Online Exclusive: Sarah Slean, the extended interview

By Kate Marlow

G: I understand that you just completed a degree in philosophy and music at the University of Toronto?

Sarah Slean: That is correct.


SS: Thank you so much.

G: Why did you choose philosophy?

SS: First of all, I started at York in classical piano and I quickly realized that I was not going to be an athlete of any instrument, so I moved to University of Toronto and got into the songwriting world. I was like most undergrads in first and second year. As an undergrad you kind of, you know, you’re young– you don’t know what you’re into. So, I took a few philosophy lectures and those were always the ones where I was absolutely rapt. I was so into it and so fascinated and would think about it all the time. I just loved the tutorials, so I took more and more. If I was to ever be tempted back into the world of academia, that is where I would go– into philosophy and cognitive science and the brain and humans and how we’re so strange and don’t understand ourselves. It’s lovely.

G: Are you hoping to continue in the world of academia and formal education?

SS: Well, I toy with this. I think I will be a little bit lost to not have a class to go to, to be honest. I mean, I still always read and I’m very interested in the world but there’s something about going to see someone speak who has been studying a certain area of knowledge for their entire life. And some profs at U of T really truly live and breathe it and love every moment of what they’re doing. They really are engaging lecturers. And I would miss that. So I think sometimes I toy with the idea of a Masters or further education. But we’ll see.

G: In your blog you discuss the concept of ego and otherness. You come to an incredible realization– that there is no otherness. Aside from that realization, have your adventures into the world of philosophy affected your self-perception or how you view your place in the world?

SS: Oh, dynamically. And it’s always changing, but it’s always profound. The work of Emmanuel Levinas really burst that open for me and I saw all these connections with Buddhism and new age ideas and even environmental ideas. The philosophy behind green activism is so entrenched in all of this and what moved me about Levinas was his whole concept of the face and alterity and otherness. And what he would say is that the face– more than anything in language or in any ideas that we can try to communicate to each other– is this wellspring of something that we know is eternal. That’s why when we recognize a face, that recognition, is re-cognition. When we see a face, we see the eternity from whence we sprang. We see God or the entire universe. We see ourselves. In Hindu scripture, in some of the Sutras, the phrase is “thou art that.” Nisgardatta talks about this as well. See that tree there? You see the person there that you can’t stand? That is you! You are that dog. You are that insect. That is you. That is amazing; it blows your mind wide open.

G: Has that affected your music as well?


G: Are there any good examples of that on your latest albums? It’s not knowledge that you can grasp, you can’t surround it and hold on to it. It’s sort of knowledge that you have to sort of [she trails off] If you let it, it can surge up within you and you can feel it. But it’s never something that you can grasp per se. I would never try to claim that in lyrics. But I do feel that music, like any other art, is close to that same thing. Language fails me. It’s languageless, but it’s shared by all. Everybody experiences it with familiarity. People say that they get goose bumps when they hear a song. That happens to a lot of people at the same time. So there’s something there that we already know. We already know, in some wordless manner. And I think music is a huge part of that because it’s also wordless.

G: Do you have any survival tips for those of us who have not yet graduated?

SS: Survival tips! Oh, okay. Here it is: the joy and relief will be beyond your imagining. And I know right now you’re thinking “oh my god, that’s going to be so great,” but you have no idea how great.

G: You mention that the recording process for your latest album, the Art of Time Ensemble, has been different from your usual approach. Can you explain that?

SS: Yes. I’m a musician of the 21st century, fully embracing digital technology. So I work in computerland and we record into computers. We edit and tweak things in computers and we collect it on hard drives. It’s all digital. Andrew, his stubborn self, insisted that we work on 2 inch tape, which is the way all great albums were recorded you know, Led Zeppelin et cetera. It sounds incredible, but it drastically limits your editing possibilities. To edit tapes and to put takes together and to move things around, they would actually physically cut the tape with razor blades and tape it together in spots. [It’s] pretty labour intensive, so it limits your possibilities. You pretty much have to get things in a full take– or close to it. That’s fine and dandy– we’re all professional musicians. But there are seven musicians from different disciplines. I’m from pop, there were classical people, there were jazz people and there were world music people there. So with everybody’s internal clock and everything, we really had to mesh and find a place to sit together so that the music would function as one animal. But if you’re working with seven different tracks going onto tape you could do six or seven takes. I could have the vocal take of my life on take number three, but the sax person could have made a mistake or the cello could have screwed up. So it just really limited our possibilities. That was scary for me because I’m used to singing the song 10 or 12 times and picking things from each take and then making the “supertake.” You couldn’t do that in this case.

G: Doesn’t that make the music more truthful, though? SS: Absolutely. It makes the music more real, as in real time. And that’s why I love the fact that this project is called The Art of Time, because it’s just that. What you’re listening to on the recording is time taking place.

G: Do you plan on using this approach in the future?

SS: I do appreciate how beautiful it sounds, but there is so much technology right now that can emulate the sound of tape that it’s almost not necessary for that aspect. But for the aspect of forcing the musician into the present moment, which is what tape does, it’s quite remarkable.

SS: I was on CBC Point the other day discussing auto tune and if it’s the downfall of the music industry and if it’s overused. I said, “Of course it’s overused.” It’s so annoying to hear that thing engage, the thing that turns voices into perfect pitch. I’ve used it occasionally. We’d sing the song three or four times or something and the take we would love the best would be almost a full take. It would have all sorts of imperfections but it would have that certain something, the thing that was human and honest and it had all of the emotion of the lyric in it and it was the one, it was perfect personality so we would choose it. Then we would go into that take and if there was something so off that it was distracting, we’d treat that segment so that the grievous error is fixed. But we keep all of the other things. We keep the rasp in the voice, we keep the lip noise, we keep the breath. And that’s what a lot of people can get overzealous with fixing in digital land. What we want to hear when we listen to music is a human being. We do, or at least I do.  

G: Awhile ago you broke from your label and became an independent artist. Do you have any regrets over that move? Have you had to overcome any specific challenges?

SS: It’s scary. It’s a lot of work that the record company was formerly doing for me. But conversely there is always that shadow side. Sure, I can’t blame anybody, but I don’t have excuses now. I can’t say, “Oh, this didn’t happen because of my label, blah blah blah.” It’s just me. And it feels empowering. I feel like for the first time in a long time, I am the master of my own destiny. I don’t have excuses anymore, I don’t have anyone to blame. I can’t say, “I have this success because of the record company.” I feel like it’s all up to me now.

G: Your Recession-ista tour is coming up in a few days. Are you all packed and ready to go?

SS: Uh, no.

G: Tell me a little bit about this tour.

SS: Well, the idea came to me because I kind of felt like, “Well, if I’m going to go on tour for this record for one last time, am I really going to take six people on the road with me and have all of those fumes going into the planet and all of those vehicles and all of those plane tickets? Can I do this?” I want this tour to be special. Before I put this album to bed, I want this tour to have a good vibe, a good philosophy behind it. So I decided to go solo to lessen my carbon footprint. It’s just me and my tour manager; we bought carbon offsets. But then I thought that this is so typical about all of the environmental lessons that we get: “Don’t do this, don’t do this. And this is bad. And you shouldn’t do this. And you can’t do this anymore.” I thought that the only way that this message was really going to enliven us, including me, was if it can engage our imagination; if it can engage our creativity. If it can delight us the way creativity does delight us. And so I thought, “How am I going to do this?”

I know so many people in fashion who are inspirational in not only what they can create, but how they create it. I’ve met so many amazing women who are committed to only using repurposed clothing, or only using bamboo and hemp and sustainable fabrics. They’re doing their own thing and running their own business and they still love fashion and parties and things that everyone in a recession is like “Oooh, you can’t do that now.” They still love it, they just rethink it. They just turn it around. They look at it from a different angle and I think that’s what the whole world is really doing right now.

This recession is a moment of pause and thinking, “You know, the way we were living before is not going to work. It’s not sustainable, we’re wrecking the planet, it’s not economically just and people are suffering. This consumption race is ridiculous. And constantly stuff, stuff and new things and it doesn’t make any sense when we have a garbage problem.” So I love the fact that this is a really great important message. It’s timely, but it’s also fun. It’s about human creativity, ingenuity, ideas. It’s about making stuff.

G: Have you seen the gowns that you’re going to be wearing?

I’ve seen all but two of them and I love them.  

G: I know that you dreamt about a string orchestra accompanying you on tour one day and I know that you’ve had tons of fun arranging for strings. What is it about the stringed instruments that fascinate you so much?

SS: You know, this is the one aspect of my career that I really pour my heart and soul into with crazy abandon and it’s a bittersweet event every time I do it because I always wish that I was better. I love this aspect of my work because I push myself and I really make a concerted effort to improve. With songwriting and all of that, I feel like so much of it is the mystery and the muses and I accept that. A lot of it is just simply your instinct. But the string thing I really wanted to get good at, so I concentrated on it. And I listen to the stuff that I wrote when I was twenty and I listen to the stuff I wrote when I was twenty-nine and I hear that all the work is paying off.

I don’t know what it is about the strings. I feel like the sound, the timbre of those instruments, absolutely moves my soul and just gets right inside me and takes me away. I depart for other realms when I hear that kind of music.

G: You’ve traveled Europe and you’ve traveled America and your music has reached even further than that, touching the hearts and guts of people in all corners of the world, yet you are still a distinctly Canadian musician. What is it like to be a musician in Canada as opposed to these other countries that you’ve played in?

SS: I love this country, I really do. As I get older I get more and more patriotic. I used to say, “What is a nation? It’s just a mental construct and this is bullshit.” Imagine no religion, you know? But I feel like a nation or a country is a community where everyone agrees that, for the most part, we share ideals. I see that in Canada and I see that in the CBC and it’s one that’s inclusive.

I want to hear every voice, I commit to hearing every voice. I think that’s so important in this day and age and I think it’s an example for the rest of the world. I see that when I go to other countries and I play in other places. I feel that we are ambassadors for that message. People assume that about Canadians, they know that about Canadians. It makes me very proud.

G: A few years ago you had a brief foray into acting. You’re quoted as saying that it was difficult for you. Do you plan on acting again, on trying to hone this art?

SS: Yes and for one reason only: I felt like I couldn’t do it! And I felt like it scared me! And those are the reasons that you should do things. Like: “I don’t get this. I don’t understand it, I can’t penetrate it.” For me that’s all the more reason to keep investigating. I found it difficult because it was about vacating yourself when so much about being a musician is to uncover who you are, trying to be okay with that and trying to express that. In acting, I felt, you had to take yourself out with an ice cream scoop and put someone else back in. I couldn’t do that; I was so stuck to myself that I couldn’t get out of my same facial gestures and my same voice and I felt so myself. It was impossible to get away from it. I love the challenge that acting poses and so that’s the reason that I will likely try to do it again, probably to my own humiliation, but hey.

G: Do you think that the sinister nature of the character you played in Black Widow had anything to do with your difficulty grasping the acting process?

SS: ‘Cause I’m such a nice young lady? Yeah, you know, it is hard. It’s hard to get into [the] mind of someone who would kill her own child. That’s hard. To me, that couldn’t be more foreign. I don’t know what that’s about. It’s an exercise, trying to understand in your mind what your character would smell like, how they would move. It was difficult.

G: Are there any other untapped creative mediums that you’re hoping to approach in the near future?

SS: I don’t know what else the world has in store for me. Perhaps origami?

G: What are you reading right now?

SS: I’m reading Aldous Huxley’s The Perennial Philosophy. He’s gone through all of the writings of the Christian mystics and the Hindu mystics and all of the major religions, kind of trying to come up with a template for a mystical experience. He calls it the Perennial Philosophy. It’s really the shell of all the world’s religions; it’s fascinating. I’m only a quarter of the way in but he’s great. He, of course, wrote Brave New World and I’m a big fan of his from that.

G: If you could recommend one book to a twenty-something year old, what would it be? It would be a book that someone gave me at that very age, and it’s called Letters to a Young Poet by Rainer Maria Rilke.

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