Now that she’s nearing completion of a degree in music and philosophy from the U of T, Sarah Slean’s been asked a few times to compare the two fields.
She said both come from the same desire to answer the amazing, spectacular, terrifying questions that pepper our lives. And the characters Slean creates — like the energetic, red-dress-wearing Baroness of her new album — exist to help her grapple with these issues.
“(The Baroness) is spectacular, larger than life — every time she enters a room there’s a 13-piece orchestra there,” says Slean. “I considered myself shy and too bookish, and at times socially retarded, so (the Baroness) was helpful as a way of being on stage.”
Some characters fit precisely within a single song or short story, while others demand more attention. Asked what made the Baroness a larger-than-song figure (she also appears in Tales of the Baroness, a three-part short film and paintings and poems), Slean said it’s not the character itself, which doesn’t really fit with the songs. Instead, the goal is to share feelings and experiences through a persona. Comparing her approach to Tom Waits’, Slean quoted from his song Cemetery Polka: Uncle Verlin, Uncle Verlin, independent as a hog on ice. He’s a big shot down there at the slaughterhouse, plays accordion for Mr. Weiss.
“The Baroness character didn’t really seem to fit the songs — she was more vivid and bigger. Then I reconsidered the word ‘Baroness’ (and came up with) ‘Barren-ness’, and that totally captured I think what I was telling,” she said. “(Waits is) a master at creating 3-D characters. They really come to life in his songs. I’m not doing that at all — I’m consciously moving away from it.”
To gather material, Slean occasionally detaches herself from the everyday. She’s embarked to a backwoods cabin during her mid-20s (“the existential crisis everyone seems to have in their 20s,” she said) and more recently, to Paris for seven months. The object of these trips isn’t escape, but rather an immersion in the temporarily foreign.
“If everything is stripped away ... what it is like to be alive — is it worth it?” she said. “Yes it is — and that’s what music is about, what people are singing about.”
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