Sarah Slean's Magical Mystery Tour
Tiny singer with giant voice tunes up
By Maggie Wrobel
"I would never, ever call myself a celebrity," she practically shouts into the phone. "I still walk to the grocery store and I take the street car and whenever anyone recognizes me, I can tell they're wondering why I'm not in a limousine."
It's obvious that her humility is not the usual "Oh, I may be a rock star, but I'm still just an everyday person!" act, but truly genuine. Her contributions to the interview are buoyed by tremendous enthusiasm, and she pauses to consider each question in order to provide a measured, well-thought out answer.
Despite her abrupt refusal of celebrity status, the diminutive Slean is a success story in her own right. After a brief stint as a music major at Toronto's York University, Slean decided to try her hand at the musician's life, playing the club circuit in Toronto.
She released two independent EPs, 1997's Universe and 1999's Blue Parade, and garnered a loyal fan base with her moody and passionate piano-driven ballads.
Night Bugs, her debut full-length album with Warner Music Canada, was released last year to great critical acclaim. The album's intense mix of darkly melodic love laments and upbeat, giddy, cabaret anthems stands out in a sea of plastic rhinestone-laden pop as a genuine diamond in the rough.
"When you're doing something like playing music, it's so ancient that it belongs to humankind all cultures do it," Slean muses slowly, before blasting forth into a passionate rant about the role that art plays in an increasingly confused world.
"Currently, vital art forms that used to matter are being pushed aside. There's a brutal commercial world out there. Arts like painting and symphonic music are dying arts; they're endangered species and the political songwriter is a dying breed."
Slean's affinity for the past is evident in her lyrics, as she tells stories from the point of view of various characters, including Emily, a Parisian woman suffering from heartbreak in the 1920s.
Her tone softens as she reveals that her subdued real-life personality sometimes holds her back from creating the music she wants to make.
"Inside me, there's a lot of might and grand epic scale music that's too big for my frame," she laughs shyly. "So, [they're like] helpers, these larger than life personalities I recruit."
Does this mean that Slean would have been happier in a different decade?
"I'd like to think there's a reason I was born in the time I was born in, therefore, it would be really unfair to answer that question," she replies after a pause for careful deliberation.
"We definitely live in an interesting time... and it's a scary time for art and the planet. I think historians and artists have a duty to not let the past die."
Slean is doing her part to keep the past alive. Her live performances are drenched in the sort of cabaret-style atmosphere reminiscent of late, great stage musicals. A tiny piano pixie with a giant voice, she seems to truly come alive onstage.
"[Working in the studio and touring] are fairly different children, but they do fight over the parental attention," she giggles. "Working in the studio is like putting your hands in the muck and pulling out the newborn songs. It's thrilling and exhausting. Performing is much less mental because you've got this [song] that's already made and get to sing it out to people and give it to them like a gift."
Sarah Slean performs tonight at the Out Back Shack at Fanshawe College. Admission is $2 for and the show begins at 9:30 p.m..
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