An artist and her piano grapple with life’s big mysteries in Metaphysics
Music | by Stephen Whitworth
Sarah Slean’s first EP Universe arrived in 1997, officially launching a career that turns 20 this year. At the beginning of the middle of what looks to be a long and worthy run, she’s released Metaphysics, a thoughtful and articulate meditation on life’s mysteries — life, love, death and all that big stuff.
Metaphysics is Slean’s first album since 2011’s Land And Sea. That’s a big break between recordings, but she’s kept busy with music and life in general in the interim.
Slean brings Metaphysics to Saskatchewan this month, playing Saskatoon and Regina in the middle of a five-shows-in-five-nights crunch that wraps up Sunday, Oct. 15 with a show in Winnipeg. After a day off, the tour picks up in Ottawa.
Music: not a profession for weenies. Also not a game for anyone who’s not committed. Slean is no wimp, and she’s definitely on a mission — the new album practically screams “MEANING IN LIFE IS IMPORTANT.”
“I mean, my album’s called Metaphysics,” says Slean on the phone from Victoria where she was getting ready to play the tour’s first show.
“I just finished speaking to a bunch of Victoria Conservatory music students about this very thing. I realized very early in my career that I wasn’t going to be a concert pianist,” Slean says. “That half didn’t appeal to me. But I was always creative, always interested in making things and really, very spiritually drawn to music.
“For me it’s a way to express the wonder and very deep curiosity I still have,” she says. “I’ve been on the planet for four decades now and I still am quite confused and fascinated and bewildered and in awe of the experience called existence. It’s a compelling mystery, and we’re all thrust into it through no choice of our own.
“It’s a lot to make sense of.”
Metaphysics takes a stab at that. Its 10 tracks cover spirituality (“Every Rhythm Is The Beat”, “Holy Ground”), the universe’s vastness (“The Dark”) and love’s various delights and pains (“A Thousand Butterflies”, “Not In Vain”). The songs blend a baroque big-picture perspective with Slean’s personal perceptions and experiences and are set neatly in pop piano ballads with strings and other classical instruments.
(IMHO, The catchiest song is probably “Sarah”, which plays like a letter the musician sent herself. It’s got trumpets and those are always cool.)
Another thing about the album: Slean’s lyrics. They have a clarity that invites conversation. It’s a good match for a record that clearly wants to chat with listeners.
“My lyric writing has really changed over the years,” says Slean. “I’m in a unique position as a recording artist; over two decades now, I get to see the evolution of my own consciousness in print, right there. Songwriting still comes from the same place for me, so I have a record of how my deepest thinking has changed, and how the language of it has changed.”
Different thinking, but similar focus.
“My first album — which was released on cassette, that’s how old I am—it’s called Universe. So I’ve always been thinking about these things,” she says. “I’ve always been spellbound by the situation we’re in, the human situation of the planet, and the universe and all of it. But my language back then was much more veiled, and not as explicit as it is now.
Which comes with experience.
“I think as you get older, you become a better self-editor,” Slean says. “So you really go in there with a machete and take out the excess language.
“When you’re a young artist, it’s not really about communication. It’s about expression,” she says.
Speaking of artists, when Slean isn’t doing music, she often draws. She did the artwork for the “Sarah” video, and you can see (and purchase) prints of her drawings on sarahslean.com.
Drawing, for Slean, is a balanced part of a healthy artistic life.
“Sometimes I feel like you’ve gotta rest your ears,” says Slean. “I have physically very large ears, and I have to wear earplugs in the subway and sometimes out in the street because my ears are like satellite dishes. I do so much listening at home and really detailed listening, when you’re mixing. And I’m in a film scoring program right now, and doing so much hardcore listening that sometimes it’s really lovely to have a secondary practise where you can really shut the ears off. And drawing is so solitary and visual. It’s really the opposite gear for me.
“If you’re doing something where you’re hunched over all the time, it’s good to get into a pool and do the backstroke, and exercise the opposite muscles,” says Slean.
Good advice for the metaphysically inclined. ❧