After a seven month promotional stint in France, the mysterious, melancholic, cabaret-influenced pop singer Sarah Slean is back in Canada and about to make a stop here in town to support the release of her latest live album Orphan Music.
Elling Lien caught her on the phone after she had a long week at the University of Toronto.
You’re back on Canadian soil and you’re studying Philosophy, verse and Brahms, according to your website…
It’s true. I’m finishing a degree I started many years ago.
What is it in?
It’s actually a degree in Music. But it will also be a minor in Philosophy.
What draws you in all these different directions – poetry, music and philosophy?
I guess I never lose my sense of… well I lose it but I’m always coming back to it… I never lose my sense of awe. I think particularly in Philosophy and the sciences they call attention to that awe on a regular basis.
I think that’s where all music is born and all art is born, in the middle of that awe, in the middle of that realization that the natural world is a mystery and we really don’t understand why we are here. Or how we are supposed to live. Or who we are exactly.
What is that awe to you?
Wide-eyed. It’s just looking at everything and going imagine all of this compared to it not existing, or as something utterly unlike it is now.
Like, you know, people are pretty ho-hum about trees. But trees are insanely complex and bizarre things when you think about them and examine them closely. And then you can make all of these other parallels by how much they look like nerve stems and neurons… Or how much the atom looks like the solar system…
The great thing is, at the base of everything, we don’t understand how any of it works. We know how atoms are hooked together that make certain natural things in the world… Organic things and synthetic things…
We understand the after-effects: We can count these little things, we can basically predict how they’ll behave, but in essence we don’t know what they are. Science will probably bicker for probably another 50 years about whatever boson… quasar… tetron or whatever is actually the smallest particles that make up smallest parts of matter, but I’m thinking that at the end of that analysis will be a kind of nothingness.
And it will be shocking, I think.
So part of that awe comes from the mystery?
Yeah. It’s mysterious. Science is so much about results, but we don’t truly understand what it is to have one event cause another event… We don’t understand what the atom is made of… So, in essence, we don’t understand anything.
How does this all play into your music?
Well. I think that music is the perfect forum to ask these questions. Music has that amazing ability. I don’t know if you’ve been walking down the street listening to your CD or your iPod, and a superb piece of music will turn the world you are witnessing into something magical, like a film almost… or it becomes elevated somehow.
And I think it’s because music turns you to that wonder. It speaks to something really ancient and childlike in us. And I don’t why, but music is, I think, directly attached to that part of us.
I consider myself a very privileged shaman [laugh] to even be allowed to even dabble in the art.
Shaman – not to pick on your use of that word – but what does that mean to you?
I think they are a bridge to that other side. [Shaman] can go into the dark enchanted forest and emerge alive. Sometimes I think I can do that.
Other times I think I need to do more push-ups a day, or eat more Wheaties.
I’m a shaman in training. [laugh]
So the sense of awe is a religious thing for you? …In the broader sense of the term?
Yeah. It’s a spiritual thing. It’s about realizing how remarkable and extraordinary existence is. It’s remarkable. It’s an enormous mystery that we can suffer and enjoy. It’s an enormous gift, but also a weight we must bear. All of those things.
In your live performances – since Orphan Music is a live CD – does performing for an audience ever stir up some of these feelings you just described?
Yeah, sometimes I feel as though the force of the audience … which is often in darkness … sometimes I’m feeling like I’m asking these questions to the universe.
Just think of all of those souls and all of those various consciousnesses in that one dark room, all really thinking, using their hearts and their minds in tandem.
That’s a pretty powerful collection of people.
I really feel like the audiences I’ve had the honor of seeing before are actually thinking and feeling with me.
They aren’t going “Dance, monkey, dance!” They aren’t there to be entertained in that way. They are there thinking and feeling with me.
It’s palpable sometimes. It can be really magical.
Sarah Slean will be performing solo on Sunday, Dec. 3 at Holy Heart Theatre. $23 in advance and $28 (taxes included, plus service charge) day of show. Tickets are available at the Mile One Centre box office at 576-7657, or online at sonicconcerts.com.