One word runs like a giant banner across Beth Torbert’s – a.k.a. Bif Naked – life. Strength. It was present the moment she was born, abandoned, and hidden in a mental institution in India. It was there when her adopted parents claimed her and brought her to the United States and then to Canada. Strength held her up in her teenage years so she could survive gang bullying and repeated sexual abuse by men in positions of authority in her life. Strength picked her up off the floor of a drug dealer’s apartment and walked her to the other side where she became an internationally recognized music star. Strength carried her through a cancer diagnosis, divorce, and empowered her to inspire that strength in others. I have no doubt that strength is what we’re going to hear on her newest album when it drops this fall. Here is our conversation.
You have had an amazing and tough life. Do you know what kept you going in the toughest of times?
Optimism at all costs. Sometimes to my detriment. My parents had a lot to do with it. They were missionaries but weren’t particularly crazy religious, but they had faith. They were positive people and practical and pragmatic… When my mother was upset, she became quiet and would do the dishes. That’s what I do. My anger, my sadness, I channel. I put it into lyrics and my stage performances, that’s where I let it all out.
Even though I was always writing poetry, when I wrote songs I discovered that I could tap into my past and reconcile those events and find catharsis by writing about them. When I am in a positive frame of mind, when I am happy, when I am in a healthy relationship, I wonder how I will ever write a song about loss or longing – but it’s really easy [here Bif breaks into laughter]. I can always tap into those emotional reserves. We always carry them with us and even if we are recovered, we have those scars, no matter how much counselling we have done.
My parents picked me up when I was six years old. I was the only Canadian in my family [because] I was adopted from a Canadian mom; I was so proud of that, it was something that was always part of my identity… I found I was really attracted to my Indian birthright, and I found that anything to do with the subconscious really resonated with me. And it was part of our upbringing to explore the teaching of God, Hinduism, the wisdom of Gita, and music was always part of my life.
I can hear the spirituality in your music. I don’t know where you are in terms of your beliefs…
Bif laughs a lovely all-embracing laugh. I love it all. All paths lead to the same place.
Something that really struck me about your story is at 21 years old you are passed out on the floor and by 23, you own your own label, you have a platinum and a gold record. When I think about it in terms of athletics, it is truly remarkable to do that in only two years. So what happened in those two years?
I was like any other self-respecting prairie girl – smoking cigarettes in high school and drinking beer. When I moved to Vancouver my band they all smoked pot, they were into this west coast party culture. I didn’t like pot because it put me to sleep, but I drank. I was never good at drinking, I could get drunk on a tablespoon of beer, but when I drank I would talk more, and the amateur comedian in me came out. It didn’t seem all that detrimental, but like everyone else, when alcohol is involved your judgement is impaired, and I had a boyfriend who was a drug user, and eventually, as partners of drug users often do, I just joined him.
After six months of that flirtation, I came to a day that I really felt that this was the last time I can get away with it. Today is the day that I can never step over that line again. If I ever do this again, I will 100% be doing this forever. It was absolute fear that made me stop. I was lucky I had got away with it, but I escaped by the skin of my teeth.
It was also at this time that Bif made new friends who were both role models and a support network for her. One in particular, Gail Greenwood, Bif related to.
Gail was the coolest person I ever met. She has never smoked a cigarette, never done a drug, never had a drop of alcohol in her entire life. She was athletic, she was straight-edged… this isn’t someone refraining or stopping because they had a problem, [this is] someone who is making a deliberate conscious decision that is entrenched in making a deliberate social statement. That appealed to me… I can’t believe how lucky I am that I got away with doing intravenous drugs and without getting sick. I count my blessings.
When Bif quit drugs and alcohol she was immediately ostracised by the band. She launched her solo career, but just as her first album was finished, the record label folded and the parent company didn’t want to pick up her record. In her words she had no choice, she had to start her own label.
We just have to do it ourselves, I really believe this, and it’s more true for women that sometime spite is the best motivator. Maybe spite is the wrong word, but when a woman feels she has something to prove, it is a strong force, stronger than anything else.
When a woman feels she has to show everyone what she is made of, it’s like she is Wonder Woman, she’s a stronger force than almost anything… My manager, who was new at the time I went out on my own, said, “You have to make your own record label because nobody will find you. This is what we are going to do and we’re just going to do it ourselves.”
That’s really powerful. Several women in my life are trying to change systems, others are fighting against prejudice and old thinking –, do you think we get less patient with all the BS as we get older?
As we get older, we get smarter, we focus better, we sharpen where we need to focus, our strengths have been getting honed all this time, as we gain this experience, we persist, no matter what. [Women get a] “this is going to happen or I am going to die trying” attitude. I love being a woman more and more than that, I love competing as a woman: in business, the music industry.
You used the word spite, but it’s really anger isn’t it? It’s a huge powerful emotion. Would it be wrong to call it anger for good?
It’s important and it’s a motivator… Sometimes when you feel the most defeated and hopeless the only thing that can get you out of bed is that jolt of anger.
I liked how Bif said that, because I think a lot of people grapple with the concept of anger, they don’t know if it’s okay to feel it, they don’t know how to express it in a healthy way and they often end up shoving it down.
In 2008, Bif was diagnosed with breast cancer and it was during the first few months of treatment that her husband left her. With the benefit of hindsight, Bif now believes that the end of the marriage was an inevitability, that cancer just sped up the breakdown of the marriage, but she was angry.
Anger is a weird animal. When I broke up with my second husband, I was really angry for a year: really, really angry, I couldn’t shake it. I didn’t know if it was all the cancer treatments affecting my brain, or putting on thirty pounds through chemo, or the whole insecurity thing that made me more angry – what was it? It took me a long time, but you do get away from anger and you wake up one day and it’s gone.
When I asked her about anger and what people can do to understand their own anger, Bif spoke about the bigger picture.
It’s a question for the ages, our times. The biggest problem people have in this world is forgiveness. Period. The end. Forgiveness, they don’t want to do it, they want to feel it on the one hand but they want to cling to their hurt and their grievances [on the other]… People don’t get to the root of what’s bugging them. They lash out at the school board, they call someone a bitch; is it really because the school lunch programme changed, or is it something else that you have never dealt with that is triggered by the language in the bulletin you read? People don’t get to the root of what is really bothering them.
Why do you think this is?
People don’t like confrontation; we avoid it at all costs. Denial is strong, denial is great – people would rather go the grocery story and worry about how to make their chicken dinner than address a problem in their world, or in their personal relationship. Therapy is expensive. People don’t go to therapy unless they can afford it, and even if they can they don’t want to spend 130 bucks a week.
People don’t actively seek out the work, to really examine what’s bugging them, to find a resolution, to explore what’s going on inside, [to commit to] what you need to do to feel better.
For me it was always working out. I went to the gym since the 11th grade; when I became isolated on tour as a performer, I would get up and work out. I coped with the isolation by going to the gym; I did a power walks… stuff like that that made me feel better. You think about stuff when you are working out, when you are walking; when you are alone, you work stuff out.
I have really struggle to justify my need for solitude. I have so many people and responsibilities pulling me in different directions, but if I don’t take time to be alone I can feel myself starting to walk on mentally shaky ground.
I would take my dogs to dog parks all the time in the car. Because of my profile, I had to switch dog parks and gyms all the time because I would get those looky loos, but I could [always] get into the car, put on my Turkish Belly Dancing CD. It brought out my feminine and I could listen to music and sit in my car in solitude. I used to get up at 3 in the morning because between 3-5 a.m. was my time. Alone, I would read the newspaper, have a cup of coffee, make my granola, listen to quiet music, do yoga breathing and a few OMS before sunrise. It’s the only time in my day not filled with people.
Bif is an animal activist and a passionate volunteer. After her own experience with cancer, she began to volunteer with other cancer patients and she discovered she was good at it.
I was 100% made to do it. I was born to be a volunteer, to be in service. Sometimes it got in the way of my recording career, but I love it. It’s nothing but answering the call, I fell into that kind of mentoring by accident. I just kept getting asked: [people would say] “My cousin, my friend, my daughter has just been diagnosed…” and it was just so natural and easy for me to do and it feels important.
How can I live for good, for the happiness of other people? Whether it’s through music, the mosh pit, what am I doing for others? Literally, that’s my thing: I blame my parents.
What would you say to others who may be struggling?
It’s so hard, because everybody is different and a lot of things that I do might be considered corny or cornball –
It won’t come off as corny when you say it because you are so cool. If I said it might be cornball, but not you.
My song, “I Love Myself Today.” That song, even though it is a little bit cornball, just being able to say it: brush your teeth and say it – you don’t have to look yourself in the mirror – say it everyday, make a habit:
I am enough
I did enough
It’s enough. It doesn’t have to be anything more, and it jump starts you to being conscious of being nice to yourself; it’s a really small effort for the most skeptical person, but it’s going to start to make a difference. I did enough today, I am enough.
Bif’s words strike deep inside, reminding me of a time when I had to learn those very word: I am enough. I can imagine that powerful little girl struggling to work her way through the pain and confusion of her early and teenage years, and it seems a blessed miracle that she is here today, giving so much back to so many. There is no question to me that Bif Naked and Beth Torbert are so much more than enough.