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Issue 44 / Singer Bif Naked Bares All In New Memoir

Singer Bif Naked Bares All In New Memoir

Apr 05, 2016


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The Canadian punk rocker shares with us her unique connection to South Asia and her life-changing battle with cancer. 

On the surface, Bif Naked is an unlikely candidate to grace the cover of ANOKHI Weekly Features Edition, a space typically reserved for South Asian stars. When the opportunity arose to spend a Thursday morning hanging out with the heavily inked Canadian punk rocker, we were pitched on the fact that she was actually born in New Delhi, the illegitimate daughter of two teens attending private school in the country — one Canadian and one American — before being adopted by American missionaries and brought to the West.

It’s an interesting detail, no doubt, but was it any more than a fun fact — especially considering she left while she was still just a toddler?

Pulling up in front of her downtown Vancouver abode, Bif (a.k.a. Beth Torbert) greets me in the lobby and we head up to her apartment, where the influence of her birthplace is unmistakable, with the curried humus, papadum and masala dish she’s laid out in the dining room for us to snack on (curry is her specialty, she tells me), as well as the Indian instrumentals emanating from her stereo and the touches of South Asian décor that populate the space. (As it turns out, she’s also an occasional ANOKHI reader).   

 
Bif Naked, showcasing her eclectic array of tattoos. Many of them written in Sanskrit, Hindi and Farsi, her body art includes the mantra "Om Nama Shivaya" in Sanskrit on her ribs, the Hindi words "prema" ("love") and "shanti" ("peace") on her upper arms, and a rendering of the Taj Mahal on her back, among many others. 
Photo Credit: Karolina Turek

“My parents really kept us connected to Indian culture,” the 44-year-old, Manitoba-raised singer-songwriter explains. “My father started an India society in every town that we moved to and we would be stuck going to the India society dinners and us kids would complain, but ultimately it kept my father connected. He spoke fluent Urdu, fluent Hindi, Spanish, Japanese; he was a guy who just wanted to speak to everyone all the time and travel the world and raise his children very internationally.”

Of course, she’s always carried a more potent reminder of India with her, as her parents left the country with a second adopted daughter, Shireen.  
 
“My sister being South Asian, I think that for her, for sure, they kept that culture alive as we were being raised as kids. And for me, not really having a heritage, for whatever reason, whether they meant it or not, was just what I identified as.”
 
Though she admits you may not be able to hear it in her hard-edged rock anthems, Bif always very much gravitated to South Asian talent.
 
“There’s a lot of music artists that I connected with early in my career and they resonated with me,” she says. “Two of them are from Canada; one is Jazzy B and the other is a guy named Rishi Rich. They travel all over the world. And the fact that they’re from here made me feel really proud and I could buy their bootlegged records in Punjabi markets. I think I’ll always be somewhat connected; it’s part of my identity.”
 
But the South Asian roots are just one part of her story. And the reason I find myself sitting across from Bif today, snacking on expertly prepared Indian delicacies, is because she’s opted to share that story in its entirety via an autobiography — I, Bificus, set to be released later this month. Titled after her second solo album, the book offers fans a raw, comprehensive look back at the road so far, all recalled with a healthy dose of humour.

With a lifetime of backstage shenanigans, colourful sexual encounters, charming childhood anecdotes about being held at gunpoint by a pimp in Toronto, and a run in the mid-late ’90s that saw her become one of the hottest acts in the world on the back of hits like “I Love Myself Today” and “Lucky” — she certainly had plenty of material to draw on. But it took a lot of nudging from Peter Karroll, her longtime manager ("He's bascially like my dad at this point," Bif notes) to convince her it was worth putting pen to paper.

“It was a very difficult thing for me to do,” she reflects on the writing process that began in 2012. “It took a lot of self-discipline. Also, I was very self-deprecating in my writing for the first year, because it was preposterous to me. I think I had to talk myself into it. I felt, everybody has a story, my story’s not special. I didn’t want people to think I think that I’m special. All these types of issues that I guess were making me feel too self-conscious to do a good job.”

Bif Naked's memoir
 Photo Credit: HarperCollins

 

Having gotten an advance look at the manuscript, I wonder if she might be self-conscious about something else. After all, everyone’s story is filled with a few dark chapters — and with various messy breakups, health scares and the vicious misogyny she encountered on her rise through the punk music scene, Biff has had more than her fair share of said experiences. Was it hard to dredge all that up again?

“Not at all. In fact I think all of it is still very funny. I think that is probably a coping technique that I had as a kid, and that just still carries with me through my life,” she explains. “But hearing about my writing through the editors was a huge eye-opener. And [after reading the first draft], they looked at me and said, ‘This is so sad.’ And I was like, ‘What is wrong with you? It’s hilarious.’ I think for them, they [got caught up in the] tragic events that happened, and through it all I just kind of flittered out of [every] misadventure.”
 
Surprisingly, that even applies to her 2008 battle with breast cancer, which came along during a period when work was getting a little too all-consuming.
 
“I was so grateful at the time; there was part of me that was really, really like, 'Oh thank God. Please, let me croak. I’ve done everything I ever wanted to do in my life. I’m done. I just need a break,'” she recalls. “And it was great . . . I didn’t have to go do morning radio, I didn’t have to starve myself and I got to go hang out at the hospital and talk to people all day long. It was amazing. And that really was my perspective. As skewed as it sounds, that was a very serendipitous time for me. And a lot of people discover that; when there’s a health crisis or something that occurs in their life that just jars them out of the routine that they’re in.”

Bif Naked 
Photo Credit: Karoline Turek

 
Her long struggle with the disease, coupled with several subsequent battles with organ failure, while at the same time seeing her second marriage come to an end, actually resulted in an artistic evolution of sorts, compelling Bif to move away from the heavier sound that had defined her career up to that point.
 

“I didn’t want to do a rock show ever again. I was like, ‘Fuck this. It doesn’t fit.’ I felt like I turned into an adult somehow; more accurately, I felt like I had turned into a woman. Because my cancer treatment kind of coincided with me turning 40, I couldn’t differentiate what it was that made me feel like I had gone through a transformation. It may have been a combination, it may have been the stress of a relationship ending or losing dogs or a parent, but for a while, all I wanted to do was acoustic shows. They felt very natural for me. It’s a real captive audience; I’m not standing up there trying to encourage guys in the pit to 'go off' or whatever my schtick is.”

Bif Naked
Photo Credit: Karolina Turek
 

After releasing an acoustic best-of record in 2013, she and her band are currently in the process of getting back to their roots a little bit, touring rock shows and working on a heavier album. But if the sound is familiar, her approach is different.
 
“I don’t feel limited like I did when I was a young person,” she says. “My first couple records, I really wanted to be sure I did everything the record label wanted me to do . . . Now I feel like I just kinda go, ‘If we want to write a song that sounds like Pantera and we have funny lyrics, we should do that.’ So maybe I’m more fearless.”
 
Indeed, sitting here at her dinner table — newly engaged, healthy and perhaps with a little more perspective than before — Bif Naked seems thoroughly content with where she is in life. But then, she’s never been too tough to please.
 
“I think that I was always happy with anything that happened,” she says. “The first time I heard my song on the radio was 1994, and I couldn’t believe it. It was a song called ‘My Whole Life’ and I coulda died happy. I was like, ‘This is it. This is the pinnacle. I’m good.’ Everything after that has really been gravy.”
 
 
 Main Image Photo Credit: Karolina Turek
 


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Matthew Currie

Matthew Currie

Author

Having gotten his start with Anokhi Media as an intern in 2009, Matthew Currie was honoured to accept a position as the magazine’s Arts & Entertainment editor earlier this year. A graduate of the Professional Writing program at York University, he’s spent the past four years working as a fre...

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