'A fearless confrontation:'

Sarah Slean on the influence of Joni Mitchell

by Cam Fuller
Saskatoon StarPhoenix
February 22, 2018

Saskatoon Symphony: Don't Give Yourself Away - The Music of Joni Mitchell
When: Saturday, March 3
Where: TCU Place
Tickets: $60 to $90
Box office: tcutickets.ca, 306.975.7799

Sarah Slean came down with a case of Joni Mitchell a long time ago.

Early in her career, when Slean discovered the Mitchell album Blue, it was a revelation. Classically trained but wondering how to broaden her scope, she had only to follow Mitchell's example.

"That record opened my eyes to what songwriting could be," Slean said recently from Toronto. "It was really a moment for me in understanding how you could use the tools of music to convey emotion, to tell stories, to vivify your interior life and share it."

She couldn't have picked a more significant musical landmark. Released in 1971 and containing songs like A Case of You and River, Blue was cited by the New York Times as one of 25 albums that became a turning point in 20th Century popular music. Last summer, NPR declared it the greatest album of all time made by a woman.

For Slean, Blue engendered boundless respect for Mitchell as she explored the artist's catalogue.

Mitchell's refusal to be tied to past success or musical genre are other elements Slean admires. Not coincidentally, Slean has herself lived in various artistic worlds, from classical, where she's written string quartets and scores for string orchestras, to pop, to poetry, to painting.

"You see so many artists today, when they hit on something that works in terms of sales, they just stay there. And they make that record over and over again. That wasn't enough for her. And I have such respect for that."

Slean is now exploring the world of film scoring - out of her comfort zone but undaunted.

"I feel shaky but man, am I learning, am I growing."

Slean describes Mitchell and Leonard Cohen as two pillars, both uncompromising and completely honest.

"I think the reason that develops is a fearless confrontation with life. They are very unmasked artists. There's very little artifice in what Leonard Cohen and Joni Mitchell are doing. You feel the despair in the music, you feel the disappointment, you feel the loss, you feel the awe, the sense of wonder. All those things are so immediate in their music.

"There's no effort to sell themselves, there's no effort to be what they're not. It's such a real confrontation with life."

Slean met Cohen when she was performing at a Canadian Songwriter's Hall of Fame gala, telling him he had no idea how much he meant to her. He was warm and gracious. A year or so later, she was seated behind Mitchell at the same event.

"I was kind of losing my mind. I didn't say anything to her. I ran into her in the washroom but I was completely star-struck. I had no idea what I could possibly say to this woman, in the bathroom, no less!" she laughs.

That opportunity has passed, but Slean is ready to say thank-you in a special way as guest vocalist with the Saskatoon Symphony in Don't Give Yourself Away - The Music of Joni Mitchell. The concert is inspired by two other Mitchell landmarks, her retrospective albums Both Sides Now (2000) and Travelogue (2002)

Both were arranged and conducted by six-time Grammy winner Vince Mendoza, a titan of the jazz world equally respected in classical circles.

Saskatoon Symphony manager Mark Turner has been asking Mendoza to guest star for at least three years. Not only is he coming but he's bringing acclaimed drummer Peter Erskine.

"This is the very first live performance of these arrangements from these two discs, so it's possible that this is a once-in-a-lifetime event," Turner says.

Says Slean: "He's a master. He knows intimately the palette he's working with, he knows how to get certain colours. It's just amazing to me that he's going to be there."

And, she adds, it's all the more special because it takes place where Mitchell grew up.

"This kind of world-class artistry came out of a small city in the prairies. It's kind of amazing. And her music has resonated all over the world. Her worldview, her perspective, her unique poetic voice has made a massive impact on the world's psyche, in the world's spirit."

Printed from the official Joni Mitchell website. Permanent link: http://jonimitchell.com/library/view.cfm?id=4010

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