Listen to this song by piano-centric, player-of-light-and-shadow songwriter and singer Sarah Slean. It’s ‘My Invitation’, a melancholy, crystalline, and lyrical creation as taken from her 1998 album Blue Parade, recorded when she was only twenty years old, and released as an independent album just before being signed to Atlantic Records in the U.S.
There is a tradition in Canadian singer-songwriters that the arts are best expressed in tandem. Joni Mitchell’s aptitude for visual art may be the most famous example of this, or Leonard Cohen’s poetry and prose. Neil Young’s excursions into filmmaking may be another. Sarah Slean is of this school, with interests in visual art and photography existing side-by-side with her impressive body of work as a musician and songwriter.
There is a lightness of touch with Sarah Slean’s music, with a hint of Brechtian texture, and the spirit Edith Piaf making an appearance here and there in many of her songs. This tune in particular comes off, on first listen, like it’s coming from Sarah McLachlan’s more jaded younger sister, with undercurrents of darkness lurking under delicate piano lines, and muted brass. But, perhaps it’s better to think of these sonic effects as a wash of paint underneath images and thoughts as presented in a musical foreground by a unique voice to be compared to no one.
This song is about doubt of the kind that keeps us from jumping into passionate love, an area that is well-trodden among singer-songwriters. Yet, this is not the loftily-intentioned, studied song about the nature of love and doubt it would have been in the hands of a lesser artist. Sarah Slean’s real strength here is how she delivers her lines with the subtlety of someone who is as passionate as those lines suggest, but also constrained by the very doubt she sings about. She’s believable, a quality which serves the singer as much as it does the actress, yet another field in which Slean has delved.
I saw Sarah perform in November of 2004, on the eve of the American election, opening for Ron Sexsmith. The atmosphere in the room was tense, due to the worries about the outcome of that election. And where Slean’s music was utterly perfect for that mood – colourful, and streaked as it is with shades of grey and black – it was her radiant personality that shone through most for me, with real concern about the state of the world at that point tempered with humour.
And maybe this too is a big part of Canadian singer-songwriter traditions as well.
For more information about Sarah Slean, and her newest releases The Baroness, and the Baroness Redecorates, investigate SarahSlean.com.