Sarah Slean free of ‘powers that be’ to call her own shots

Talent, success and Sarah Slean seem to go hand in hand.

  • Fri Nov 11th, 2011 10:00am
  • Life

Sarah Slean performs at the Kelowna Community Theatre Nov. 20.

Talent, success and Sarah Slean seem to go hand in hand on the Canadian music scene, but when the Toronto-based musician ventured into her latest project, it was truly a leap of faith.

Fresh from rehearsal for her Western Canadian tour of Land and Sea, a two-disc album released this spring, Slean gave the Capital News a quick Q&A over email as her voice needed the break.

Here’s what Slean had to say about her latest musical adventure.

JS: Bringing out two albums at once is a pretty risky move in this day and age, how did you convince the powers that be that this was the route to go?

SS: Ha! Funny. There are no “powers that be.” I left Warner in February of 2009. I am officially self-governed. That’s why I call these records “the miracle twins.”  No label waved its magic wand. That just doesn’t exist any more. And I will never, as long as I live, request permission from anyone to create.

As I began writing in 2009, the songs were collecting around two poles: One, rousing, liberated pop that spoke of the here and now; and two, philosophical, cinematic pieces that spoke of the mysterious and eternal.

Once I had the vision of these two audio worlds sitting in balanced contrast with each other, it could really be no other way. And then all kinds of magical things started happening.

The means, people and opportunities appeared.  I jumped in not knowing how it would be realized, but going on a strong, somewhat insane kind of faith.

JS: I see you have Royal Wood doing some producing, how did you make your selections on that front?

SS: Royal produced one song on Land. Joel Plaskett did the bulk (the other seven), and Toronto producer Greg Johnston the ninth. Sea was co-produced by film composer Jonathan Goldsmith and myself, with the exception of the two solo songs, which I produced. So, I’ve scored four songs for orchestra (Napoleon, The Right Words, The One True Love and The Cosmic Ballet), and Jon scored the other three.

I chose Joel for Land because he has a great instinct for pop hooks and is a fine songwriter.  He’s got a knack for drawing out inspired performances from band members too. He forced us to play most of the bed tracks (drums, bass, guitar, piano) together in one room and I think the recording has a great sense of immediacy and presence because of that.

I wasn’t happy with the way two of our tracks turned out though, so I turned to Royal and Greg for those, and I think they both brought their terrific musicianship and energy to those tracks.

I chose Jon Goldsmith for Sea because he has a lot of experience working with orchestras in studio.  I met him through working with The Art of Time Ensemble and we’ve become good friends. He’s a great intellectual sparring partner.

JS: One has to ask, do you have a favourite song on the albums?

SS: Hmmm. From Land I’d say Life is my favourite. It’s a kind of riotous anthem to whatever it is that animates our cells and keeps our hearts beating. To be a human, to have a body, to breathe and live, these are wildly interesting things if you actually ruminate on them for a while.

We are so peculiar and resilient and beautiful and teeming with potential; most of the time, we don’t put our attention on these wondrous facts.

From Sea, I’d say it’s The Cosmic Ballet.  This song speaks the whole story of Sea. It is a hymn to the extraordinary miracle of the cosmos, our human lives, all that is in this world, including the dying and suffering. “You, my darling, are the rest and motion of the Cosmic Ballet.”

The spiritual revelation is that it’s a dance, all of it; it’s a kind of respiration of the force of life itself.

“Ebb and flowing of an ancient ocean, oh the cosmic ballet.”

The last line is “sweet dancing, and dancers you shall be.”

JS: What’s the show look like? I would imagine, given the imagery in the music, some work has been put into the staging. Can you give us a taste?

SS: I am bringing my finest band yet, including a female backup singer and multi-instrumentalist (at last, a woman on the road!).

I, unfortunately, won’t be bringing my hand-painted piano shell—which is quite a sight—because of flight restrictions. But it’s all about the music anyway.

JS: Is there anyone, off the top of your head, that you would like to work with in the future?

Tim Burton is top of the list. The next two are dead, sadly. Bernstein and Glenn Gould.

JS: What inspired this collection of songs?

SS: After my last album, The Baroness, came out in 2008, and I finished touring it, I had the feeling that something significant had concluded. I let go of a lot of old stories; closed the book, so to speak, at last.

And then I had a banner year—graduated, got married, left Warner, toured with the Art of Time, went to Rwanda with Song for Africa. It was a year of major experiences. All of this caused a great explosion of music inside of me, which only increased when I went to both of my go-to inspiration spots to begin the scoring for orchestra: Paris and Newfoundland.

Watching whales play in the bay just beyond your front porch while writing sweeping orchestral music about the divine mystery? Pretty amazing.

JS: On the graduation note, why did you choose to go back to finish your schooling with a career that was already on its way? And are you done?

SS: Yes, I finished in 2009.  I went back to finish what I had started, and also to feel as though school was truly behind me. It has always been a bit of a dangling carrot for me. I love academia; I love philosophy; I love going to lectures and formulating papers. It was time to finish that, though, instead of having it be a sort of tempting ‘escape-hatch’ from the tumultuous world of making art and music.

Music has never stopped calling me. Even though I’m very interested in so many things, and would gladly spend more time at school, the call is so strong now that I can’t refuse it. I actually tried to in the past, but I was always gently guided back to the path of music.

Fish gotta swim.

Sarah Slean performs at 7:30 p.m Nov. 20 at the Kelowna Community Theatre. Tickets are $25 from