosenstein sped it up. Naked protested at first.
“I struggled with trying to just be polite and go, ‘I’m just going to let them do their job,’” she says. “And really, that was part of my coping mechanism as a young artist: not wanting to be argumentative and wanting to always be hyper aware that it was a privilege to record, not my right … Of course, his instincts in his production turned out to be 100 per cent perfect, and the songs evolved into what they are today. And from that, I learned so much. Because I just think, in the end, my job is to write lyrics and sing melodies and go batshit crazy on stage. That's my job. Those are my skill sets. And if he's a producer, that's because that's what his job is.”
And Rosenstein knew what he was doing, Naked adds, when he made “Spaceman”—the first single off I Bificus—into the epic, dreamy soundscape that it is.
When Naked was writing the lyrics for the song, her longtime manager and business partner Peter Karroll wasn’t exactly pleased with what she was coming up with.
“At the time, I was studying Taoism and Buddhism and stuff, so I had written lyrics about the idea of grasping—if you've grasped the tiger's whiskers, basically, you could risk getting bitten,” Naked recalls. “And he was just so pissed off. He was just like, ‘Those are the worst lyrics I've ever heard in my life!’”
Karroll insisted Naked stay put, and not leave the room until she wrote something better. She was devastated.
“I remember sitting in that room just going, ‘You know, if I could only be abducted by aliens right now.’ And I was like, ‘spaceman oh spaceman, come rescue me,’ out of that situation of having to write the song with my manager. And it just stuck. And then when he came back, I sang him the ‘Spaceman’ song, and he just looked at me and went, ‘That's the song.’”
After recording was finished and the photo for the cover was shot, Sony 550 decided not to release I Bificus. There wasn’t a specific reason—their priorities could have just changed, Naked shrugs.
But Naked fought to get the album back—which she did, in part because she had her own record company, Her Royal Majesty’s, and owned the masters to her music. The experience was pretty traumatic at the time, Naked says, but it turned out to be a blessing in disguise: she put out I Bificus herself—on her own terms—got it licensed in Europe, and ended up working with Lava-Atlantic in the US, which was “transformational.”
Everything happens for a reason, Naked says.
“I look back at that time, I still feel like the same person that I was, making that record: you know, someone who was just wanted all the East Van punks to respect me or not think I was a sellout, really scared of running into the guys at the jam space and all that stuff,” she laughs. “And I'm still that girl. That has never changed. And knowing that, I find it so kind of silly and funny to just go through life always as that person that's still trying to sing the line 100 times.”
She’s a much different performer now, though, than she was, Naked says.
“As a young artist, I had so much anxiety. I was very self-conscious. And again, it was because I was extremely concerned with what all the punks were going to think. I was extremely obsessed with basically being a human jumping bean. I didn't want to not move around. I never wanted to be boring, ever. I wanted to be active and really give it my all during the show.”
Today, she feels like she really lives in the moment of performing.
“As a result of that, I sometimes forget myself, in a way. And, as I mentioned, you know, there have been times when I've been singing ‘Lucky’ and I will get very teary. And I find that ‘Spaceman’ is the same thing, because even though it's a song from so long ago, it's still a song about longing. And so as a performer, it's still exactly how I feel. And so now, I think that I'm just more comfortable as a woman, anyway, as I get older. I find that I laugh more easily, I cry more easily, all these things. And that definitely affects my show.”
Naked’s upcoming performance at the Rickshaw Theatre is also being filmed as part of the documentary that director Jennifer Abbott is shooting about her.
Naked is “very, very comfortable” with Abbott. She’s particularly fond of Abbott’s film, The Magnitude of All Things, which makes parallels between Abbott’s sister’s death from breast cancer and climate grief. Naked is a breast cancer survivor herself, and that film, she says, is beautiful, expansive, and riveting—and a good insight into the lens with which Abbott sees the world. It makes Naked feel incredibly safe.
“And to have them at the Rickshaw is really important to me, because I'm dear friends with Mo Tarmohamed, who runs the Rickshaw,” Naked adds. “I think it's going to be a really magical night. I don't know what to expect. I know that it's going to be unforgettable.”
When: June 29
Where: Rickshaw Theatre
Tickets: Available online via Eventbrite