Podcast: Sarah Slean on Joni Mitchell
What an artist hears in the work of an artist
A reader asked why I don’t just upload my podcasts as audio files to my posts. Turns out that was a good question. Here’s Episode 4 of The Paul Wells Show. Very different from the first three.
Tips on finding The Paul Wells Show on all your favourite podcasting platforms are available here. Soon I’ll upload every episode of the pod and keep them on a convenient page here for your reference.
Here’s what this week’s episode is about.
At the end of October, the Vancouver Symphony Orchestra will welcome the excellent Canadian singer-songwriter Sarah Slean for two nights of concerts in tribute to Joni Mitchell.
You probably know Slean, nominated for four Junos, classically trained, voice like a bell. If you’ve followed the amazing career of Joni Mitchell, you might know that in 2000 and 2002 she recorded two important albums of standards and songs from throughout her career, with string orchestra arrangements by Vince Mendoza: Both Sides Now and Travelogue. It’s those Vince Mendoza arrangements that the orchestra will perform with Slean at the Orpheum at the end of the month.
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I can’t make it to Vancouver for these concerts, but I sure can ring the bell to let everyone know about them. I called Slean to talk to her about the Joni Mitchell legacy, about making a career in music, about writing for strings, meeting your idols, and an intriguing new musical Slean has been writing. She rose to the occasion with frank, insightful conversation. Artists hear things in the work of other artists that the rest of us might miss. They are wonderful ambassadors from that world. I’m proud of this week’s episode. Here are some thank-yous, then some bonus material.
I’m so grateful to our Founding Sponsor, Telus, and our Title Sponsor, Compass Rose. I couldn’t get this show to you without their generous help. The institutional basis for this work is my post as the inaugural Journalist Fellow-in-Residence at the University of Toronto’s Munk School of Global Affairs and Public Policy. Our Ottawa partner is the National Arts Centre. Antica Productions turns it all into a podcast and keeps all our many partners in the loop. The Toronto Star and iPolitics distribute and promote The Paul Wells Show. The legendary Kevin Breit recorded and performed the awesome music. Thanks to them all.
Bells and whistles:
Here’s Joni Mitchell at this summer’s Newport Folk Festival, singing for the first time in years, a kind of miracle that came about through the intercession and encouragement of Brandi Carlile.
Here’s the moment at the Vancouver Olympics opening ceremony in 2010 when an aerial performer dances to Mitchell’s 2000 recording of Both Sides Now. I was there. It kind of changed my life.
Here’s the video for Sarah, from Slean’s 2017 album Metaphysics. I listen to a lot of music, but I wasn’t overly familiar with Slean’s own music. This album, her most recent, is extraordinary, confident and fresh. I’ve been listening to it a lot.
While we were talking, apropos of not much, I asked Slean about another singer I’ve been listening to, Jenny Berkel, from Montreal, London ON, and assorted points east and west. People should listen to Jenny Berkel! This is from her 2022 album These Are the Sounds Left From Leaving. Her new EP, The Quiet Between, comes out Friday. Read all about her on her website.
This business of going to hear a symphony orchestra should be encouraged. If you live in a city, you probably live near a good orchestra. The people there are proud of their work and eager to welcome you. Upcoming performances of note (see what I did there?) from my favourite orchestras:
This very week, the National Arts Centre Orchestra in Ottawa has the Swedish trumpeter Håkan Hardenberger in town to play Haydn’s trumpet concerto. I’ll be there.
In February, the Toronto Symphony Orchestra will return to Massey Hall, their stomping grounds for much of their first century, gloriously refurbished. It’ll be an emotional night.
The Orchestre symphonique de Montréal is heading out on a tour of Europe. Orchestras often play their tour material at home before flying. Next week Rafael Payare will direct Shostakovich, a bit of a specialty, and the beautiful Ravel Piano Concerto for the home crowd on his way to the airport.
The OSM’s cross-town counterparts in the Orchestre Métropolitain have always had a mandate to play across the Montreal region. They take it seriously. Which is why on Oct. 15, the great Yannick Nézet-Séguin will be conducting his hometown band with one of the world’s great flute soloists, Emmanuel Pahud, in a church in Verdun.
Everything’s bigger in Calgary. Next month at Jack Singer Hall, the Calgary Philharmonic will play one of the most ambitious pieces ever written for orchestra, Mahler’s Fifth Symphony. I bet the principal trumpeter is already practicing the opening fanfare.
Go hear music.
Great conversation. I’m one of those people who got into Joni Mitchell in my early 20s and didn’t find her later albums (everything after Mingus) as interesting -- you’ve given me good reason to revisit that body of work!
We are going to quote you in advertising the OTHER great orchestra in Calgary that performs at the Jack, the Calgary Civic Symphony and our upcoming concert featuring mezzo Andrea Hill and Vafa Adib’s hammered dulcimer. It’s all Scheherazade! The quote is thoughtfully accurate:
“This business of going to hear a symphony orchestra should be encouraged. If you live in a city, you probably live near a good orchestra. The people there are proud of their work and eager to welcome you.”