The tell-all biography of The Baroness

The tell-all biography of The Baroness

Blame it on Paris. Over the centuries, the City of Light has spawned countless wonderful works of art, and it can now justifiably stake at least partial claim to one more, The Baroness. The fifth full-length album from acclaimed Toronto songstress Sarah Slean, it is both her most lyrically direct and musically accessible work to date. It was relocation to and serious soul-searching in Paris that gave birth to these songs, as Sarah explains.

“Most of them started in Paris. In my tiny apartment, I had a little white piano. I could touch its edge, my kitchen table, and my bed, all at the same time. Frustratingly enough, I could hardly finish anything there. It’s because all that experience is writing itself in your soul. It’s like you are collecting the raw ingredients, and putting the canned goods in the pantry, but then you have to be still for them to come out and be used.”

Slean’s choice of Paris as a new abode was scarcely surprising. The raw power of Sarah’s passionate voice and oft cabaret-tinged music have long elicited Edith Piaf comparisons, while her love of French art, literature and philosophy has helped fuel her muse. This was the ideal city in which she could explore and re-define herself, in fittingly existential fashion.

“In order for me to create, I sometimes need to take myself out of a comfortable situation and return to an ignorance and innocence that is exciting but also rejuvenating. It’s like when you pick up an instrument you don’t understand you can come up with all these new little melodies. Music is new to you again and I felt like I had to do that in life, to start thinking differently, to uproot my philosophies. Where better to do that than in the city of Sartre and Simone de Beauvoir?” she reflects.

The calm required to bring these explorations of the soul to the surface came when Slean moved back to Toronto and joined forces with her co-producer and engineer, Jagori Tanna. Best known as guitarist and chief songwriter for hard rock favourites I Mother Earth, Tanna is now highly-respected for his studio skills.

He and Slean first worked together on 2006’s Orphan Music, a live album that neatly captured Sarah’s performance prowess. “He was great to work with then so we decided to start pre-production on my new songs,” explains Slean. “It became so comfortable in terms of trying stuff, ‘why would you stop?’ Jag’s a really great engineer and a mellow gentle guy which is great for neurotic artists like myself,” she adds, with a chuckle.

“He helped me get some gear and we set up a very small recording studio around my piano in one of the little rooms in my house. That’s where we got all the grunt work done, sketching out songs so that when we got into the studio we knew exactly what we were going to do.”

Most of the vocals on The Baroness were recorded in Sarah’s home studio, and the relaxed intimacy of this setting is reflected on the album. “It was just very comfortable,” says Sarah. “You make yourself a nice cup of tea, have a little chat, then sing all day.” The dynamic duo then set up shop in Toronto studios DNA, Canterbury Sound, and The Rogue. An A-list cast of such local players as bassist Joe Phillips, drummer Mark Mariash, organist Dennis Keldie, horn players Richard Underhill and Chris Gale, and a string section headed by Drew Jurecka (Bebop Cowboys) and Rebekah Wolkstein helped flesh out Sarah’s elegant and well-crafted compositions. The sonic icing on the cake came from the mixing of David Bottrill, famed for his work with such artists as Peter Gabriel, Muse and Tool.

The happy result of a process Sarah terms “the best recording experience I’ve had” is a stunningly accomplished work that stands to further Slean’s reputation as an international-calibre artist. A recording artist for a dozen years, Sarah, at just 30, has a formidable body of work on a resume that includes two Juno award nominations.


Her previous studio album, 2004’s Day One, spawned breakthrough singles “Lucky Me” and “Mary.” The Baroness’ first single and video, “Get Home,” is already making an impact in Canada, and the eager anticipation of her loyal fan base is about to be sated. Slean has recently signed on with a New York-based management company that also handles Rufus Wainwright (a creative kindred spirit with whom Sarah has toured), and prospects beyond Canada beam bright.

“I’m very excited about this record, though it’s also a little nerve-wracking,” says its creator. “There was more artifice and embellishments on my other records, but decidedly not so on this one. It is a little disconcerting to be that naked!”

With gifts as substantial as Slean’s, embellishment is scarcely necessary. This multiple threat talent has the voice of an angel (hired by the likes of the Winnipeg Symphony Orchestra and The Art of Time Ensemble), the soul of a poet (she published Ravens in 2004), the fluent fingers of an ace piano player (featured on several albums including Pilate and K-Os), and the technical chops that have made her an in-demand string arranger for such peers as Hayden and Howie Beck. And did we mention she is also an acclaimed actor (a Gemini award nomination for her lead role in noir musical Black Widow) and accomplished visual artist who had a public exhibition of her work at the Spin Gallery in Toronto in 2006)? Scarcely seems fair, does it.

Sarah’s creative approach fuses inspiration and perspiration. A self-confessed perfectionist, she is constantly working at the craft of composition, while always remaining open to calls from the muse. “Your conscious mind is just a pebble on the beach compared to your subconscious,” she notes. “You are so not running the show.”

Her extensive but always effective use of strings helps set Slean apart from her piano-playing pop peers. “I always find myself working on strings,” she says. “In Paris, I played a show with a local string quartet. I had to re-score all my older material, and I loved that process. I listen to the string-writing on my previous records, such as my second independent album from 1998, and it is infinitely better now than it was then– so I have to keep going!”

The seamless integration of strings in such new songs as “Sound Of Water” and “Willow” exemplify Sarah’s musical philosophy. “Leonard Bernstein once said that a real composition is one in which every element is integral. Nothing is unnecessary. Every little aspect is essential to making it stand as the piece of art that it is. That is why my artistic existence is tortuous, as everything has to make sense in form and content.”

In Sarah’s universe, content does reign supreme. “I’m in love with the undeniable magic of music, and the craft of putting it together gives me sheer delight,” she notes. “But morally speaking, in order for me to do all the other things involved in being ‘Sarah Slean, popular music recording artist,’ I have to believe it is affecting people positively.”

Mission accomplished on The Baroness. Its songs run the emotional gamut, as Slean shares lessons learned and hard-won truths. “I think there is a message that is positive,” reflects Slean. “I see my music as poetic, but also as philosophic investigation expressed in music.” In fact, Sarah is close to completion of a University of Toronto degree in music and philosophy, and she notes that these studies “enrich my life and fuel my songs.”

In turn, our lives are enriched by her songs. The Baroness is now holding court, and this is an invitation demanding acceptance.

Please visit www.sarahslean.com for more information.

February 2008