Sarah Slean performs Friday, Oct. 6, 8 p.m. at The BlueShore Financial Centre for the Performing Arts at Capilano University. Tickets: $35/$32 at tickets.capilanou.ca.
In the six years between the release of her 2011 album, Land & Sea, and her most recent studio recording, Metaphysics, Sarah Slean decided to get far, far away from music.
During that period, the Canadian singer-songwriter was coping with her divorce from fellow musician Royal Wood and recovering from burnout after an exhausting tour. Seeking a change of pace and scenery, she moved to a property in rural Ontario where she spent her days tending to vegetables and fixing up her farmhouse. But, as if her home improvement projects mirrored her own path toward self-healing, every time she attempted a simple renovation, a larger underlying problem would present itself.
“It was a very apt metaphor for me,” she says. “I had to go back to the studs and rebuild everything.”
Slean is a three-time Juno nominee whose musical career spans two decades, but, during her hiatus, she wasn’t sure she’d ever return to her former profession. “I’d said a lot with Land & Sea and I’d reached a point where I’d kind of realized most of my artistic dreams.”
Meanwhile, she couldn’t shake a feeling of “philosophical, psychological disgust” with the music industry. “I was just over it,” she says. “I couldn’t fathom trying to go back down that road and jump in the ring again.”
Slean didn’t entirely abandon music when she moved to the country, though. Her grand piano, which had been with her since she was 14 years old, accompanied her. Over the two-and-a-half years she lived on the farm, she pursued many other creative endeavours and music slowly began calling her back. The self-reflective song that broke her long bout of writer’s block was called “Sarah.”
“That’s when songs started coming back,” she recalls.
“Sarah” is the fourth track on Metaphysics, Slean’s ninth studio album released last spring. The album showcases her affection for orchestral scoring and Friday’s performance at Capilano University will feature four Vancouver-area symphonic musicians playing alongside her band.
“I feel like the song-writing is still me, it’s still the same, it’s still that love of a clean, pure melody and a thoughtful lyric,” she explains.
Many of the tracks are deeply personal, inspired by her own growth and transformation. One song, she notes, was inspired by a stranger on a train. She wrote “Every Rhythm is the Beat” after a man she encountered on a commuter train sat down and revealed his tragic life story to her.
“He ended up crying in front of me,” she says. “We shared this amazing human moment.”
The pair exchanged information and corresponded for two years. One day, when Slean was feeling down on life, he phoned her, his voice unrecognizable. He told her he had cancer and had half his voice box removed. While in hospital, his nurses brought him books and he fell in love with words and poetry, he told her.
“It really felt like one of those moments where the universe grabs you by the shirt collar, picks you up, and slaps you in the face and says, ‘Get some perspective on your life,’” Slean says. The conversation made her feel grateful for all the opportunities she had been afforded in her life. “At that moment he was kind of my angel, and I had been his angel in a really dark moment in his life.”
Long fascinated by philosophy, her relationship with this stranger-turned-friend made her consider the interconnectedness of human lives. “We don’t really realize that on a daily basis. We convince ourselves that we’re separate, but that’s really just not the case.”
As the title of her latest album suggests, Metaphysics explores abstract ideas about the nature of existence.
“I find the wonder of existence is just never un-amazing. It’s so shocking that we’re all here and we don’t quite know why,” Slean says. “I just think it’s beautiful and tragic and poignant and I could write music about that until the day I die.”