Cover Story

Bif Naked Rebuilds the Stage of Life  by Anna Lazowski
 Bif Naked Rebuilds the Stage of Life

It was a surprising side effect from the chemotherapy Bif Naked experienced during her treatment for breast cancer. Spending time with other women who were sharing her cancer experience clarified something for her.

“I realized how isolating my job was for all those years. It’s like being Rapunzel in the tower. Really and truly, you never meet other women and get to interact.”

Decades in the male-dominated music industry had afforded her the opportunity to travel and to meet a lot of people. But brief encounters with fans at venues and interviews with journalists weren’t exactly conducive to developing lasting friendships. However, Naked discovered that when women are sitting together discussing medication and coping techniques, and sharing their stories, laughs and—most importantly— time, possibilities start to open up.

“Being in the trenches getting chemo beside some other bald, yellow lady, you strike up a conversation, you relate, you become friends and that bond will never leave. It’s incredible,” she says.

Naked has lived one of those lives destined for the pages of a book. Born to a Canadian teenager in India, she was adopted by missionaries and raised in Winnipeg. She endured bullying at school and sexual assault. She also experienced abusive relationships and the substance abuse that often goes along with a musician’s life on the road.

Bif Naked was a focal point for young, female music fans in Canada during the 1990s. In fact, in 1998, when Edgefest toured the country featuring acts like Foo Fighters, Green Day and Sloan, Bif Naked was the only female performer on the bill. Hers was one of the only female rock voices playing on mainstream radio stations, and her videos were in regular rotation on MuchMusic.

Naked was one of few women succeeding in the Canadian rock music scene, and with her jet black hair, thick eyeliner and body covered in tattoos, she stood out.

But that success came at a price. The isolation she realized she’d been feeling was, in some ways, thrust upon her. Starting out as the female frontwoman of several rock bands, she was ultimately pushed to the front, till her bandmates were leftout of photos as the camera zoomed in on her.

Furthermore, her lyrical style didn’t always mesh well with what she calls the “testosterone-driven” bands she was working with. But Naked slogged it out, fronting several groups before deciding to go solo in order to secure a record deal. Still, writing her story down wasn’t her idea, either. Her long-time manager, Peter Karroll, encouraged her to write a memoir and a few years ago she decided the timing was finally right.

“I didn’t want it to be a cancer book. I believe there is a place for that in my world, but this wasn’t that book,” she says. “I wanted to tell my parents’ story ... who they were as people, to see how it influenced the direction I went in my life.”

So, in order to fully capture her family’s story, she spent a lot of time interviewing family members. Since she didn’t keep diaries, her initial plan was to write essays on a range of topics. That ultimately turned into a book detailing her life, called I Bificus, published by Penguin in May.

Without a lot of source material to draw from, Naked realized she’d forgotten a lot of road stories from her early days of touring. “I didn’t have a crazy tour life,” she explains. “I stopped drinking when I was 22 or 23 years old. I had a very crazy adolescence [although] I don’t think it was that crazy. My music industry stuff is pretty tame.”

Although she says she didn’t shy away from including anything in the book, she did deliberate on a few events in her life.

“Things like sexual assaults and different scenarios that wound up making it into the book … those stories I’ve told before. And so, I think because of that, and because it’s been so long and I made peace with it so long ago, it wasn’t difficult.”

She opted not to detail her experiences with stalkers because, she says, she didn’t want to come across as a victim harbouring bad feelings about her past. But Naked isn’t afraid to call things exactly as she sees them—something she gets called on.

Lately, she’s been fascinated by the way language has changed to reflect how society labels things. Naked believes some of these shifts in language are pulling the attention from where it should be.

“I hate the words ‘rape culture.’ I call it victim culture, because I think it’s more accurate. Rape culture isn’t new—men have always been violent. I think it’s a real victim culture we live in.”

She goes on to explain that shifting the focus from the victim to the perpetrator does victims of violence a disservice by redirecting the focus back onto perpetrators of violence. Thinking back to her own time in school, where she was a victim of bullying, she says that there was no help line, no way to frame what was happening and nothing to call it back then. Kids just went home and dragged themselves back to school to face it again the next day.

“When we were in high school, in junior high, there was a rite of passage called a gang bang. Today, that’s called sexual assault. When it was happening to us in the seventh and eighth grades, it wasn’t called anything. Nobody talked about it.”

Looking back, she says that some of these events had no element of crime attached to them; the behaviour was normalized in her peer group. “I didn’t have any support because that’s not what was available at that time. We just had to literally pick ourselves up and carry on. And we did because we had to.”

Now, with every experience, thought and feeling documented on social media, there is endless appetite to discuss and to judge action, motivation and intent.
“It’s funny, the way language and society have evolved to this point where now we name things. We can claim our space, we have boundaries. We know the law. It’s just so different now.”

But for her, the real challenge with transitioning from songwriting to telling her life story was losing the ability to be vague. Song lyrics can be suggestive and open to interpretation, but Naked quickly found there’s no room for that when you’re telling real stories. Relationships need to be detailed in all their messes and make ups, while losses must be written as real, deeply felt and raw.

Making that change was an adjustment Naked wasn’t completely prepared for. In fact, while writing the book, she didn’t realize that she had omitted several traumatic losses. But after handing in a draft of her manuscript, someone
pointed out that she hadn’t written anything about her dogs. Naked’s dogs were a huge part of her life, and she had somehow managed to write her book without addressing their illnesses and deaths. So she went back and detailed the loss of her beloved bichon frise, Anastasia, and her Maltese, Nicklas, whom she had had for 16 years.

As Naked’s story winds down, she discusses her father’s diagnosis with prostate cancer and how she read her manuscript at his bedside to share
stories and laughter. Her own story with cancer began in 2007, when Naked was diagnosed with invasive ductal carcinoma of the left breast. She had a partial mastectomy and underwent 17 rounds of chemo and immunotherapy. Later she had her ovaries removed. While she made it through her cancer treatment, her second marriage didn’t survive.

After coping with so much loss in her life, she says she wasn’t looking for a relationship again. Part of that was simply in response to her earlier experiences in failed, abusive relationships and a desire to step out of that cycle. But with distance and an opportunity to look back, she is quick to say she bears some responsibility for her choices.

“I kept pattern-repeating because I believe that we replicate our shit,” she says. After ending one relationship she would find herself heading into another one with the same ultimate goal. “This one, I’m gonna change. I’m so patient and martyr-like that I can be special enough to change this douchebag….

“And finally, I resigned myself, and I met Snake, and it was like the angels sang. And I wasn’t looking for anyone. I wasn’t looking for a man, I wasn’t looking for a woman…. You only get what you need, not what you want.”

Naked is now engaged to Snake, a guitar player who joins her on the road. She says she never thought she would find a relationship as good as the one she’s in, especially in her 40s. With the book tour wrapped up, Naked is back to making music. She is planning to tour and to keep writing. She i

s also spending more time where she’s at her happiest—at home in her kitchen. “I love cooking. I have a 15-person dining room table and I do dinner parties. My favourite thing to cook is curry, vindaloo—hot.”

Still on medication and heading into her eighth year of cancer treatment, Naked remains almost relentlessly positive, an approach she refers to as a coping technique inherited from her parents. And, although she says she never planned to stay in the music industry this long, on advice from Jann Arden, Naked says she is going to tour and play rock festivals as long as she feels like doing it. 

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