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First Play: Sarah Slean, Metaphysics

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Kiah Welsh

It’s been six years since Sarah Slean released a new album, but she’s back with her latest project, Metaphysics.

Her hiatus was due to a much-needed break. “There was so much going on in my personal life, and work had been pretty much an insane roller-coaster ride for the last four years,” says Slean. But it wasn’t until she bought a farm outside the city, where she began to reflect on herself and understand her "web of being." Though Slean didn’t realize it at first, her experience while at the farm would lead her to write Metaphysics.

“I thought I’d be writing the whole time and it didn’t feel like I was, but I was,” she says. “In some corner of your unconscious you're sort of formulating these experiences and metabolizing them and turning them into something.”

For Slean, Metaphysics is a representation of growth. “It’s a little bit terrifying to release a music baby into the world after so long,” she says.

“[But] I feel like music saves me. It goes in these seasons, these long cycles ... one has to be patient with the process. But, this is sort of the exhilaration stage and that’s always a bit scary,” she continues.

The album is a beautiful ensemble of string orchestra, scored by Slean. Her songwriting is honest, taking the listener through her emotions. On Metaphysics, she reunites with Hawksley Workman, who was Slean's co-producer on her first major album, Night Bugs. Production credits also include Jean Martin (Tanya Tagaq), Daniel Romano and Joshua Van Tassel, mixed by Grammy winner David Bottrill and Juno winner Vic Florencia.

Listen to the full album to the left, and read on below for Slean's track-by-track breakdown.

'Perfect Sky'

"I was writing this [song] while I was in a temporary rental place in Toronto looking for a new place to live. I was getting really frustrated with myself because I was just trying to force the record into being and I just wanted to get things done, finish some songs and it was not happening. The more I tried, the more resistance I encountered with the muse. You have to get to this point of collapse, I think, where you actually give up. You're not just half giving up, hoping the universe will respond and give you five songs, neatly finished, and on a silver platter. But, you have to actually give up and feel like, 'This is it, that's the end, I've got nothing left.' And, then and only then, with sudden true surrender, something happens and something comes out of you.

"['Perfect Sky'] is kind of about that. It's like you're in the middle of chaos, and you always think to yourself, 'Oh, if I get to a better place, if I just find that house or if I work the right person, or if I have the right circumstances this will happen.' And, I think the realization for me was that there's never going to be a perfect set of circumstances. And, if you want it to get written, you just have to sit down and write it."

'Every Rhythm is the Beat'

"I was on a GO train meditating and I felt at a certain stop that someone got on. I didn't want to interrupt so, I was sitting there with my eyes closed. And, then I felt this really menacing presence very close to me. I opened my eyes, and there was this six-foot three-inch-tall [man]. He [had on] a huge football jacket and chains. He was staring at me with this sort of menacing look and, I guess because I had been meditating I didn't immediately just react. I said a cheerful 'hello' to him. And we proceeded to have one of the most profound conversations I've ever had with another human being. He ended up crying in front of me, and telling me his life story: he had no family, his family was in Barbados, he was selling drugs and he didn't want to, he had two children he adored and couldn't figure out how else to support them. It was just a tragic story. We became friends. I gave him my information. We corresponded for two years.

"My revelation was that ... we in a very profound way are each other. Everyone is so intimately connected and we don't realize it on a surface daily basis, you're not confronted with that truth. Occasionally, these things will happen where that truth becomes so bold and right in your face that it's unavoidable. This was one of those times."

'The Dark'

"'Every Rhythm is the Beat' is a great intro to ['The Dark']. The lyric in the end is: 'If there is something more and I matter to it/ with my love let my heart build a ladder to it.' The question that the chorus poses is, 'Where is love, but the human heart?' … I think that the foundation of reality is consciousness. So, when I ask, 'Where is love, but the human heart?' I'm sort of turning on its head a habitual search for love outside, for love in all forms. Our search outside of ourselves when instead, it's a state [that] can be accessed here and now, it's within us."


“The song 'Sarah' arrived while I was living on a farm that I had purchased in 2013. Perhaps this rural property was similar to the cabin hibernation I underwent in 2003 to create the 2004 album Day One …. perhaps it was a distraction to deal with not writing or not feeling ready to write . but it was one thing for sure, a giant metaphor. Gut job and rebuild, no short cuts! Solo. Me, the hammer, the drywall dust, the rose garden, the birds, the dry and brutal winter. Oh, and of course, the piano.

"When the melody for 'Sarah' arrived, its own inner rhythm engendered numerous verses of lyrics — too many to use — so I had to trim them down to pop-song length…. But I think I kept the ones that tell the story most plainly and honestly. Ironically, I’ve given these somewhat bittersweet lyrics a buoyant, uplifting pop treatment: big shiny horns, ''70s cop show' string orchestra, a snappy disco beat. Happiest track I’ve created in a long time.”

'Loved Well'

"The story of 'Loved Well' is that during my farm adventure I befriended a very famous poet in Canada. He eventually told me his life story, which is unimaginably horrific, that I had a crisis of faith. I'm not a religious person but I do feel like the universe is alive and it's intimately involved in human affairs. Him telling me his story rattled that a little bit. I made real efforts to reach in him some kind of friendly spirituality. He was very 'there's no God,' nothing cares about us, and it's our lot to suffer. We would get into these long arguments, and I would find myself reading him the Book of Matthew from the Bible and then read some passages....We were just really having these intense conversations. But, I think the gist of ['Loved Well'] is, 'How do you become a loving person, a gentle person if all you've experienced is horror and violence?'

'A Thousand Butterflies'

"['A Thousand Butterflies'] is a song about falling in love again or attempting to, after much upheaval in that department. It's a nod to those first stages, which are so intense and dangerous."

'Holy Ground'

“['Holy Ground'] goes back to all these other songs. [I'm] trying to figure out what this whole play is about. The last verse is the key to ['Holy Ground']: 'The streets are brimming and the beggars walking with the king/ and they're groping in the dark for it but never in the heart for it/ where the only kingdom is.' That's a reiteration of this same intuition I have that consciousness is the foundation of reality and that what infuses consciousness with that life-giving power is love and only love. And, yes the world is full of wretchedness, but is that the fault of the consciousnesses involved. Have they somehow made barriers to love? Are they turning away from love?"

'Not in Vain'

"This is the requisite explanation of the ending of a relationship. When it first happened, I was splitting up with my ex-husband at the time. The two longest relationships I've had in my life when it ended, the ex-partner would then proceed to make an album about it, and lash out at me and then to all of those feelings (which I think is maybe healthy psychologically) was hurtful. I vowed that I wasn't going to do that, and I had similar feelings — you want to retaliate and you want to tell your side of the story immediately and everything — but, I was like, 'You know what, it feels so gross when people do this to me that I am not going to do it.' So, I just hung back. I just waited [to write a song] that turned into something that was kinder and more balanced. And, this is what that song is."

'The Gypsy'

"This [song] is interesting. This is one of my favourite scores on the album. It's really slinky, and rich. But, this song is about the dark feminine energy, not dark in a negative way, but a powerful, sexual, empowered female energy that's starting to wake up on Earth. I feel like it's been crushed and hidden for so long and it's coming out now and I feel like it's a good thing. It's a wild and dark energy so, it might cause a little damage before it settles down."

'Nothing But the Light'

"This [song] is the cherry on top of the metaphysical exploration of this record. This is my last statement [on the album]. I arrive at [the statement] through questioning everything through music in the record as the songs unfold, the final statement is: 'There is only this energy that is consciousness that is enlivened and made life giving by love.' And, the places where love is not are the places of great difficulty in the world where there is suffering and that's not because there's a devil or evil or any of these representations made by religious thinking. It's because the very consciousness I'm talking about is in some way squeezing it out, blocking it out and making barriers. I need to believe there's some type of informing architecture and for me the last song states it's the light. It's this dignifying power that refers to this flimsy noun, love. But, that to me makes all the difference in terms of how I can live."

Metaphysics will be in stores April 7. You can pre-order the album here.