Outside on March 22nd, Toronto buzzes with technology, controversial Federal budget announcements, spring equinox snowfalls and TTC delays. But inside Sarah Slean’s Riverdale home, candlelight, hors d’oeuvres, rosé and rustic flower arrangements set the scene for her launch of Ms. Slean’s first album in five years, Metaphysics. Sarah Slean sings while accompanying herself on piano, along with a string quartet playing lush harmonies and virtuosic obbligatos all penned by Slean, an accomplished orchestral composer. We could be in a 19th century salon, as Toronto composers, yogis, scholars, performers and artists gather to hear this cross-disciplinary artist, whose own artwork and calligraphy fills her walls with poetry and colour.
Her songs are simple, poignant and utterly personal, infused with jazz, classical, pop and Latin influences. Sarah Slean’s classiness as a songwriter defies time period and genre.
“I never make stylistic decisions of if a song will be pop or latin influenced etc,” Slean comments. “I’m not an artist deeply concerned with one’s personal brand.”
Despite this lack of genre and time period identification, Slean’s latest album stands firmly grounded in our technological, social media-driven era. Amongst Ms. Slean’s guests sit winners of prizes from Pledge Music, a crowdfunding website Slean has recently started using, where artists and fans connect.
“For me as an artist, Pledge is a kind of dream come true,” Slean describes. “Instead of just delivering three and a half minutes of music and the handful of words therein, I can describe how that music came to me. I can describe the backstory. I can talk about the books I was reading, the situation I was in, the magical event in my life that transpired, the people that I met... The random stories in my life that would ignite a whole train of thought and cause music to erupt in me. I get to explain those things, go into depth about ideas and inspirations and [the Pledge users] eat that up.”
(photo credit: David Leyes)
Slean describes herself as a person who has straddled two eras of music production. Originally signed with Atlantic Records and later Warner Canada, she has experienced big budget production and now tastes the change in the industry, where she describes that little room exists for anything besides commercially viable records. For her Pledge fans, Slean spent hours creating handpainted covers and writing out hundreds of lyrics on request, including from songs from the late 90s.
Although many of Slean’s songs currently could qualify as pop ballads, many have decidedly classical influences. Originally a student of Christina Petrowska-Quilico at York University, Sarah Slean studied performance, which she found too almost athletically competitive, she admits, before transferring to U of T where she concentrated on theory and composition.
“For me in writing music, there are a few knobs you are twiddling,” she describes. “One of them is the rhythm, one of them is the harmony, one is the melody and one is textural - [ie.,] what are your timbral choices. People are going apeshit with the textural aspect now. Western harmony has its confines which is why in classical music, there are all these quarter-tones used now with [composers] wildly trying to abandon harmony altogether.”
Slean admits she doesn’t believe this microtonal trend in music won’t last.
“For me, it’s just about those dials,” she elaborates. “I have a few settings of them that have got to be right and that’s what I focus on. The stylistic dial doesn’t exist for me. I’m most interested in the chords and the melodies and how they work, as well as in the lyrics.
“It’s a feeling I describe as the whoosh,” she laughs. “When it’s right, you get the whoosh. There it is, off of the page. Chamber musicians talk about this as well; you struggle and struggle and suddenly [the music] snaps into relief and it’s three dimensional, alive, off of the page and music. In the recording process you wait for the feeling of consonance. It’s there with a life of its own. That can be a wrestling match. You sense it in a room when you get the right drum feel, or elements - when you hit on the right thing you get the whoosh.”
Sarah Slean finds consonance in more than just music composition. She is accomplished as a poet, visual artist, and occasional actor, as well. When asked how these cross-disciplinary pursuits inform one another, Slean comments, “They’re all from the same place. I ended up in music because those were the first tools that I picked up. I’ve been fascinated with sound since age 3 or 4, and was always drawn to my parents’ piano. That section of my brain got built earlier than the one that say, acting would have.”
Metaphysics, which is commercially released on April 7th, forms Sarah Slean’s twelfth album, though Ms. Slean notes that she could write about metaphysics for the rest of her life.
“I’m not sure people will run to Spotify to hear records on it,” she jokes.
When questioned further about the inspiration behind Metaphysics, Slean reveals that she has developed a deep interest in the agent of causation in the world.
“You could call my whole career metaphysics,” she says. “I’ve always been very curious, but only in the last 5-10 years have I become really passionately interested in about what one would call metaphysics.”
“I’ve read a lot of religious literature and theology,” she admits, “a lot of which is extremely beautiful poetry if read as such. Science can also give me the feels like that. Being awestruck. Like, how is it even possible that I am a thing called myself, cooked out of an amoeba-like person and now I’m here, aware and sentient on a massive sphere dangling in outer space.
“It’s completely gobsmackingly improbable and weird. We’re so accustomed to existing that it fades into the background but it doesn’t get old for me. It constantly occurs to me that I’m alive. Not just in moments of transcendence, but also in moments of deep and painful suffering or unbearable pain and empathy for another. It occurs to me, this sort of rich thing called being is so extraordinary.”
At Ms. Slean’s private album launch, artists, yogis, scholars, and philosophers gather thoughtfully as she performs, friends whom she explains share a common interest in metaphysics.
When asked about performing in such a small venue in such close proximity to her friends and fans, Ms. Slean admits the experience to be “mildly anxiety inducing,” though performing in such vulnerable settings makes her more open and raw as an artist.
“I think the purpose of suffering is to burn away all that is not true,” she muses. “Everything that is bullshit, that isn’t real, that is temporary or superficial all gets melted away by the years. The blows and sadnesses that you endure. [Art] peels away all the necessary layers. The whole arc of living is getting to be this extremely raw heart in the world, where things affect you and you can cry at a bird landing on a tree in your yard. I feel like that’s what we’re all aiming towards. To be so open and woundable and full of love that you’re just walking around raw in the world. When I met Leonard Cohen, I felt that was where he was at - he seemed very open and raw.”
Leonard Cohen serves as an appropriate contemporary to Sarah Slean; another Canadian singer-songwriter who also painted, wrote poetry, and was fascinated with religion and the notions of being.
And as it was in the touchingly vulnerable singing of Leonard Cohen, a visceral, raw quality is present in Sarah Slean’s performances in her living room on this snowy Wednesday evening.
“Pretty good walls and bones to the heart I’m in/ windows and doors where the light gets in / if I get bombed out I can build it back up again cause I’ve been / loved well,” she sings in one of her new songs, loosely evoking one of Leonard Cohen’s most famous lyrics: “There is a crack in everything, that’s how the light gets in.” We can only hope Sarah Slean produces as prolifically as Mr. Cohen, musing on life and metaphysics in so many shapes and forms.