Sarah Slean is here to serve

The Toronto pianist isn’t letting the “whole world” into her living room, but fans can get on the list.


Sarah Slean was in the middle of a tour with Hawksley Workman when the call to self-isolate changed everything. “We had Ottawa and Kingston and Guelph lined up and we had to just come home,” she says, adding she also had to cancel three summer orchestra gigs and shows with Torquil Campbell and the Art of Time set for May. “They keep saying the more we can stay put, the sooner it should be over.”

With that in mind, Slean is carefully stepping into the world of online streaming this weekend, hosting a show from her Toronto living room with Side Door. 

“I was thinking about doing a National Arts Centre Facebook Live and at the last minute I said, ‘I can’t do it!’” she says. “It’s too raw. I have no control over the audio. Normally if I’m playing live they have sound engineers and I know that it sounds lovely, right? With this, I’m just kind of hoping. I’m getting my audio friends to help me.”

She’s been working on the sound setup and setlist for the last couple weeks, asking Facebook for help with the latter. “A lot of my fans jumped on board at the very beginning [of my career], some three albums in, others six albums in,” she says. “So there were 35, 40 songs people requested!” (She’s going to get to as many as time allows.)

There’s a fear, she admits, of playing for less interested internet passers-by. “When you go to a show, people have paid to go and see you because they know your music and they’re already on board,” she says. “To play for the entire internet is throwing yourself open to a lot of criticism! But you also get to play for people who become new fans so I can see the appeal. But oh man, I don’t want to invite the whole world into my living room.”

Slean’s last studio album was 2017’s Metaphysics; since then she’s been working the songs for a musical theatre adaptation of Maudie, the 2016 film version of the life of Nova Scotia folk artist Maud Lewis. (Kent Staines is writing the book.)

“The thing with musical theatre writing is you have to have a bit of an arc where the character needs to have come to some realization, the song has to have some propulsion in terms of plot,” she says. “Writing for me up until now has really been me indulging my curiosity, mining my dreams and personal life. So to put myself in someone else’s mind—not just Maud, all of the people who will have to sing—you have to get inside their psychology. That is really liberating. You’re just using the tools you didn’t realize you’ve been building all these years. It’s an exercise that’s pure craft, rather than waiting for these muses to shoot an arrow at you.”

There’s a workshop production planned at Theatre Calgary this August, but “we’ll see,” says Slean.

On Sunday, she’ll light some candles, set the camera on her piano, and play. “It does feel great to put aside, for a second, your own vision of what your show should be,” she says, “and simply serve the people who have derived some joy from your music over the years.”

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Written by Tara Thorne

Tara Thorne is a writer, editor, and pop culture critic in Halifax.