One of the nicest things about Sarah Slean is that she is both talented and prolific- something which makes the creative world smile. Slean has made eight albums, starred in two short films and a movie musical, published two volumes of poetry, held exhibitions of her paintings, written two string quartets, and shared the stage with five of the country’s leading orchestras. She has also been nominated for three Junos, two Geminis, and her records have been released in over 10 countries world-wide. To add to this dizzying array of achievement, she also happens to be one of the most exciting live acts going – incorporating theatre, cabaret, vocal powerhousing and what can only be described as genuine strangeness to her performances.
Sarah Slean recently dropped into Whelans in Dublin where she raised the fairly intimately set roof (Whelans take note) as she brought along with her the also very talented Cairn Quartet ensemble who provided a nice gothic/romantic string layer to the evening. Sarah took time out to chat to TMO Dublin about life, death, ultimate questions and whose brain she would really like to climb into given half the chance.
TMO Part of what makes you so interesting is that you are near impossible to pin down in terms of your oeuvre. You have been compared to the likes of Leonard Cohen, Irving Layton, Kurt Weil and even Gustav Mahler, and when I listen to you I hear everything from Jacques Brel, Tori Amos and Kate Bush to Alison Kraus. How do you see yourself in such a sea (no pun intended) of artists?
SS Thanks. In our culture, there’s so much emphasis on accumulating and constructing a personality – building who you are and your story, but I think exactly the opposite is the way we become our true selves. I think living is about uncovering who you already are, peeling away the unnecessary, the tentative, and the fearful to discover what is really there, and has always been. So much of what we pick up in life just complicates our true nature. I left my home, belongings and career in 2003 to live in a cabin in the woods for four months. I think I was in the midst of that existential crisis – my “spirit” or whatever you want to call it, demanded that I stop fighting myself and trying to force my life to be this or that… It demanded that I stop feeding fictions in order to let the real self/story emerge. I can’t explain my compulsion to do so, only that it did not seem like an optional thing at the time. I knew it was mandatory. That experience remains one of the most transformative periods of my life. I discovered that in surrendering completely, giving everything away and becoming silent and spiritually naked – that what I naturally ended up doing was creating music… It is my nature. I cannot help myself. This was astonishing to me. I came to terms with who I was – an artist. So I don’t think about genres. I don’t think about the details – I am just doing what this particular creature does. I think what I’m getting at is most aptly described as the “non-doing” of Taoism. You are what you are. Fish gotta swim, birds gotta fly.
TMO You are currently on a European tour with the Cairn Quartet- who you said you simply found on the internet. This pairing has turned you into an all-female ensemble. Was this intentional? What attracted you to them in particular?
SS No. Music is blind to gender. A good player is a good player. I first played with them at the TED Global conference in Edinburgh, and was so delighted by their positivity, their beautiful playing and their infectious energy. They are all beams of light. That is such a blessing on stage and on the road.
TMO How has it gone so far for you? Any highlights?
SS Numerous highlights. This tour has reconfirmed my belief that anything is possible. Through social media and the power of music, we were able to pull of this incredible high-quality show with very little history in these markets and no major label. This is a new era for music. I’m excited about it.
TMO One of the things that I enjoyed most about your show in Whelans in Dublin was the theatricality- in that your voice has more than a shade of the cabaret in it, and yet your songs are laced with poetry and vulnerability. This kind of mix usually belongs to singer-songwriters who have voices that echo this fragility. Your voice is extremely powerful though. How aware are you of this quality, if at all?
SS Sometimes the power surprises me, yes, because I consider myself a rather bookish, slightly shy person. In fact, I feel very little ownership over my voice and the way it sounds – I think the voice – more than any other feature of a person, is their essential, eternal spirit coming through. It’s strange / interesting to me to hear how mine has changed so radically over the years. I think it echoes the process I was describing in your earlier question – the uncovering, unpeeling of what you really are. There’s something in there that wants to come into the world… we must endeavour to give it a channel, that’s all.
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TMO If you could climb into the brain of anyone- living or dead for a day, whose would it be and why?
SS My first pick would be Marcus Aurelius… then maybe Martin Luther King Jr., Tolstoy or Gandhi… because these are some of my favourite thinkers and their books have been a guiding light in my life and work thus far.
TMO Creativity can be a fickle mistress- one that is as demanding as she is exacting. Some artists find that their art simply flows and that they are merely the willing conduit while others sweat to give birth to their piece. Where do you see yourself as an artist on this spectrum?
SS It’s different all the time… but more and more I’m convinced that the greatest work is the work you allow to come to you. You can’t chase it. If you do, it’s always out of reach. You have to stand still and let the bird land on your outstretched hand.
TMO You have just released a fairly ambitious double-album called Land and Sea. What was it that decided you on doing this, rather than a single one? What was your inspiration behind the album?
SS After months of just writing and trying to perceive a general structure – I realized that it was two records. That’s usually how the writing process works for me – something emerges… And yes – a double album is twice the personnel, the budget, the producers, the time, the effort… but once I get a glimpse of the coherence and the wholeness of what is emerging, it’s impossible to make anything else.
The music that arrives has a momentum of its own. Beethoven once said to a violinist who was whining about how difficult his string quartet was to play, “do you think I give a damn about your miserable violin when the muse visits me?” I couldn’t agree more! When I started writing for this record, I had no idea what it would turn out to be, I was just writing. The songs coming out seemed to be from two distinct perspectives – gathering around two separate poles, not just musically, but lyrically. The “Land” songs had heat – reds and yellows – they were terrestrial, here and now, our times. Lyrically they dealt with the clashes and dramas inherent to being a separate ego or personality in the field of the temporal. So there are songs like “Girls Hating Girls”, “Society Song”, “Everybody’s On TV” – they are particular to people and to our specific moment in history. They involve conflict, striving, and the human longing for release from these.
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The “Sea” songs were cooler, blues and greens and greys… The lyrics were about the intuition that all of those separate egos, in fact all of history, is one phenomenon – the transcendent – that which is eternal and beyond time – the Great Mystery. In “You’re Not Alone”: “You cannot see or listen to / the very heart of life / it isn’t there, then suddenly / you feel it. Going no direction it is everywhere/ knowing every word it makes no sound.” “Everything is giving birth to everything / nothing in the world is as it seems / light upon the water, that is the light in me. ” I look at this creation as a novel. It is a complete work – a whole set of related and resonant ideas, like a film.
I wanted the “reader/viewer/listener” to be able to enjoy it superficially, but also be able to go deeper, to be able to extract meaning at every level.
TMO Your songs often seem to echo the existential- particularly the themes of life, death, hope and despair. Have you always been drawn to the bigger themes and does exploring them in your music help you to decipher any of these themes? Do you ever feel differently about your subjects when you listen back to a finished track?
SS I have always been fascinated with ultimate questions – and it’s only increasing as I get older. Life is spectacularly wondrous, improbable, violent, beautiful, tender, brutal and unfathomable. I still have not shaken the shock of being here, in a body, with a mind, in time and space. That never gets un-incredible to me.
TMO One of the most intimidating things about you is your range of talents. Not only are you an accomplished songwriter and musician but you have also starred in two movies, held art exhibitions for your original paintings and have scored 4 original pieces for a 21-string orchestra. You have also published two volumes of poetry. Not to put too fine a point on it….how did you choose music as your central professional path? What was it about music that grabbed you, for instance, more than art?
SS It chose me. 😉 All of this comes from the same place, I’ve just sharpened my musical tools more often and that’s why I receive more inspiration in the form of music… I suppose if I had gone deaf at the age of ten, I would have become an equally passionate painter.
TMO I was reading your blog and came across a fairly powerful and passionate post that you had written on not accepting the Queen Elizabeth Diamond Jubilee Medal. While making a fairly political statement, you also said that you were ‘not a politician, an activist, a historian or a lawyer’ but ‘just a musician.’ You also said that you were ‘a Canadian, a thinker and a human being.’ How much can you separate passionate beliefs from the stuff of your music? Should you have to do so at all?
SS There are times when you can’t, and that’s when I have to stand up and say something. The Diamond Jubillee medal is meaningless to me in comparison to the importance of standing with the Aboriginal people of Canada. They are the soul and blood of the land we call Canada. They are the reason the French and English settlers were able to survive here at all. They also represent a world view that stands in complete opposition to the prevailing Western world view, which views land as property, people as economic units, and money as the only indicator of wealth. We’re realizing as a culture that true wealth has more to do with clean water, clean air, arable land, strong communities, relationships built on trust and mutual benefit. I believe our Aboriginals are the tempering influence we need to transform the West’s destructive worldview into a more sustainable one. How can I accept a silly trinket from a British monarch when they are fighting so valiantly for justice?
TMO If you could un-hear any song what would it be and why?
SS I am glad that people are making music – even gag-inducing, terrible music. It’s better than making fighter jets or automatic weapons.
TMO What is the best thing about what you do for a living and what is the worst?
SS Music. Music is a healer. There are two kinds in my books – music that distracts us from life and gives us a welcome break from the daily mundanities, and then there is music that pierces those daily mundanities by taking us deeper into life – pushing us beyond a surface appraisal of it. Both kinds can heal and nourish… but the latter is my project. If it does its job, it causes us to see clearly into the wonder of life for a brief moment. It lifts the veil. That’s what I want to do with art.
The down side is also the upside… Travel is one of the greatest blessings in my life. It’s also a challenge to keep your body and relationships healthy when you’re moving around so much… but I wouldn’t trade it for the world.
TMO If you could steal any ONE aspect, physical or abstract from another person- famous or not- what would it be?
SS Interesting… I would love to have the patience of Martin Luther King. I have a bit of a temper.
TMO What’s next for Sarah Slean?
SS I’m currently writing a bilingual musical for orchestra and voices … it will be the story of Canada in miniature… It looks like we’ll find a staging partner this year – so that’s truly exciting for me. I’ve always felt such an affinity for the theatre and the potential for magical experiences there… And of course the orchestra… you know how I love an orchestra.