Sarah Slean is… well – Sarah Slean.
As I set out to write this two part piece I found myself making lists of adjectives and attributes to describe Sarah in a sly and pithy way, but the words that spilled out seemed limiting.
The list of accomplishments stretch long – real long – but it’s her curiosity and need to understand the world around her that I find most compelling.
Sarah Slean is an eternally devoted student of life.
We spent much of our youth carrying pretty notebooks filling them with scribbled prose. We came up through those years of growing pains together and even then Sarah’s mind was struggling to understand the suffering we inflict on ourselves and others.
She has turned that curiosity into an eclectic career that manifested itself in Art and Music.
She could have become a surgeon or a professor or just about anything, I wager, she is that smart and that determined.
Our history goes back to grade three and to one of her very first musical performances – the Cheshire Cat.
All these years later I find that a fitting character with beaming and mischievous smile, an advocate against bureaucracy and a complex mind that constantly is questioning. Pacing atop bare feet, she pads the stage with feline quality.
It’s evident that Sarah has one foot in the raw human world and one in that timeless ethereal space unifying all life (surprised she’s a Gemini?)
Part of her success and ability to convey her truth is an unflinching examination of the raw and uncomfortable foibles of human existence.
She realizes there is something exquisite about pain. Maybe it reminds us of the larger universe we are a part of, or maybe because it is proof that we are – all of us together – fallible and imperfect.
This dichotomy is explored in Sarah’s most recent project – Land & Sea – a double album for which Sarah penned four original scores performed by a 21 piece orchestra.
In an industry that rewards homogeneity, it takes serious gumption to release something that defies genre. She demonstrates her respect for the listener by giving us credit to be more complex and individual than the producers of pre-fab generic entertainment give us credit for.
When Sarah departed the safety of Warner music and dropped out of sight for a few years, it was for something she truly believed in – something necessary. She had begun work on the ambitious album with her own funds and direction. With no guarantee of return, or even listeners, Sarah was consumed by dreams and a vision of this story unfolding in front of her.
Mid-creation of ‘Land & Sea’, Sarah signed on to the Toronto indie label Pheromone. All this has lead to the natural marriage of her diverse talents, making pop music out of classical and sweeping string arrangements into chart toppers. Who knew?
It is this refusal to shut out her own often unusual impulses that has resonated with music fans. She has literally followed her dreams on this one.
(For more from Sarah on ‘Land & Sea’, check out this 2013 interview with Luigi Saracino from Ottawa Life Magazine.)
Sarah’s career has seen her perform with five of Canada’s leading orchestras, become a published author, exhibit her paintings, appear in film and on television, collaborate with some of this country’s most powerful voices, complete a degree in music and philosophy, recieve multiple Juno and Gemini nominations and travel to Europe, Mexico and Africa with her music.
As I said, the list is long and continues to challenge. For this intensely literate and ever evolving woman, Art is about the miraculous – the looking glass between the simplicity of life and the mysterious wonder of that force that unites us all.
A pretty standard message from a Pop singer, right?
In this first of my two part feature on Sarah Slean, we speak about memory, touring and some names that inspire her… and food, of course.
LET’S TALK FOOD
The Harlot: Taste and smell are closely linked to memory, is there a particular dish that conjures up images of home or the past?
Sarah Slean: Mmm, not that I can recall… I do know that food always tastes better at the cottage!
When I was living in a cabin in the woods in 2003, I was very inward-looking and quiet for almost four solid months (few visitors, no distractions, minimal talking or technology) and I did notice that my sense of taste was very heightened – even the texture of food was more interesting, intense and delightful.
Is there a snack food from your childhood that holds special nostalgia?
Ahhhhh, we ate all kinds of crap when I was young! I remember being into sour candy when I was a kid, Jos Louis, Nerds, the dreadfully unhealthy junk! I’ve lost my taste for intensely sweet things now, so you could say I’ve graduated from the Reese peanut butter cup to a square of 80% dark chocolate… haha.
What’s your favourite snack food now?
I love an apple with peanut butter. My go-to.
Any favourite dishes at restaurants you frequent?
I love the Buddha Bowl from Fresh, the Nizzarda salad from Terroni, the flourless chocolate cake from, well, any restaurant.
Is there a food or food craze you absolutely can’t stand?
Yes – the carb thing is ridiculous. If you’re active, you need carbs. Let’s be reasonable, people!
A favourite beverage?
Water – not lying – followed closely by peppermint tea or lemon drinks of all descriptions.
A go-to bar order?
I have about a drink a week, so my tolerance is very low – I can only handle one and I’m not too adventurous with spirits. It’s usually a red wine or if I’m feeling dangerous, a gin and tonic.
Touring is a way of life for artists. Eating on the road has its challenges whether you are driving through long and barren stretches of road or trying to fit in a quick meal before/after a show. Do you have any go-to foods or tricks you’ve learned?
Grocery stores are a must. We do that all the time. We’ve started bringing a small cooler with us if we’re doing local stretches in a van. If traveling cross country, sometimes we’re in a bus, so there’s a fridge to use – which means we can keep yogurt, almond milk and cereal, fruit, etc.
I stock up on Larabars and Kind bars – nuts and dried fruit too, just as a backup in case you’re in a pinch and need a bit of fuel. We have apples, water and trail mix on the rider everywhere we go as well, a good buffer against making bad food decisions at truck stops.
You’ve toured various countries, cities and small towns, what is the most memorable meal you’ve had – good or terrible?
When I first signed to Atlantic records way back in 1998, my A&R woman took us to a very swanky sushi place in New York City to celebrate. I don’t remember the name of the restaurant, or the food we ate, but I remember my mind was completely blown.
Where is somewhere in the world you would love to travel to for its culinary offerings?
I just spent a good chunk of time in Mexico and thoroughly enjoyed the local cuisine in many different towns – but I heard from every Mexican that Oaxaca is where the foodies go, so that’ll be my next trip.
What is the breakfast dish you’d wake up early for?
Overnight oats with cinnamon and apple.
When you are coming home after a tour, what do you crave to eat first – what did you miss the most?
I miss MY BED the most, hahaha. But food wise, it’s the simplicity. Eating in restaurants is usually just that much saltier, sweeter, and heavier than anything you’d make at home – it’s nice to have plain oatmeal in the mornings with fruit. You end up craving just clean, light food.
What are some of your favourite albums or an album that has special meaning, is inspirational or is nostalgic to you?
Some of my classic timeless favourites are albums by Tom Waits, Talk Talk, Radiohead, Tori Amos, Joni Mitchell, Leonard Cohen, Jeff Buckley, Peter Gabriel – but then I also adore the world of Judy Garland, Cole Porter, Marlena Dietrich, Ella Fitzgerald, all those cats… and have a huge collection of classical music – Brahms, Beethoven, Part, Gorecki, Dvorak, Gould, Puccini etc.
Who are some of your favourite artists?
Love directors Jim Jarmusch, Tim Burton, Jean-Pierre Jeunet, Jean-Marc Vallee, Terence Mallick.
Many thanks to Sarah for taking the time to share about two of my favourite subjects – Art and food!!
I knew instantly that I wanted to do something chocolate and rich for Sarah. She mentioned her love for flourless chocolate cake and dark chocolate squares. Her recent endeavors in Mexico bring me to this Oaxacan influence.
I spent some time in Huatulco which is in the Oaxaca area and they are known for their beautiful chocolate and coffee (and mezcal, but that’s for another time). Vanilla, cinnamon and cayenne pepper round out a deliciously sweet, spicy and bitter combination that sing in harmony.
Enjoy these fudgy brownies with a cup of coffee or tea and add some light cinnamon kissed whipped cream, if you’re feeling dangerous.
OAXACAN FLOURLESS CHOCOLATE SPICE BROWNIES
makes 9 – 12 brownies
I’m not a baker. I loved it when I was younger, but it takes too much precision to keep me interested, I prefer the intuitive nature of sauteing, roasting and searing.
I get frustrated easily, but I’m doing a much better job with my digital scale. It really is a must for baking as there is no deviation and less room for mishaps (and tantrums).
Mexico has the most amazing vanilla, if you can get your hands on some please use it here. (Thanks Eleanor for the goodies – the vanilla is still going strong), if not, a good quality vanilla makes all the difference.
200g quality dark chocolate (minimum 70% cocoa solids)
175g coconut oil
150g brown sugar
2 tsp vanilla
125g unbleached ground almonds
2 tbsp ground cinnamon
1 tbsp instant espresso powder
1 tbsp cocoa powder
1/4 – 1/2 tsp cayenne
- Preheat your oven to 325F and line an 8″ x 8″ cake pan with parchment paper.
- Add the chocolate and coconut oil to a heatproof bowl and sit over a saucepan of simmering water to gently melt.
- Meanwhile, beat the eggs, sugar and vanilla with an electric hand held or stand mixer until very light and fluffy. Beat in the remaining ingredients.
- Slowly pour in the melted chocolate mixture whisking until just combined.
- Pour the batter into your prepared pan and bake on the centre rack for 30 – 35 minutes or until the top is set, but a wee jiggly. It will still be ooey-gooey inside, so allow it to set.
- Cut and serve as is or with a dollop of whipped cream and a pinch of cinnamon or chillies.
A WORD ON ‘FAILURE’…
I mentioned that I’m not a baker, so it’s no surprise that I had a few missteps creating this recipe. It is an amalgamation of a whole wack of recipes I’ve come across, then I added the Oaxacan spice.
The point is, you have to try to learn. I’ve burned and scalded and sunk so many dishes through the years, but it all goes in the ol’ melon for future reference.
Here is one of my passes at these brownies – not a batch you’d take to a bake sale – yet I contend there is beauty in these craggy and cracked little guys. Proof was, instead of going in the garbage, Johnny and I stood over the pan, scooping up the fudgy innards like racoons from a green bin.
I leave you with one more gorgeous video from Sarah to satiate you until my second installment. I’ll be sharing more of our interview on delicious goodies, more videos and more music.
Recipe-wise I have a simple Mediterranean steamed fish and saffron rice number that is easy enough for anyone to execute and pretty enough for your next dinner party.
‘Til next time…