BY: JIM VILLANUEVA
PHOTOS: Jen Squires
“I had a hard time leaving Toronto because I love it so much. So, of course then I had to ask myself what do I actually want. I’m a believer in getting perspective by gaining physical distance, so I just decided I needed to get in the car and go. I regrouped and that took me down to the desert and I never left.”
Canadian singer-songwriter Sarah Burton’s decision to travel from Toronto to Texas was the inspirational fuel she needed to craft the genre-blurring collection of stellar songs on her fifth studio effort Give Me What I Want, available now. Trying to pinpoint what so-called “category” of music Burton’s sonic portraits fall under is as futile an attempt as trying to tame her yearning to live life untethered from conventional societal and creative norms. Not unlike most, Burton has had her share of good times and bad. But unlike most, she has the uncanny ability to shake off the chains that bind by sketching song lyrics that both amaze and inspire.
Burton has at least 23 concert dates scheduled, starting March 2nd in Lajitas, Texas through April 28th in Mobile, Alabama, followed by a performance at the Robson Valley Music Festival in British Columbia taking place August 16th through the 18th.
Hi, Jim. Thank you.
Let me begin by saying this: I have the long-held belief that there are only two types of music – good and band. And I would say it’s up to the listener to decide which is which. That said, of course radio, the Grammys and other entities still have formats and categories. So, overall, give us a picture of how you would describe the music on Give Me What I Want.
I would classify it as Americana. And it ranges from kind of an old school Country to Indie Rock.
I think I picked up on all of that while listening to it. So, I think that’s an apt description.
Oh, good! It’s always tough to answer those questions.
So, let’s get into this record, and along the way I’m going to quote some lyrics, so please correct me if I get anything wrong.
Let me start with, “Everybody’s living some kind of dream.” I believe that’s a line from the opening track “Desert Sky.” What kind of dream or nightmare were you living when you wrote this song?
(Laughs) Let me see. Let me make sure the line’s right. “Everybody’s living for some kind of dream.”
OK, thank you for the correction.
Yeah, I definitely blur over that. I mumble it (laughs)! Basically, everybody’s chasing a dream. Whether it’s a job or a love or some kind of project. But then the next line is, “Some of us are dying/never learning to see.” In my travels I found some people are really self-aware. Everything they do has a purpose. They think about the big picture of the world and the people around them. And then some people just kind of plow forward with prescription drugs and Fox News (laughs)!
(Laughs) I’m visualizing the sonic portrait that you’re painting. So, with “Desert Sky,” where did you write the song? Was it inspired by a moment like that? Were you underneath a desert sky?
I wasn’t, actually. I was in Canada. I was in Toronto, and I’d been to the desert here in West Texas a couple of times and I fell in love with it. I actually didn’t realize how much I fell in love with it until I put out my last album (2015’s Make Your Own Bed) and people kept asking me in interviews what my favorite place was that I’d been on tour. Just instinctively, without thinking about it, I kept coming up with West Texas. So, it obviously intrigued me, and I kept going back, and then when I decided I was ready to leave Toronto I didn’t know where I was gonna live, but I knew that I was gonna just come to the desert for a little while, maybe do some writing, and that’s why it’s the first track on the album, too.
The first single is “Smiling for the Camera.” To my ears, it’s seemingly on the polar opposite end of the sonic scale from “Desert Sky.” I think whereas “Desert Sky” is acoustic and kinda raw, “Smiling for the Camera” is electronic and synth-filled.
So, growing up, how wide was your personal musical landscape?
Very wide! I mean I listened to my parents’ old records, which ranged from The Rolling Stones, The Sex Pistols, Stevie Wonder. Then as a high school kid, growing up, I listened to a lot of Dance, Electronic and Hip-Hop. I always listened to various singer-songwriters. I definitely listened to my dad’s music, like Bonnie Raitt, Don Henley and Bob Seger and all that stuff. And then as I grew up, when I graduated college and moved to Toronto that’s when I started learning about more Country, Americana-ish artists. I’m a huge Gram Parsons fan. A lot of the music that was being created in Toronto in the mid-2000’s was on the Americana-Country spectrum. So, it’s funny because Country was the one genre that I was never really exposed to as a child, but in my adulthood, I took to it.
Let me ask you a question that I often ask in these conversations. Tell me about what I call your proverbial Beatles on Ed Sullivan moment. Was there a song that came on the radio, an album you heard or a concert that you attended, where, afterwards you said, that’s what I want to do for the rest of my life?
There are two moments. I mean there are several moments, but one that really comes to mind was when I was 11 years old and there was this used record store called Vortex (closed in 2016). And my sister would take me there and we would buy and sell cassette tapes. And then I remember I got a portable CD player in the fifth grade. So, I went to buy CDs, and I didn’t know anything about music. I listened but I didn’t pay attention to names or anything like that. And flipping through the CDs I saw Led Zeppelin, with the zeppelin on the cover. And it was like it called me! It was just this moment where I was like, I have to have this! I don’t even know what this is. And I took it home, and I put my headphones on, and my 11-year-old mind was just absolutely blown! It was like doing drugs (laughs)!
That’s great! It’s interesting, Vans shoes are just rolling out a collection with Led Zeppelin in celebration of the 50th anniversary of the release of the album you’re just talking about.
Oh, wow! Fifty years, really? That’s amazing. It’s still relevant. It’s still so good.
That’s a great story. Thank you for sharing that. So, a minute ago I alluded to your musical landscape, well you’ve also seen your share of scenic landscapes. You mentioned that you moved from Toronto to Texas. What was the push-pull factor that led to this decision?
There are a number of factors. I really wanted to explore the States for a while. I had a hard time leaving Toronto because I love it so much, and I love my friends there. When you spend most of your life somewhere and you build a community it’s really hard to leave. But then as Toronto started to become more expensive, like the price of rent just really skyrocketed. And I went through a bad breakup, I got robbed right before that breakup, and then I didn’t get the return on investment that I needed from my last album. So, I was just kind of, like, I need to regroup. I’d been working really, really hard for a decade on my life, and I suddenly realized I don’t really have what I want. I wasn’t happy. So, of course then I had to ask myself what do I actually want? I’m a believer in getting perspective by gaining physical distance. I just decided I needed to get in the car and go and book a bunch of little shows and kinda take it back to basics and remind myself why I play music and just figure out what I want from life. Not just in a career sense, but on a really basic level. Like, what do you want and how do you want to spend your hours from the moment you wake up in the morning till you go to bed at night? And so, I regrouped, and it took me down to the desert and I never left.
It’s interesting that you mentioned the word perspective. Two of my favorite words in the English dictionary are balance and perspective.
Yes! Those are mine, too (laughs)! Yeah, I was just giving a big talk to my friends about balance.
Let me ask you about a couple of other tracks here, one is “Love is in the Air.” I found that to be the track I hit repeat on more often than others.
Oh, it’s my favorite! That’s my favorite one, for sure.
Oh, we are simpatico here. Let me quote a line: “You know I’ve never been very good with instructions/don’t patronize me, I’m aware of my self-destruction.” Tell me about this song.
I grew up in an academic family. My parents and my sister all went to good schools. They’re all academic types. And I went to a good school, too, and I got good grades, but I was definitely the odd one in the family. The artsy one. I’ve never been great at doing things the quote unquote right way, or the way it’s meant to be in the system. And I’ve certainly made some mistakes as a result of that. I was the master of my own demise, in many ways. But I’ve also had some of the greatest adventures of my life because of that. And then, yeah, “Don’t patronize me, I’m aware of my self-destruction.” You know when you’ve done something wrong, you know you’ve done something wrong (laughs). Like, it doesn’t take an expert to tell me where I went wrong (laughs).
That’s such a great line. I also want to ask you about “Still Feel the Same.” That sounds like the most straight-up Country song on the album, and that’s a very good thing. The marriage of the vocals, the lyrics and the playing is storytelling, definitely. Walk me through the writing of this one.
That’s kind of the story of the one who got away. And it’s really just supposed to be a sweet story about people going their separate way. Like I said, I spent a decade in the Toronto scene. When we’re all fledgling musicians in our early 20s you don’t know who’s still gonna be there ten years later or 20 years later. People go on their different paths. Whether they decide to teach music or play in a cover band or run away to Texas. So, it’s just about the different paths that someone you once thought you were going to spend your life with, and then you move on. And you can kind of look back with sweetness. It’s really just a sweet retrospective love song.
The last song I want to ask you about is the last song on the album “Love Like This.” To me, it’s kind of a marriage of Elvis’ “Crying in the Chapel” and Patsy Cline’s “Crazy.” Am I too far off base here?
No. I have heard both those references. Not to those specific songs, but to Elvis and Patsy, for that song. And I wasn’t actually familiar with those songs. When I wrote it, that’s one of those little songs that I kinda just hummed in my head and it just came out. I would say it’s the loviest love song I’ve ever written (laughs).
And I would say it’s a beautiful way to end the album.
Final question for you. The album is called Give Me What I Want. So, Sarah, what do you want? What’s missing in your life? Money? Love? Number one song? Peace on Earth? All of the above?
That’s a good question. Oh, yeah, I want all those things! Money, love, peace on Earth and a number one song all sound great (laughs)! How did you know (laughs)? Maybe a boat, too. It’s funny that you say that though because it’s only in the last couple of years since I was in a bad financial spot before I moved down here. And I really, really worked hard to turn around. And it sounds so silly, and it’s such a classic self-help thing, and I never thought of it before, but changing my perspective on money has been such a useful tool in my life. To just admit, I love money. Money gives me freedom. It doesn’t do you any service to see money as a struggle.
Well, thank you. Congratulations on the record. Great to meet you. Hopefully we’ll talk again soon.
OK, thank you so much. Bye.