Paths to Songwriting: An Interview with Sarah Slean

Heidi Stock, president and founder of Aspiring Canadian Writers Contests Inc, got the chance to interview Canadian singer-songwriter Sarah Slean. Here’s the conversation that they had.

Heidi: What’s your earliest memory of artistic expression and what other forms of creative expression soon followed?

Sarah: I don’t remember the first time I heard music, it was just always around. My mother was taking piano lessons while pregnant with me, so that’s the family story as to why I’m the only one with any musical inclination. I remember the first recording that really captivated my imagination – it was Waldo de Los Rios’ “Symphonios de los Rios” – he was a Spanish conductor in the 70’s who re-did the great symphonies with a Spanish rock twist. Fat 70’s bass, drums, percussion, while the orchestra wailed on Schubert. Bananas! It is bizarre as it sounds. But I listened to that thing at least a thousand times. Those timeless melodies really entered me. To me, there is no difference between a really pure, beautiful tune in a Brahms’ violin concerto and the best melodies of the Beatles. Melody – tunefulness – is a special, magical thing, and I tend to gravitate to music where that is clearly present.

Heidi: Today, what art forms and which artists influence your songwriting and compositions?

Sarah: I would say the biggest influence on my writing in the past ten years has been my study of philosophy, spirituality and neuroscience. I have always wanted to understand what we are, why we are here, what LIFE is, what the universe is doing, if anything, and if there is a grand narrative behind the wonder (and sometimes, horror) of it all. The human brain is the most fascinating phenomenon in this time/space continuum as far as I can see – I’m acutely aware, when I read up on our still primitive grasp of its mechanisms, that I’m looking and learning the information with that same mysterious and elegant machine – a large, staggeringly complex lump of organic tissue sitting in my skull, creating the extremely convincing illusion of “a self called Sarah reading a book”… It is almost transcendental to be aware of one’s brain working, the sensation of comprehension, of concentration, absorption… Endlessly fascinating to me! And ‘wonder’ is the engine of great art, in my view. Wonder and compassion fuel the work in all arts that I am most drawn to. The films of Terrence Malick and Jean Marc Vallee, the novels of Mark Helprin and Leo Tolstoy come to mind… I’m going so far down this neuroscience road you may see an entire album inspired by the brain in the future. Geeks unite

Heidi: You’ve written two volumes of poetry: Ravens in 2004, which included your original artwork; and The Baroness in 2008, a companion book to your album of the same name. How does poetry contribute to or complement your songwriting process? Is there a freedom and mystery that poetry offers unlike song lyrics, which are bound to a melody?

Sarah: Great question. I would call myself a poet only loosely… The “professional” poets I do know make it their obsessive craft to listen deeply to language and play on its inner music, as well as the layers and layers of connotative history that words carry. I write poetry sheerly as another way of expressing the ideas that inspire my music, but I am not as particular about the

finer details, tropes and tricks that poets geek out over. Poetry is first and foremost about language. In music, sound is first, language later… sound trumps every other meaningful thing going on in the work… I find it extremely interesting that this is probably the way language evolved – out of sound first… Man’s first primitive sounds were attempts at communication, and evolution refined these into the wondrous labyrinth of meaning that is now language. Music with text is like an artistic puzzle – it’s more restrictive given that I prefer clean shapes in music with lots of symmetry. It means that I am always looking for the perfect words to fit a melodic line, or the melodic line arises out of the words. The text of songs is always occurring/unfolding in a deeper context, a landscape of sound and harmony (chords) whereas poetry – there is this stark nudity, the page, the white page, and nothing else. Every detail becomes significant. I think poetry is a very intense distillation of music. With human beings, there is always this primacy of sound, of vibration – that’s why I think music is the highest art form – it’s the most connected to our bodies and our primal beginnings… even our bodies and their contents vibrate, producing rhythm and pitch… on some level we are constantly singing. 🙂

Heidi: You’ve toured extensively, performing with orchestras in Canada and internationally since the release of your critically acclaimed double album, Land & Sea. This is collaboration on a grand scale, but speaking on a smaller scale, to a solo artist, a singer-songwriter, what advice would you like to share about the importance of collaboration with co-writers, fellow musicians, producers, and managers?

Sarah: Interesting inquiry. I would say the presence and influence of other artists is essential to making anything of value in one’s chosen art form. Not just for the input, feedback, and different perspectives, but also for the pure addition of life force energy that other humans add… I could produce myself, I could even end up engineering myself if I was really stubborn, but the more people you whittle out of the process, I feel like the work suffers. It’s not linear though, I don’t think more people = better project, but I do think that it is essential to receive and integrate the life force of other people – all of their knowledge and humanity – the love and pain inside them, it all contributes to the humanity of the music, and thus, to its ability to connect with other humans. I feel like people who make work entirely alone, or in the microcosm of their own small circle of like-minded artists, end up making work that is either terribly narcissistic or so navel-gazing and “specialist” that it doesn’t connect with real people, the people that want to hear in the music they love something of themselves.… I could have also used orchestra software for “Sea” – there are some really convincing programs out there now, but for those particular songs, and the subject matter therein, it just didn’t make any sense to have a computer accompany me. The songs of Sea were deeply human – concerning fundamental human questions and longings, and no matter how irritatingly expensive it was, I felt the orchestration needed to be performed by flawed, living, breathing humans – humans who would understand the meaning of the words and react in their playing – they would give to the performance that mysterious brokenness, the element of tragic beauty that is present in humans and only humans, the only creatures on earth capable of wondering about the universe and their place in it…

Heidi: What lies ahead for you this year and into 2017?

Sarah: After taking two years off to run and renovate a small farm in northern Ontario, I’m back in Toronto and working on a new album. I’ll also be collaborating with more orchestras and

classical ensembles this year – May 4th I’ll be singing Shoenberg’s “Pierrot Lunaire” with the Wild West Ensemble in Calgary, and May 14th Hatzis’ “Lamento” with the Saskatoon Symphony Orchestra. Hatzis and I premiered a new piece (his music, my text) in March of this year with the Thunder Bay Symphony orchestra, which was a thrill. My new album will likely be out in March 2017, at which point I will be back on the road with a vengeance 🙂

For more information about Sarah Slean, visit www.sarahslean.com.

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