"Every time I do a sound check it’s a struggle, mostly male techs assume if a woman is direct she's being a diva" In conversation Sarah Jane Scouten
Not content with a couple of Canadian Folk Music Award nominations in her career so far, Sarah Jane Scouten has just released her best album so far. Following the release of When The Bloom Falls From The Rose we caught up with the singer-songwriter to pose a few questions. Sometimes artists can be a little reluctant to answer at length but happily Sarah Jane gave us her full attention and honest opinions.
What have you been up to today?
I made breakfast for my friend Mairi Chaimbeul who is a Gaelic-speaking award-winning Celtic harpist from the Isle of Skye, who sometimes sleeps on my couch.
Your beautifully titled record, When The Bloom Falls From The Rose came out recently, what was your process for writing and selecting songs for the record?
My records tend to be a collection of songs I’ve written in a certain time frame. I just get enough songs together that I like, that seem like they might fit together, and make it work. Usually, an album will flow due to production, arrangement and sequencing. That may be why some people say there is so much variety in my songwriting. I’m not trying to make the songs fit together. I just trust they will. Because they come from me, they have their own flavour that runs throughout and unites them. I’m not a prolific writer and don’t tend to finish a song unless I think I can stand by it for years to come. As such, I usually have just enough songs ready by the time to make another record comes along.
You've had very positive reviews; does it matter to you, what “critics” think?
Of course it does. But only because they are listeners too. I don’t pretend to make music for myself. I have a job to entertain, elicit emotion, provide an experience. That is my role. To ensure their authenticity, I will write personal songs, or songs that don’t pander to what I think people want to hear. Listeners can hear that and insert themselves into the experiences and stories present in the songs, so they make the songs about them. The song 'Every Song I Sing' is about that. As far as development as an artist goes, I am very curious to hear constructive feedback from trusted listeners, whose taste aligns with mine and whose opinion matters to me. Sometimes the positive stuff, while appreciated, just sounds the same, but every once in a while you get a reviewer who clearly “gets it” and it feels incredibly vindicating.
You’ve a song called ‘Poland’ on the new album, have you ever been there?
I was in Poland for about 20 minutes a few summers ago when driving from Berlin to Vienna. This song was written for the son of two Polish political refugees who came to Canada in the 1980s.
You snuck a couple of covers onto the album, how did you choose them?
I don’t call them covers, simply because they are more or less traditional songs. Traditional music in the western part of Canada is hard to come by and can be a pastiche of other songs and new melodies written by folk singers. Collecting them has been more or less the life’s work of a handful of cultural historians and part-time ethnomusicologists such as school teacher Phil Thomas who collected the songs in Songs of the Pacific Northwest. 'Britannia Mine' is set to the traditional Irish rebel song 'Skibbereen' and uses its same format. It was written about a union strike in 1965 which shut down the mine. The writer Paddy Graber worked at the mine. Our arrangement evokes the misted-in mountains where I grew up on the West Coast. The mine was only a few miles from there. 'Where the Ghost River Flows' is a variation of a better known song, with lyrics changed to fit the location of western Alberta and ranching culture. The lyrics were found in an old agricultural journal and set to music by Jasper “Joe” Adams. It was taught to me by Calgary folklorist Mike Tod. So I like to think of them as traditional as much as possible.
Which is your favourite song on the record? Mine’s probably the opener ‘Acre Of Shells’.
I think I might be the most proud of that song. Some songs kind of launch from the singer, having a singability that anyone can pull off. I like that about this song. I love the metaphor, I love the emotional intensity, I love the melody and I love how my band plays it on the record.
So 2017 for you so far, tell us about it?
We’ve toured a little bit in Alberta and British Columbia. Mostly it’s been a lot of preparation for a big tour we’re doing in the UK and Europe September-November. Pretty excited about that. There has been a lot of business trying to get custom western shirts made for the band, which look fantastic.
Where’s the strangest place you’ve played live?
Duncan Garage Showroom in Duncan, British Columbia. It’s the stuff of legend among touring musicians in Canada. It’s in a sleepy town where the owner puts on shows nightly, doesn’t sell alcohol, streams every performance, where 15 people in the audience is a “great turn out.” Even if he makes $90 at the door he will take a 30% cut. He has a fleet of inbred lapdogs (minimum 12) and smokes an inordinate amount of weed. The place is decked out with charity shop kitsch and a vintage (functional) pop corn maker. Amazingly, he gets great bands.
You’re a woman in a predominantly male industry, has that had any impact on your careers so far?
Of course. I started working in music shops after I graduated from university and could tell when customers didn’t want to talk to me about electric guitars or effects pedals. They would say hello then ask a question to my male coworker. I’ve had coworkers say to my face that the only reason I had a job is because I’m a good looking woman. Every time I do a sound check it’s a struggle, when mostly male techs assume if a woman is direct she's being a diva. Usually I feel like I need to kill them with kindness after the fact so they don’t do a terrible job. They treat me like I’m a bomb about to detonate when I’m quite calm throughout. That is a combination of sexist assumptions about women’s musical or technical acumen and men’s fears of women’s (and their own) emotions. I find if you are a woman in music, you are guilty until proven innocent. Or more aptly, innocent until proven bad-ass. Women are assumed to be mellow, quiet, traditionally feminine in floral patterns and excessively prone to tears, who don’t know how to use guitar picks, tune their instruments or what key their songs are in. Every day I ask myself, would that person have said that, done that, behaved that way if I were a man. Usually the answer is no, especially when it comes to unsolicited and pedantic advice. The impact is that I have to work harder to be taken seriously, which in the end is going to be beneficial. My friend Winona Wilde has an incredible song about that called Chick Singer. “You’ve got to work twice as hard and be twice as good/ And get paid half as much as you know you should."
What female artists inspire you?
AHHHHH!!! Shout out time! k.d. Lang, Iris DeMent, Lucinda Williams, Gillian Welch, Mary Gaultier, Anais Mitchell, Patti Smith, June Tabor, Sandy Denny, Stevie Nicks, Nico Case, Dolly Parton, Loretta Lynn, Wanda Jackson, Nanci Griffiths, Brennan Leigh, Laura Marling, Alanis Morrisette, Celine Dion (because she has extraterrestrial singing powers and her songs and arrangements make me hysterical with laughter), The Good Lovelies (for work-life balance), Martha Wainwright, Kacy Lee Anderson (Kacy and Clayton). I could be here all day.
What advice do you have for people trying to get into the music industry?
Assuming you’re a songwriter or composer, ask yourself if your songs are the kind of songs you would want to listen to. Also, try to separate the craft of songwriting from the need to have the songs performed, recorded, promoted and toured. There are lots of things you can learn on the road and it is the best way to become a better performer and expose yourself to other artists’ crafts. But if you don’t want it more than anything and if you don’t think you truly have something to say and a unique way of saying it, then you might inevitably be happier sleeping in your own bed every night. I mean that sincerely. Ask yourself that honestly, and putting self-deprecation aside. Most people won’t “make it” so you better be really good and committed to getting better.
If you could only listen to one song this week, what would it be?
Martha Wainwright, 'Around the Bend'
What’s the question we should have asked you today but haven’t?
Are you plagued with self-doubt every second of every day?
Answer: No, but almost.
What are you doing next today?
Going to walk up the street to pet all the dogs that live in my neighbourhood.
Finally, how do you take your coffee? (Or alcohol?)
Coffee: This is going to disappoint you. Decaf. You don’t want to see what happens when I drink regular. But dammit it better be good!
Alcohol: In multiples of two.
You can listen to Sarah Jane's album on all streaming services (including Tidal below), or you can purchase it from the usual. She visits the UK in October for a lengthy tour, find out more on her website.
You can also follow Sarah Jane on her socials, Twitter and Facebook.