Sarah Slean will be performing at the National Arts Centre on October 17 and 18. Apt613 contributor Maria-Helena Pacelli spoke with her ahead of her arrival in Ottawa. This interview has been edited for length and clarity.
I had the opportunity to catch Sarah Slean by phone from Calgary and we spoke about touring, the process of creating music and what it has meant to be part of the music industry for over 20 years.
What does this tour mean for you as an artist?
I’ve been self-managed for 5 years, working hard, releasing a double album which was the most ambitious thing I had ever made, I toured nationally and internationally twice, and found myself exhausted. I had to take a break, got a farm, got back to the space I remember having as a child, the mental space where it was still enough, receptive enough for music to enter. Cultivate that again, the connection to the land, connection to nature. I brought a sick house back to health, watched seasons change, get back to a good place.
What about that space to be receptive for music to enter?
To people who don’t call themselves artists it seems we generate, but it’s the opposite – we allow or we facilitate. Music is a kind of spirit that is everywhere and ever-available but it needs fertile soil, it needs to be invited in to a consciousness, filter through that consciousness and you need to allow it. It takes sensitivity, alertness and a concern, a love for art and for the truth that it can sometimes bestow. Unless you’re in that zone, I can’t make the art that I can make. Some artists are generators like a blacksmith and make songs, putting pieces together and churning it out. I’ve never been that kind of artist ever and I don’t think I ever will be. I just kind of have to do it my way.
How do you get to that space?
Subtraction. We’re a world obsessed with additions, we want to accumulate, add on and acquire. The opposite is a very art-inducing state, to strip back, to pull away, to subtract. The farm was a massive gesture of subtraction. I moved out into the middle of nowhere by myself, took the noise out of my life – not available to others woven into the capitalist free market democracy. Subtraction. The other is immersion into the things that really bring the miracle of existence into stark focus.
What made you emerge?
Every time I am more and more convinced it’s the last time I will come back. But then, music calls me back. I’m never sure if it will again. I have no idea if this is my last record or not. These performances are about the fans, many have been with me 20 years, supported this record is instrumental. The overwhelming piece is the thing that we feel when we’re in that dark room all of us together and I’m playing and they’re feeling, hopefully, and celebrating two decades of that is miraculous and a great blessing. Focus on the magical feeling of a group of strangers becoming one thing for a few hours in an evening. That’s a really powerful and kind of magical phenomenon.
The overwhelming piece is the thing that we feel when we’re in that dark room all of us together and I’m playing and they’re feeling, hopefully, and celebrating two decades of that is miraculous and a great blessing.
What do you have to say to other artists?
There’s a sense of alignment of congruence or harmony but there is a sense of that when something is right and it’s almost like a quickening, all the cells in your body kind of wake up and whenever… I think all artists should try to develop a keen awareness of that state, because that state is really important information. The artist’s responsibility is to maintain an antenna for themselves because that is the part of other human beings that has gone to sleep and that is why the world will never lose its hunger for art. Go after that and look for it. That’s a sacred thing, it’s a spiritual thing and if that isn’t part of your lexicon then you shouldn’t be listening to me for advice. Art is deeply spiritual and needs to be if it’s going to do the work effectively.
How does this fit into your music career?
I am blessed to live in a country that offers grants and subsidies to elevate its artist to have a voice that doesn’t sound like America’s little brother and I’m so fortunate to access those over the years. This tour support by Ontario Arts Council and Ontario Media development corporation. It’s great because their mandate is in line with giving Ontario and Canada a voice. That’s amazing and rare. So vitally important because it cultivates artistic community but frees artistic expression of a market from the free market forces, which do not result in the best quality product. The same is true of art. That’s the pressure on every art maker. Here we can consult with an artistic community.
The reason both the organizations are supportive is because I employ so many people when I tour and the largest amount of money I pay out is to my fellow musicians. This is a huge source of pride for me, but speaks to mandate of spreading wealth, building community, creating quality work and stay alive doing it.
What about being a woman in the music industry?
Was on a major label for 10 years and almost every person there was a white man, but for the most part was treated very well, treated like an equal and my intelligence was respected but the gender bias and the inequality of representation is blatant and cannot be ignored. I first signed at 19 and was not unaware that youth and moderate attractiveness was part of the marketing package and I’m also feeling it now at 40 years old and it’s a different ball game for me. The industry does stop looking at you as a sellable product as soon as you pass a certain age. The example that your work sets, that’s what I’m trying to do and leave a body of work that is exceptional. All the rest of it is noise. Heartbreakingly unjust noise but just noise. Anyone who says otherwise is going to be on the wrong side of history.
Anything to your audience?
Can’t wait to be there. Show is going to be also a big thank you to the Ottawa fans for two decades.
Sarah Slean performs October 17 and 18 at the National Arts Centre. Tickets are available online for $33.50, plus taxes and fees. Anyone between the ages of 13-29 can buy a $15 Live Rush ticket the day of the show.