SARAH SLEAN with Bodega at Trinity-St. Paul's Centre (427 Bloor West), Saturday (April 27). $14. 416-870-8000. www.maplemusic.com Rating: NNNNN
You get the feeling Sarah Slean's dropped in from another era. Sitting across the table from me, clad in a high-necked, ruffled vintage blouse, she looks like an Edward Gorey illustration, a Victorian waif with enormous eyes.
She wishes she'd been born in the 1890s or the 1940s. Our conversation is littered with animated references to T.S. Eliot and J.D. Salinger, German Expressionists and wartime bars with watered-down gin.
And then there's the music. Her new CD, Night Bugs, is a dizzying somersault through sooty French alleyways and absinthe hallucinations in underground salons, propelled by lush string arrangements, gorgeous cabaret-inspired piano parts and Slean's powerful voice, which morphs from world-weary Parisienne torch singer to breathy coquette.
She likes to close her eyes and zoom back about a hundred years to fin-de-siècle France, immersing herself in her fantasy of the life of a drunken, down-on-her-luck milliner who lives in a hotel room above a cobblestone street.
"When I say it out loud, I sound like such a flake," giggles Slean. "But I think I was that woman at one point, and recording Night Bugs solidified that for me.
"I'd be exhausted from throwing my soul onto magnetic tape. My arms and legs would ache. So I'd be walking home through the forest (the recoding was done in upstate New York), kind of drunk, and the stars and the moon would be out, and when the whisky fumes would waft apart, I'd say, "I can't believe this is real!' It just seemed like something for this way more colourful version of myself."
Her own life's a rock 'n' roll fairy tale right now. The local singer-songwriter broke into the Toronto music scene at the tail end of her teens and masterminded her own label, achieving unheard-of success after fans grabbed up over 15,000 copies of both her indie discs.
Now, at 25, she's swung a sweet deal with Warner and Atlantic and just dropped her major-label debut. Night Bugs, an orchestral dreamscape dripping with cabaret atmosphere, is more Rufus than Tori, more dusty victrola than flashy MTV. And that's a good thing. Where her earlier work could come off as typical chick-with-a-piano cheesiness, Night Bugs should dispel those Tori Amos comparisons once and for all.
To prep for the album, Slean bought an ancient record player from an antique shop on College and boned up on LPs by Ella Fitzgerald, Shirley Bassey, Judy Garland and Marlene Dietrich.
She riffs on literature and art as easily as she talks about her old part-time job sliding in chicken grease at Swiss Chalet.
Pal (and former main squeeze) Ian Lefeuvre, of Ottawa rockers Starling, agrees.
"She has such a voracious appetite for knowing stuff. She's got a broader scope that comes across in her music. She reads so much, and doesn't just sit there whining about her life."
Not that everything about Slean is high-minded. Her songs have appeared on the Dawson's Creek soundtrack, and she did a brief stint last year as a piano-bar performer on the reality series Murder In Small Town X. And despite dissing Lilith Fair for pigeonholing a gender, she contributed tracks to not one, but two Women & Songs compilations.
"I think that perpetuating women's music as a genre of music is stupid, and I think Women & Songs compilations do that. To be entirely honest with you, I needed the money."
She stops and moans.
"Oh I'm totally going straight to Warner hell for that."
It's a revealing moment. Though Slean may come off as optimistic about her major-label deal, she can't entirely mask her skepticism.
The deal itself is looking a bit sketchy. Last summer, Atlantic released her self-titled EP in the U.S., where it received good reviews. But Night Bugs has yet to drop stateside even though it's been out for over a month on Warner in Canada.
LeFeuvre says selling herself is what Slean finds most difficult about playing in the major leagues.
Still, she has more business sense than she lets on. Atlantic started courting her around 1998, impressed by her indie Universe EP. Since she didn't feel ready to deliver a major-label debut, the singer convinced them to fund her indie Blue Parade disc instead.
She also conned the label into letting her work with a flamboyant producer whose aesthetic matched her own. Worried they'd match her with some dismissive older dude who'd run the recording process like a dictatorship, Slean suggested relative unknown Hawksley Workman.
"They were just horrified," she recalls.
Atlantic consented only after hearing how the duo clicked on the demos.
"With Hawksley, I felt like we'd known each other before, like, I'm sure we were in the circus together, trapeze artists or something, a hundred years ago. He's such a funny guy, and he speaks in metaphors, in a sort of picture language that I completely understand."
The admiration is mutual. Taking a break from production duties on another album, Workman is effusive, if typically cryptic.
"I am lucky that I have only worked to produce artists who are truly special. Sarah is indeed that, a great voice with great words borne by that voice. Making a record is always a grand undertaking, and everyone involved in that process quickly learns a certain amount of humility and reverence for the angels that pass with songs."
Communing with angels seems worlds away from the classically trained chick from Pickering who used to puke every time she performed for her peers and profs in the U of T music program.
"I felt choked and strangled when I was trying to play other people's music," sighs Slean.
"I felt like I was warping someone else's vision, like Brahms would be in his grave going, "No! The third measure is terrible -- it's too slow!' It was like I was doing math; every time I played it had to be all the right answers and all the right multiplication tables. That wasn't music to me."
Slean says she was drawn to music as a child because she felt like an outsider. Today, she has the same problems interacting with other people, which could be why she creates alter egos like Emily the milliner or Cookie the crime photographer, a persona she writes about on her Web site.
It's also why she makes music.
"I communicate better with people when I don't know them. When I'm onstage I feel like I actually engage in the world, whereas in everyday life I feel like more of an observer.
"But music is also a way of solidifying what you're experiencing so it doesn't fly away into fluff. If you can't plant those roots in other people because you don't have that ability, then you can plant them in songs, which you can record or play over and over again."email@example.com singer/songwriter revels in her luxurious dreamscapes
Smokin' in the boys' room
Communing with the fairies might get Tori Amos's artistic juices flowin', but Sarah Slean would rather play with the big boys. Besides muses T.S. Eliot and J.D. Salinger, her list of creative collaborators reads like a Canrock dude ranch.
IAN LeFEUVRE -- When Starling superstar LeFeuvre was dating Slean, they seemed like the prom king and queen of the Toronto indie scene. Now they're good pals, but with rumours of an upcoming co-production venture, there's hope the two might make beautiful music together again.
ROBIN FUCKING BLACK -- Slean lent her impressive pipes to play backup Intergalactic Rock Star on Planet: Fame, the Toronto glamster's recent record. Black probably shared his impressive eyeliner tips in return.
HAYDEN -- The morose prince of bedroom pop managed to snap out of his funk long enough to enlist Slean's help with string arrangements for his lovely Skyscraper National Park album.
HAWKSLEY WORKMAN -- Wacky Workman's flamboyant aesthetic made him the perfect choice to produce Night Bugs. Slean returned the favour by contributing backing vocals on his critically lauded (last night we were) The Delicious Wolves disc.
LUKE DOUCET -- Slean denies she only dates musicians ("I'd love to date an English professor," she laughs), but she's currently smitten with West Coast twangster Doucet. With his Saturday-night (April 27) gig at the Rivoli and Slean's Trinity-St. Paul's gig the same night, the lovebirds go head to head.