Anyone familiar with even a portion of Sarah Slean’s creative output knows she refuses to do anything by half measure. Her latest effort, Land & Sea, her first release on Toronto based independent label, Pheromone Recordings, is no exception. “Sometimes I wish that I could pick up a guitar and make a quiet, little, intimate album, but that’s just not who I am musically,” Slean says. “For Land & Sea, it was go big or go home.”
That’s an ethic Slean has employed with increasing enthusiasm since first releasing her debut recording Universe in 1997. Although perhaps best known as a recording artist, in addition to releasing nine solo albums and contributing to a variety of other artists’ projects as a vocalist, pianist and arranger, the two time Gemini and three time JUNO Award nominee has consistently refined her singular voice as an artist by expressing herself in a variety of contexts; as an actress, appearing in films such as David Morton’s Black Widow (2005) and CJ Wallis’s Last Flowers, as a poet, publishing two volumes of poetry, Ravens (2004) and The Baroness (2008) and as a talented visual artist.
At a time when recording budgets are shrinking and album sales declining even the most ambitious of artists might be tempted to dial their aspirations back a notch. Instead, with Land & Sea, Slean embarked on the most challenging recording of her career – a double album that juxtaposes two dramatically different aesthetics, producers, writing processes, recording environments and musicians.
Set for release on September 27th 2011, both Land and Sea are influenced heavily what Slean terms “the shocking wonder of existence.” They celebrate both the commonplace and extraordinary experiences (some welcome, some less so) of which our reality is comprised. Each record expresses those experiences in a very different way.
“I wanted contrast,” she says. “There was ample opportunity to add instrumentation to Land, but overdubbing was kept to a minimum, and within a limited palette because I wanted it to sound physical, of-this-world, so you could sense the musicians in the room playing the song and almost feel them sweating. For Sea, it had to be evocative, mental and spiritual, and strings are perfect for that. I want it to feel like it’s emerging from your own heart, to sound like you’re hearing it in your own mind. That’s also why everything, except the odd vocal edit, was recorded live. There was no mechanical help in terms of keeping the beat steady, we all felt time together as one normally experiences time – fluidly.”
Slean describes Land as an unabashed pop album, recorded with producer Joel Plaskett (Joel Plaskett Emergency, Two Hours Traffic) and mixed by Big Sugar/Grady front man, Gordie Johnson (Gov’t Mule, The Trews) and Vic Florencia (Nelly Furtado, Five For Fighting, Esthero). And while Land does boast the occasional instrumental flourish – a gospel choir on the uplifting “Amen” and a full horn section on “Girls Hating Girls” for example, its central pulse is provided by a traditional four-piece rock band.
Slean’s choice of Plaskett as producer was in keeping with her practice of choosing collaborators whose aesthetic differs substantially from her own. “Sometimes the universe just leads you in a certain direction. Joel doesn’t necessarily want to sit around thinking about philosophy, or metaphysics, or what the point of life is. He was just constantly pulling me into the moment. His approach is fast. It’s intuitive. It’s joyful.”
The effects of that approach are evident in abundance on Land, particularly on the album opener “Life,” which Slean describes as “an anthem to existence.” But while joy is a common thread on Land – one she explores further on songs like “I Am A Light” and the playful lead single “Set It Free” – for Slean, this kind of joy is only available to those who live in the world and get tangled in its messes. This joy only comes into view because of those messes, struggles and dramas. This kind of joy is not available to the monk on the mountaintop.
Thus, Land deals primarily with the external, observable aspects of existence, such as our everyday interactions with strangers, who we often perceive as existing at a great, un-traversable distance from ourselves. Something as simple meeting someone’s eyes by chance and finding yourself reflected in some fleeting, unconscious acknowledgement of shared experience can suddenly reveal how deeply connected we all are. That’s exactly the kind of realization Slean describes on “New Pair Of Eyes,” a track first released on Songs of Love for Japan, a benefit record for Shelterbox, a charity providing aid for survivors of the 2011 Japanese earthquake and tsunami. “It’s about being focused on this tiny little sphere of your own life and its problems and then suddenly having that opening where you recall what a crazy miracle it is to be a person; walking around, thinking, feeling. It’s the contrast between having this undeniable sense of being separate while having this deep, timeless knowing that all is one. That paradox is what it is to be a human being.”
Sea is preoccupied with that deep, timeless knowing – the decidedly more internal aspects of existence, “the mysterious unknown that is such an integral aspect of our being,” Slean explains. “That’s the heart of Sea.” It is a conscious recognition of the elemental forces that bind us together and provide the opportunity to experience life’s challenges and joys in the first place – a celebration of the “mysterious essence” from which all things emerge, from the intimate mechanics of our physical beings to the movement of the planets.
The record is also an expression of love for the classical, orchestral tradition Slean first fell in love with as a child. “That was my first experience of music. I remember so clearly a vinyl record my parents had, a recording of the most popular, enduring symphonies by Brahms, Beethoven, Mozart. I was captivated. There are no words, they aren’t songs as such, and my five-year-old brain didn’t understand the form – I was reacting to the simple beauty of tones arranged together, in a specific order, over time.”
Recorded at Toronto’s Revolution Recording with a 21-piece string section with renowned concertmaster/violinist Marie Berard, Sea featured classical all-stars such as members of St. Lawrence String Quartet, Gryphon Trio, and Arc Ensemble, principals of major Canadian orchestras, and several celebrated soloists. Sea is at once epic and intimate, joyful and somber. It is also, Slean says, the most ambitious musical undertaking of her career to date.
Although Slean split the arrangement duties for Sea with producer/composer Jonathan Goldsmith (Away From Her, Casino Jack, Bruce Cockburn, Jane Siberry), it was her first time arranging for an ensemble of this size, so the challenge was equal parts daunting and thrilling. To finalize the scores, Slean retreated to the seaside town of Pouch Cove, NFLD, where the aforementioned “mysterious essence” was on full display. Steps from her front porch the ocean crashed against craggy cliffs and pods of whales came to play on a daily basis. There she had the necessary time, silence and solitude to realize her vision. There were no such luxuries in the studio, however.
At Goldsmith’s insistence Slean agreed to record Sea live off the floor, tracking her vocals, piano and the orchestra simultaneously, which made the process high stakes to say the least. “That is the understatement of the century,” Slean says, laughing. “We had two days. The first was essentially rehearsal and I was so glad we had it. I was so tense.” Midway through that first day, Slean also discovered her arrangement of one song, “The One True Love” wasn’t working. Consequently, instead of taking the night between sessions to rest and gather energy, she pulled an all-nighter to rework the arrangement. “I was truly spent, but the new arrangement worked perfectly. Now it’s one of my favourite songs on the record.”
Although Slean cites “The One True Love” and Goldsmith’s arrangement of “You’re Not Alone” as songs she feels particularly warm towards, it’s the album’s second track, “Everything By The Gallon” that perhaps best sums up the reason she took on such an audacious project as Land & Sea in the first place. “Because life is short. I feel we’re made of a hunger, a desire for life – if that can be described as a material. As I get older, I’m trying to open that channel more. If you don’t, if you close off desire and get complacent, life loses its freshness and sweetness, and that’s what I crave. That’s my bliss.”
As much as Land & Sea represents the realization of Sarah Slean’s lifelong dream of celebrating her dramatically diverse musical influences, separately and simultaneously, without compromising one for the other, it is also a document of her ongoing growth as an artist and a mission statement for future efforts. “At this point in my career, I felt I had to make something extraordinary, something without boundaries. I feel that’s what we’re being called to do now as musicians and if you plant a seed like this, all sorts of wild things grow that you might never have imagined were possible.”