Guiding lights

After seclusion in Paris, songstress Sarah Slean finds inspiration in The Baroness.

Slean cuisine See what Sarah’s cooking up Thursday, May 29 at the Rebecca Cohn.

Over the centuries, Paris has inspired many great thinkers---Simone de Beauvoir, Gertrude Stein and T.S. Eliot. Recently,Canadian songwriters such as Feist, Hawksley Workman and Sarah Slean have been drawn to its omnipresent glow. Slean blames the City of Light for her latest effort, The Baroness. She'll share her secrets and reasoning at the Rebecca Cohn on Thursday, May 29.

"Paris was extremes. I am so thankful for it. I know I need to have drastic changes of scenery to stir up my artistic creativity when it gets stuck," says Slean. "But I realized there are people in my life that I can't be far away from."

Stripped from her familiar surroundings, Slean hit rock bottom in Paris. Riddled with fear and anxiety, she felt pickled by her chosen isolation. She was at her loneliest in the midst of the bohemian capital of the world. Eventually she settled into things. Slean began tinkering on the piano, made a few friends, gingerly started coming out of her shell---a thick protective layer of imagination and orchestration---and stopped searching for a biography outside of herself. When she returned to Canada in 2007, she enrolled in music and philosophy classes at the University of Toronto and came to terms with herself: Sarah Slean the person, not the fictional grande dame she once aspired to be.

"I spent some time in a Buddhist monastery while I was in France," she says. "It was between Bordeaux and the middle of the country and one of the things they were talking about was mindfulness and how to be right in the present moment all the time. I'm just trying to maintain the contact with the present moment---that's where all the magic is."

Infamous for her cabaret-style theatrics, Slean had to quit the circus. Her fifth studio album, The Baroness, co-produced by Jagori Tanna and Slean, is an introspective narrative-driven collection. Simplicity and thin layers of instrumentation create an intimacy unlike previous releases Universe, blue parade, Night Bugs and Day One. Tanna (of I Mother Earth) fought her tumbling theatrics tooth and nail.

"It's definitely a real honesty that I don't think I've ever tried," Slean says. "I'd say, 'Let's put some timpani on this and let's add some bass drums and sleigh bells.' And he'd always be like, 'Listen to this song. It's pure. You don't need to put snowflakes and sprinkles all over it.' I'd be so nervous---'this is so unadorned: There is so much space in this song.'"

With tracks like "Get Home," "No Place at All" and "Please Be Good to Me," you might gather Slean has been down on her romantic luck. Thematic elements of deception, longing and heartbreak flow throughout the album, however she never plummets too far into the depths of her pain. Her infectious optimism prevails in "Hopeful Hearts," "So Many Miles" and "Looking for Someone," featuring background vocals by Ron Sexsmith, Royal Wood, Todd Clarke and Noah Mintz. Friend John Southworth reads a poem (noted as the album's epilogue) over the painstakingly haunting "Shadowland."

The original inception of The Baroness came in the form of a Victorian-style portrait appearing in the final pages of Slean's debut poetry anthology, Ravens. A follow-up text-based collection is in the works, possibly also titled The Baroness. Over the years, this fictional muse has masqueraded for Slean in many ways.

"She's sort of morphing into things as I get older. Initially she was this woman who was always in my imagination, who felt like I aimed to be her. She was sort of ballsy and wore red ball gowns, she had fire and crazy, sassy, glossy energy and she was not afraid. That was the one characteristic that I was so enamoured with: I think that's why my brain or my subconscious created her. She was fearless."

Sarah Slean w/Royal Wood, Thursday, May 29 at the Rebecca Cohn, 6101 University, 8pm, $30adv./$35, 494-3820.

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