Sarah Slean: Navigating the Mystery on Land & Sea

Fifteen years on and Sarah Slean’s list of accomplishments is as varied as it is impressive. Slean is something of a modern-day Renaissance Woman. During her career, she’s released an exhaustive amount of work: her own albums, collaborations with other musicians, painting exhibitions, two volumes of poetry, acting roles in two short films, arranging and composing for string quartets. Slean has performed with five of the country’s leading orchestras. She received multiple Juno nominations and two Geminis. Her albums are perennial sellers in a dozen different countries. Slean’s musical impact has by no means been confined to radio, as her songs are featured on the big and small screens in the US. Slean’s musical resume reads like a who’s who of Canadian music royalty. She’s worked with Rufus Wainwright, Alanis Morissette, Hayden, Royal Wood, Buck 65, Hawksley Workman, K-os, Ron Sexsmith and Feist, and has toured extensively in France, Germany and Sweden.

Slean’s successes in these fields have clearly contributed to her musical perspective on Land & Sea. It’s a beautifully expansive, striking, literate and emotionally rich double album (one titled Land, the other Sea). Orchestral, hooky, delicate, dramatic, poetic and intimate all at once, Land & Sea is an ambitious project in terms of cost and execution. The release of a double album in these uncertain financial times – never mind the current unsettled state of the record industry – makes this a brave choice on her part.

Slean confides: “It was kind of an insane idea in terms of it being twice the work, twice the budget, and twice the personnel. But that’s the thing about the Muse, when you get inspired, all common sense kind of flies out the window. When the Muse visits, it’s kind of a physical experience for me. I like to call that feeling ‘the whoosh’: it’s like a physical and spiritual quickening, but there really is no real method for songwriting. It’s more like being in a state of anticipation.

“When I was creating these songs, the common sense side of me knew it would be very difficult to tour a record with a 21-piece orchestra, and even more difficult in this day and age to sell two different records. People want to know who you are in 30 seconds. They want the ‘Coles Notes’ version. But this is not a record that has anything to do with that way of thinking. I like to think of it as a novel in that you can enjoy it superficially, but if you want to go deeper, there are treasures there. That’s the way I made it, and I feel like that’s the way people who love this record are receiving it. And that gives me hope for future creations that are equally challenging or insane.”

Land & Sea is the kind of album that gives you more with each listen; it is filled to the brim with lovely, catchy melodies. But Slean has always had a great ear for melody and hooks. She picks her moments precisely and carefully, weaving a richer overall musical tapestry.

Thematically, the lyrics on Land mostly reflect Slean’s perspectives, thoughts and feelings on the strange, often-times downright baffling age we live in. The record’s opener, Life, with its inviting piano intro and intriguing chord changes, is a perfect introduction to the experience, and by the time the drums kick in, the listener is easily carried away by Slean’s exuberance. Songs like Everybody’s on TV and Society Song clearly illustrate Slean’s opinions on our consumer-driven, media-obsessed society. I Am a Light is my favorite track on Land, with its entrancing, lush vocals and hypnotic piano ushering in a gorgeous chorus.

This two-pack clocks in at over an hour of music, which may seem like a lot of attention-span to request from listeners in this day and age of 15-second sound bites, but it’s well worth the running time. Land is the more uptempo, rock-pop influenced of the two records. On it, Slean’s compositions are built primarily around the vocal and piano lines, with bass, guitar and percussion, adding more flavor and movement. The über-talented Joel Plaskett handled the production duties for Land. Plaskett’s no-nonsense, earthy, and direct approach complements Slean’s writing style, and she speaks very positively about working with him. Slean says that she very much appreciated his forthrightness and directness during the recording process:

“We got along personally, and it felt like it would be a good match musically as well. We did butt heads a lot in the studio, but I’m glad he stood his ground. He has a real immediacy and humanity in his approach that I really appreciated. I was really impressed with how he puts a song together. He’s able to distill the song down to its best parts, to shave away the surplus and keep what really matters. He approaches it in a very succinct, and natural way, and I think that’s a really important skill for a songwriter, to be able to be brutal in cutting away the excess. His process isn’t a calculated, step-by-step one, and having all the musicians play in the same room at the same time gave the recording process a much more human and organic feel.”

That naturalness is extremely important to Slean, and the idea of connection and shared origin is one she takes to heart. She speaks eloquently to the notion of “mystery” in both the cosmic and human sense. In her own words, she is gobsmacked by not just the amount and variety of beauty that exists around us, but also by the idea that we are all fundamentally connected to it, and to each other.

“That’s what Land & Sea is all about,” Slean explains. “Land contains songs about our perception that we are separate consciousnesses, and the tangles and drama that we get into believing we are separate beings. It’s about the tangible, visceral experience of feeling like we’re separate entities, when we’re actually not. It’s the idea that we see ourselves as being different people among billions of other different people. But Sea is about the realization that all of us, our lungs breathing, our hearts beating, all of it, is one phenomenon.

Which brings us neatly to the second record. Sea is the more orchestral and intimate-sounding of the two albums, and Slean’s influences and loves are a bit more on display here, as shades of Leonard Cohen, Kurt Weill and Gustav Mahler color some of the songs. Sea has a dramatic, earnest, at times cabaret-sounding feel, and its arrangements are centered on Slean’s fluid, chameleonic voice, backed by full, lush, vibrant string arrangements. This is an organic, enticing, sultry record. The Devil and the Dove is a definite standout here, with its beautifully layered vocals and harmonies. Meanwhile, Attention Archers reminds me a little bit of Heart of Saturday Night-era Tom Waits in its beauty and simplicity. Subtle, emotive, with only Slean’s voice, a piano, and backup vocals, it becomes a haunting and intimate experience. All summed up with Slean’s simple but emotionally expressive lyric in the chorus: I’m on your side. The Right Words has a windswept, epic feel, encompassing, transformative, and downright beautiful.

Slean’s choice to have a different producer for both records was a true stroke of inspiration, as it gives the double album two distinct, but also unified influences, while emphasizing the different themes for each record. Award-winning film composer Jonathan Goldsmith manned the production sails on Sea, and he tastefully adds just the right subtleties and color to it, giving it, forgive the pun, an even greater depth. Slean says that ironically, Goldsmith’s approach was not all that different from Plaskett’s in terms of building the songs from an organic and natural perspective. Slean says she had initially suggested to Goldsmith that she pre-record her piano and vocal tracks. Goldsmith answered simply: “You can’t write songs about the mystery and not invite it into the studio.”

“That really stuck with me, Slean says. “I realized I had to have faith in this mysterious power that I keep writing about, that entrances me intellectually and spiritually, but that I also had to have that presence in the recording studio, or this project wouldn’t be alive, it wouldn’t be a living thing. And it wouldn’t have been if it was done any other way. It was an experience where I could sing completely in the moment, where I reacted to the orchestra, and vice-versa. We played and reacted to each other, it was a very ‘human’ thing, and that’s what made it special.

Slean is motivated and inspired by a genuine and profound sense of awe at the world around her, by both the known and the unknown, by the mystery which surrounds us, and that we often take for granted. She is fascinated by the sense of creation and connection that she believes we all share. She loves asking important questions, and the questions themselves. Slean has a genuine love in her voice when discussing her craft, ideas, possibilities, connections, faith – in short, when discussing Life.

“I do genuinely feel like luckiest girl in the world. I love my life. I believe in Art. I believe in its transformative power, in its ability to remind us that everything that’s going on is in the nature of the miraculous. I feel really lucky, and very blessed. I love the kind of art that gives you the option to plum further into a work, or perspective, or aesthetic, or artist. That’s the kind of art I want to make available. To attempt to create what James Joyce called ‘aesthetic arrest’. The sense that in the middle of an artistic experience, the veil lifts for a moment, and you tangibly experience the shock and wonder of your own existence.