According to folks who are far smarter than I, metaphysics is a branch of philosophical inquiry and investigation in which one examines concepts such as being, knowing, time, space and one’s identity in a very abstract sense.
Sarah Slean is definitely one of those folks who fits into the ‘far smarter’ category, as the exceptionally talented and deeply thoughtful singer/songwriter has spent the better part of the last decade engaging in such an exercise about her own life, her art and the world around her.
In the past five years since the release of her last album, Land & Sea, Slean has experienced a sort of self-imposed metaphysical process that has acted as an emotional and spiritual crucible – she has allowed herself to be torn down and then rebuilt – resulting in the breathtakingly compelling, evocative and immersively lush new album, Metaphysics, which was released April 7 through Cadence/Fontana North.
The imagery of a home being gutted from within and renovated could be said to be a way to understand Slean’s thinking and life since 2013, but it is also something that took on a parallel physical form as she indeed did just that. Through the months of toil, sweat, dust, and probably a few shed tears, the seeds for what would become Metaphysics were first planted and sown.
“After releasing Land & Sea in 2011 and touring it for about three or four years, I was really kind of burnt out; burnt out from the city life, burnt out from being a touring musician for about 20 years. I needed to just kind of regroup and put some roots into the earth, so I bought a farm around 2013 and I just stayed there and renovated the house and tried to come back to what really mattered in life,” she said, adding that the farm was located near Port Perry, ON, about 90 minutes northeast of Toronto.
“I was there for about two and a half years and I initially thought I was going to just sort of slightly repair the house, but I ended up having to completely gut it and fix almost everything, and it was a beautiful metaphor for what was kind of going on within me. At the end of that two and a half years it was the perfect dream house, but then I looked around and said, ‘what am I doing in this four bedroom house in the middle of nowhere all by myself?’ That’s when I came back to the city and that’s when I felt music was sort of stirring within me again.”
Slean said creating music is the way she ‘metabolizes’ life in all its infinite mysteries and after the experience of the renovations, where there was undoubtedly not only lots of time for rest but also for contemplation, she felt compelled to process what she had been through intellectually, emotionally and spiritually the best way she knows how.
“Making songs and records, for me, is the way I confront life. That’s what it needs to be for me. I can’t really just sit down and say I am going to write a pop record because one is due. You could actually say that metaphysics has been the theme of my thinking over the past 10 years, really. I have always been a person whose wonder is intact. It never really gets old for me, pondering the fact that we’re here and we have these things called cells and we believe ourselves to be a sort of personality and we exist for 100 years if we’re lucky and there is really this struggle within us to create some sort of defining narrative arc to it,” she explained.
“Different people have different answers for those questions, but I have always been really fascinated with those questions. What are we doing here? What are the causative agents in the world? How is reality forming itself and how do we affect change in our lives? All of those things I find really fascinating. I took a philosophy of religion course during my little down time period at the University of Toronto and this kind of stuff, these questions, I really feel it affecting my creativity the more I look into those questions and that philosophy.”
And it really doesn’t get much more self-exploratory than the lead-off single from Metaphysics, simply entitled Sarah, which is a sort of internal conversation between her mind and her heart.
“I started that one when I was still on the farm so it did really speak to what I think was going on while I was there. And I feel that a lot of my work has become that; it’s become the universe sending me a little pep talk almost. The song The Right Words from Land & Sea is the same. I feel like the muses of the universe or the angels of music or whatever you want to call them, are particularly stirred when you’re in spiritual trouble,” Slean explained.
“There were major changes in my life in 2013, but that’s long ago now so it does feel kind of weird to talk about it. I mean there have been several moments in my life where it required renovations if you will, where everything burned down and it required a rebuild. I think music is a natural artifact for those kinds of processes. And we talked about a crucible earlier and I it’s absolutely true. That to me is the purpose of suffering in human lives – to burn away what isn’t real.”
In a day and age where the so-called pundits and tastemakers of pop culture are gleefully claiming the end of the album is nigh, Slean said she still believes there is value in creating and releasing a piece of work that is more of a compendium of thoughts, ideas and something which weaves a musical journey.
“I think music is powerful and it’s resonant. And I love the format of the album. I feel it really works for me. I don’t think it’s going to last much longer and there are some saying it’s already dead, but I just think the format allows you to sort of go somewhere. It’s like a novel: you can’t shorten a novel, it needs to be the length that is appropriate for the journey. There has to be transformations and characters and there has to be a passage of time, and I think the same is true for music. I mean, I love a 3:30 pop song by I need at least 10 of them together to understand an artist,” she said.
“And I am familiar with the concept of a new album being an event like it was when we were kids, but I just don’t think we have the attention span any more. I never really got into this business for commercial motives or to get rich. I believe that to you need to feel you’ve made good work and you have the satisfaction artistically, that’s what I am aiming for always. Whether or not people like it, the music has to be relevant, it just has to be.
“It’s really nice when people, especially people you respect, like your work – that’s always rewarding, but if the work gets born I am happy. The closest thing I can think of, having not been a mother myself, is pregnancy, and sometimes these things have long gestations. Metaphysics feels like it was a six-year gestation and when it’s finally here you’re exhausted and you’re relieved and overjoyed. But you’re also terrified; there are a lot of emotions.”
What has generated the most satisfaction for Slean on Metaphysics is the lush orchestrations that permeate most of the songs and which add such a luminescence alongside her uniquely, darkly sweet and emotive voice.
“I really loved the scoring on this record. This is kind of my pride and joy, writing for strings. The thing I most enjoy about the recording process is hearing the scores that I have written come to life. It’s really cool. The Dark is one of my favourite songs for that reason.”
Slean seems to be creative to her cores. Besides releasing seven full-length studio album and a mitt full of EPs and live albums, she is also a poet, actress, visual artist as well as teaching music in Toronto. Musically over the years she has shared the stage with the likes of Ron Sexsmith, Hawksely Workman, Bryan Ferry, Rufus Wainwright and Alanis Morissette.
She said she plans on touring extensively in the fall and into the winter of 2018, while contusing her passion for performing alongside orchestras across the country.
For more information on Slean, Metaphysics and her other creative expositions, visit www.sarahslean.com.
- Jim Barber is a veteran award-winning journalist and author based in Napanee, ON, who has been writing about music and musicians for a quarter of a century. Besides his journalistic endeavours, he now works as a communications and marketing specialist. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org.