Sarah Slean – 2006

This was done in late 2006, when I was bored with music interviews and unsure what I wanted to do with myself. So rather than talk about her new live album, Orphan Music, Sarah and I discussed philosophy, art and Tom Waits.

I know this is a big question to start with, but given that you have dealt with visual art, music, film, and philosophy, I’m interested in your take. In your view, what’s the role or art?
That is a biggie. I think, it’s to call us to our higher selves in a way that most things in life, at their heart are trying to do that. Anything that you go through is to make you change for the better, everything gives you that option. The thing about art is that it does so in a way that sort of bypasses all the filters and the coats of paint that you have on yourself and that you acquire over the years, from being hurt or just having experiences, or just developing these personality traits that become filters or fences. Art bypasses all of that and goes right inside of you. And I think that’s why people will never tire of it. People need it.

In other interviews, you’ve talked about the importance of naivete in making music. Is that what you mean by stripping down the layers?
I think as you age, if you make any choice, by opening one door you’re closing millions of other doors. That’s just the nature of the space-time continuum that we live in. That’s just how it goes. As you move through your life, there are truths about yourself that you collect. And you are, I guess, the sum of all those truths. But there are so many other truths that you’ve opted out of. I think that art is beyond all those things.
The naiveté I speak of when you first play the piano, or your first exposure to music, and your naïve appreciation of art, and your naïve creativity, it gets harder and harder to access as you get older. And I think that’s what it is about a master that I find so intriguing. They have schooled themselves to such a degree in their field that they have this sort of knack for, they pass the naivete, lose the innocence of it, sadly. But then they learn their art so deeply that the naivete comes back. They’re so good at what they do that they can write again as a child.

And what does that gain you? What’s the importance of being able to write as a child?
It’s what every yogi wants to reach. It’s some sort of truth that’s bigger than all the little truths that you learn so well, by heart. It’s a bigger truth that you hope will have some meaning for you. I translate it into real world stuff. I hope that means that I can one day write my classic work, or leave an important legacy of music, or make something that truly affects or guides a life in an effective way, be it one life, or two hundred lives, or a thousand lives.

On your website, you have a section called “vitamins”, which has links to other musicians, but also to philosophers and authors. Where do you come by that diversity?
I just have an insatiable appetite. Sometimes it’s overwhelming how much knowledge is in the world. But thankfully we have proclivities, things that we particularly like for no other reason than that we have a disposition towards them. I would love to have twelve lives so that in one of those lives I could have been a physicist, because it’s fascinating to me, that whole world. But I think every pursuit, every line of questioning is really at its height, always philosophy. It’s always being dumbstruck at how amazing and intricate the world is.

A lot of people have a hard time avoiding cynicism. How do you maintain that sense of awe at the world?
It never ever goes away. People just sort of tune it out. I think that’s why I tend to wrench myself out of my comfort zone, and go to Paris, or go to a cabin in the woods, whatever. So that I can hear it again. Because it’s always in there, but sometimes life gets really noisy around you and you get lazy, and you can’t hear it. By jumping out of the rhythm that you’re in, and going elsewhere into utter ignorance, you can kind of hear it again.

Are you planning on isolating yourself again as part of the next album’s recording process?
Paris was as foreign as I could get. I didn’t speak the language and I didn’t know anybody, so that fulfilled the criteria. I want to start the next record next year, but I spend seven months in Paris, so it was enough to sort of get those juices flowing again and allow me to hear my awe again, if you will. I’m not really sure the direction, I never like to say “what I’m going to do with this record is…” and then go. The record-making process is alive, it’s organic. If it isn’t, it becomes like doing your math homework, which is no fun.

“Orphan Music” was the original title of Day One, but you changed it because you wanted something more universal and optimistic. What made the title more appropriate in this case?
I often get these people and these word groupings and pictures in my mind that appear, and I’m not sure how to use it until something else makes it all clear to me. Orphan Music, it was a word pairing I had for a long time, and I wanted it to be on Day One, and it just really didn’t fit at all. But this one, it seemed right because all of these songs and demos and live versions and string quartet versions are stragglers, the unloved that finally all get collected together, and fed and clothed and get to sing a song together in the orphan choir.

Do you find it a little odd that now that you got around to using the title, Tom Waits has put out a collection with a very similar title, theme and philosophy?
I had no idea that was happening, and I consider it a very happy and honourable coincidence.

Going back to the idea of throwing yourself out of your comfort zone, how much does the place you go to affect the music, and how much is just the fact of going somewhere?
It’s just the fact that you’re thrown out of context. And the place will inevitably inform and infect the work that you’re doing for sure. There’s a lot about Paris and a lot about what my surroundings were doing to me, and what they made me feel and think. Of course it’s in the music. What starts the process, and what makes me fall in love with the music all over again, is the terror and the unfamiliarity. It’s such a shock and a reminder that you’re alive, to be that unhinged.

You have a tendency to make up characters for yourself, and most of them seem to belong to the past. Is there something that the present is lacking, in your view?
I think if people were utterly satisfied with the times, there would be no progress. I wouldn’t say I’m dissatisfied with the times, but I do feel that I have something to contribute in the way of making us a little bit more receptive to magic, and to receptive to whimsy and fairy tales in our everyday lives. I need that, man, because if it wasn’t there, there’s a lot of grim shit going down. And I guess that’s maybe my role. By sort of donning all those different silly masks and characters and stuff, I don’t know if it’s harking back to olden times so much as fantastical times.

Why do you think that sense of the fantastical is something that’s lacking in modern times?
Surviving for people in civilized societies has become so much more than being able to afford food and find shelter. There’s so much other complication and it really doesn’t need to be that complicated. And I think that’s what the beauty of art and fairy tales does, it kind of… these are the stories that ease the insanity of modern life. That bring you back to the essential truths. I still read kids books.

With the characters, the philosophy, the various art projects, how much of what you’re doing is an attempt to create your own philosophy?
I think that’s kind of what people are doing in life. It would be lovely to be handed an instruction booklet when you were born that says, this is what you guide your life, but no such thing happens. I’ll go through five years thinking “this is what should govern every action in my life,” and then I’ll change my mind, and I’ll modify it.

Do you feel like you’re making progress?
I think that however fast you’re going and however slow, you’re going at the right speed. You can’t mess it up, you know? I used to tie myself in knots thinking I wasn’t doing the right thing, or I wasn’t doing enough. That wondering itself is exactly what you should be doing. It’s the process itself, and getting there or not getting there is completely missing the point, I think.

You’ve returned to school to finish your music and philosophy degrees. How are you enjoying that?
It’s great. It’s a little weird when some people look at me differently because of seeing me on television, or hearing my records. That’s a little strange. But I think I could go to school for the rest of my life. I think that’s such an honourable stance to take in life. It’s a humbling stance to take in life, to be a student. And I think it’s good for the soul.

So what made you focus on a music career over the philosophy degree?
There’s no money in philosophy. [laughs] I didn’t really know what I could do with philosophy. I know I can make things with music, it’s a really palpable creation process. Philosophy, to me, feels like swimming and occasionally flying. You’re moving around in an entire universe of thought, and you can’t really build something out of that. You can build symphonies, and string quartets and songs and records, but philosophy has to sort of be ether where all of those things hover.

For a lot of musicians, songwriting is a continuous project. Is it a more concrete thing for you, then?
I think a song is almost like, it’s like the Plato idea, shadows and things. A song is just an idea, a very rough template. Versions of it all that really exist in the world. The song itself is, I hate the word template, but that’s the only one coming to mind. And that’s why I feel like, for me, you could play a song with a string quartet, or you could sing it and play guitar for a rock band, any incarnation, and it’s still the same song. For finishing songs, the basic template finishes itself. I make adjustments from time to time, fiddling with the painting, so to speak. But the essential song has an essence, or a sort of immovable character that you can build on.

How does that compare to your work in the visual arts, where the end point is so much clearer?
Painting and photography only come to me in spurts. And even when I am doing them, I consider the final piece is always an artifact of something, an artifact of a journey somewhere. Something that happened along the way.

So you don’t see yourself ever focusing on visual art over music?
Art’s really tempting to focus on. Again, if I had two lifetimes.

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