album reviews and artist impressionsAlmost Like Love | Remember | La Carissima
interview and album review © Russell W Elliot 2009
artist photographs by Richard Sibbald | all images © Sarena Paton 2009 | used with permission
Formatted for 800 x 600 or larger windows | Last updated: 25 May 2009
With the release of her third album entitled La Carissima, Sarena Paton has firmly planted her music in the classical crossover genre alongside Sarah Brightman, Filippa Giordano, Izzy, Emma Shapplin, Laura Turner and Hayley Westenra. The soprano began her professional career at an extremely young age, grew through singing in choirs. Classically trained and also an actress, she has performed the role of Christine in a major production of Phantom of the Opera alongside other notable West End giants.
Sarena Paton's debut album Almost Like Love is a collection of Big Band favorites but produced with modern instrumentation and superb vocal production highlighting the clarity and power of her voice. Her follow up album, Remember, is the debut of her own songwriting in the theme of the other tracks that serve as memorials to the veteran community she actively serves. Her most recent album presents ten crossover interpretations of classical favorites and is her most ambitious project to date.
Learn all about Sarena Paton's musical background, the making of her three albums and her overall approach to music in our exclusive interview. Also read our reviews of her three recordings in this full length article.
What can you tell us about your development as a musical artist?
I started singing when I was three years old but I did not give my first public performance until I was four years old. It was my kindergarten teacher who first noticed my singing voice and told my parents. They were very humbled and believed that she must have been trying to be overly encouraging, but when she asked permission for me to sing a number of solos in front of the whole school auditorium, they knew she was serious.
Mrs. Hambly then started organizing concerts at nursing homes and churches and I was a very busy and happy little girl. It was wonderful to visit all of these audiences that were so welcoming and inviting. It taught me from such a young age how to interact with people and see the beauty of their perspectives and experiences. It also allowed me to see how important it is to be able to read your audience and engage them. It was amazing to me to see the joy that I could bring to other people just from doing something I loved so much! It still amazes me.
How did you develop your vocal style?
I actually started acting before I started singing publicly. I did my first commercial when I was three and spent most of my childhood in and out of auditions, voice booths, television and film sets. There were some occasions where I had the opportunity to combine both of my passions, doing animation, jingles, theatre and CBC's Canadian classic Mr. Dress-Up for five years.
Like a lot of little girls, I sang in a number of choirs. The youth choir I joined at age eleven only accepted sixteen year olds at that time but I was granted early acceptance and it gave me a wealth of experience. I also spent many years as a cantor in my church, St. Augustine's, guided by a lovely little nun. Gradually I started performing more as a soloist and then continued my training and performing schedule while attending university. I gave my debut recital at the age of seventeen and started producing my own concerts from that time on.
Tell us all about your first commercial recording.
My first album, Almost Like Love, was a project that originated out of my love of the music from the Big Band and WWII era. I grew up watching the old movies from the 40s and 50s and fell in love with the timelessness of that age. My great-aunt was a Big Band singer in England and I loved listening to her music. As well, both my grandmother and my grandfather were WWII veterans and my great-grandfather on my mom's side served in both WWI and WWII. I was touched by the symbolic nature of this music and wanted to find a way of honouring their memories. It was crucial for me to be able to deliver these songs in the way they are meant to be sung.
As I explored the genre, I found so many beautiful songs that I connected with instantly from a lyrical and melodic standpoint. After being classically trained for so many years, this was a new form of freedom and expression that really appealed to me and brought me great joy. It thrilled me to use my voice in a new way and discover the liberties that I could take.
How would you contrast your follow-up album?
Remember was my second album, truly honouring my involvement and connection to the veterans and peacekeepers. I have had the privilege to perform for these selfless individuals on numerous occasions and I have learned so much through talking with them; some of whom have offered me the greatest gift of their friendship. I believe that the choices we have today are due to the vision and sacrifices of our veterans and their families.
Remember was my first foray into songwriting. It was a little daunting to begin with because although I had always loved to write, it was very different to find the courage to believe that my thoughts and my words had value, to me, let alone to anyone else. Also when you have spent so many years singing the songs of brilliant composers like Mozart, Bach, Schubert, Fauré, Granados, and Puccini, it is very difficult to think that your contributions would have merit.
Once I broke through these thoughts, it was a beautiful and challenging process. Instantly bonding and trusting your fellow co-writer can be a leap of faith and sharing your intimate thoughts leaves you in an incredible position of vulnerability, but brings such wonderful fulfillment.
How would you say your style developed from there?
Because my classical training has always remained an integral part of my music, I wanted to incorporate these elements into my own songs and unite it with everything that I had learned in a more contemporary setting. I wanted to create some beautiful pieces that highlighted my range and what excites me about music: lyrics with a pure, yet poetic meaning and melodies that find a way to linger in your soul and ignite very vivid memories. I have so many diverse influences aside from classical music that this album was a way to reflect my love for celtic folksongs, honour the veterans with Vera Lynn's iconic songs and give listeners a sense of what I have in my heart and soul: as a singer and a human being.
La Carissima, my most recent album, is a continuation of my journey. I was finally able to feel at home singing songs that have been a part of my formation as an artist and as a person; such as "Ave Maria," which I sang for the first time at the age of six. The beauty, richness, serenity that classical music creates is exhilarating for me, and I only hope that people will feel the same connection when they hear my music. As a songwriter I was able expand my vision and incorporate not only a song in English, but one in Spanish as well.
Would enthusiasts find your new album in the classical crossover section?
My song "Nunca" was one of the first pieces I wrote and "Carry On" explores what someone might say to those they love in the final moments of their life. The crossover pieces struck me instantly and they allow me to express myself in a way that overwhelms me.
It is very difficult to find music that possesses the passion and honesty that resonates deeply with listeners and also allows an artist, such as myself, to be completely immersed in the song and enjoy every challenge, bringing its message to light.
It was a dream to find these songs, and especially to be able to sing them with the knowledge that I have gained over my career. The liberty and emotion that once seemed foreign is now part of what I crave and every time I sing these songs I feel privileged to be their messenger.
La Carissima has brought me a great deal of clarity about what I am intended to do and in some ways a sign of my gratitude to the blessings I have been given. It is perhaps the truest reflection of what has always existed within my heart and soul.
Tell us about the making of your first album.
Recording Almost Like Love was fantastic, a true learning process! A lot of my vocals were done live off the floor with no over-dubs, editing or separate vocal sessions. My musicians were great long-time jazz players, but also perfectionists and ninety-percent of the recording time was devoted to them. During that time I was singing with a twenty-piece jazz band and we had just finished a European tour, including a performance a the Montreux Jazz Festival in Switzerland, Vienne Jazz Festival in France, ZMF Festival in Germany and a life-changing performance at Juno Beach in France. After recording my album, I did a series of my own intimate performances with my band highlighting music from Almost Like Love and other jazz standards from the Big Band era that I gravitated to.
When Welchen Music in Taiwan approached me for a deal to license and sell the album throughout the Asian market, I was thrilled! It was overwhelming and honestly, a bit shocking, to know that this project that I had planned from beginning to end: from what songs, how to get permission to record, to how it would look and when it would be released had gained the interest of a company on the other side of the world!! It was quite an effort to make things happen overseas, but everything worked out perfectly.
How would you say that you developed as an artist with the release of Remember?
More than anything, this album was more personal, more connected to my heart and soul on so many levels. It grew out of my involvement with the veterans' community and I truly believed that I needed to find a way to show my commitment to the people that have become such a huge part of my life.
I cannot explain how emotional it is to sing a song like "The White Cliffs of Dover" knowing what it symbolizes, looking into the eyes of men and women who lived that reality. And especially to hear their voices singing along with you, knowing every single word; even when their memories of other aspects of their lives are failing.
When I visited Juno Beach, I was overtaken with emotion and that is an experience that altered how I perceived everything. Standing on the beach that was so serene and peaceful, knowing that so many years ago, there was only brutality, desperation, and blood filling those shores, I felt that presence so strongly and I am dedicated to ensuring that memory continues.
The men and women who are serving us today have my utmost respect! The choices they have made allow me to make the choices I do and I cannot imagine the struggles that accompany this life.
My experience of songwriting forced me to examine a lot of personal fears and offered a great deal of clarity about what visions I had for my music and my career. The selections on Remember allowed me begin to find my own identity as an artist: to realize that my dreams of how to use my voice were possible and I did not need to change them or apologize for them; only to realize that in exposing every part of my voice and my soul, I will be able reach listeners on a more profound level. Every colour is part of me and I have to allow myself the freedom to create. I was able to renew and honour my classical training and experiment with a contemporary sound and nuances of my voice that I have continued to strengthen, whether that is interpreting Vera Lynn's classics or singing my own songs I have to remain true to myself and the voice I was given.
What do you think have been the major turning points in your career?
When I was sixteen, I performed as a soloist for the first time with the National Academy Orchestra conducted by Boris Brott. It was an incredible experience and the energy of the live musicians all working in harmony to create a sound that was so vibrant, elegant and pure was something that I cherish. Shortly thereafter, I was one of twelve chorus members that sang with Sarah Brightman. Although our part was minor, witnessing the way her music and her production combined was inspiring. Not only was it amazing to see that someone whose background was classical and musical theatre could be so wildly successful but also that the impact of the music was heightened by the visual world. The level of success and vision that she exhibited gave me the belief that it was possible to find a place as an artist.
One of the highlights of my career so far has been working with West End musical theatre star Peter Karrie. During his Canadian The Phantom Unmasked Tour I had the pleasure of playing the role of Christine Daae. He was a great mentor to me and very supportive of my development. His advice about performing and gaining as much experience in front of a live audience as possible has remained with me.
While studying Spanish at university, I was a participant in the 8th International Mozart Festival in Salzburg, Austria. I was quite young at the time and it was an extremely challenging yet defining experience. It confirmed so many aspects of who I wanted to be as an artist and brought me a great deal of insight. While I knew classical music would always be a foundation of my music, this occasion revealed how much I wanted to incorporate more influences into my sound and that I felt compelled to create my own identity.
Six years ago, I found myself singing in the little town of Courselles-sur-Mer at Juno Beach, standing on the beach where so many men had fought for their lives and died. I felt the presence and emotion of those events in such a powerful way. Music can reach people on a level like nothing else can. I want to use my voice to highlight causes and issues that deserve attention. In that way, it becomes very difficult to separate myself as an artist from myself as a person. Anything that I can do to bring joy and light into people's lives I will do and if singing for people helps them to realize someone cares about what happens to them, there could be no better reward.
What is it like being a truly independent artist?
Being an independent artist is extremely challenging! That is likely an understatement. It means that business and administration tasks consume the majority of my time. It also means that my knowledge-base has to be very broad in a number of areas. Organization, time-management, creative thinking are critical. Because there is no formula, no patterns nor proven fail-safe strategies, everything is a risk. Talent, potential, good choices, often have little relevance.
To garner support is a constant battle and this business is very much about having a relentless spirit and drive. I am fortunate to have the support of my family, who I trust above all others, and trust is something very hard to come by. It is not only as an artist that I have to be creative but also as a business woman. It also means that I have to be very firm and strong in many situations, which sometimes conflicts with my own generosity and overly accommodating nature.
However, being an independent artist forces you extremely informed and knowledgeable about every aspect of your business. In a label situation, I have a greater understanding of what jobs they should fulfill and what tools they need to fulfill them. Therefore it would be a cooperative relationship and hopefully a much more successful one because all parties would share the same vision, intelligence and mutual respect.
Which female vocalists that influenced you during your professional development?
There are many vocalists that I admire, not only for their music but also for their personal and business accomplishments. However, I believe that it is very important to have a firm hold on one's own sound before introducing outside inspirations. I always learned my music directly from written scores rather than by ear. This allowed me to feel and interpret each song uniquely and find my own voice, rather than drawing from other singers. This was a conscious decision I made.
However there are many female vocalists are fantastic. Loreena Mckennit is a brilliant artist and ingenious business woman. Sarah Brightman forged her own path in the music industry. From classical singers like Renata Tebaldi, Mirella Freni, Joan Sutherland, Cecilia Bartoli to Julie Andrews, Judy Garland, Peggy Lee, Ella Fitzgerald, Rosemary Clooney, Doris Day, even Reba McIntyre, there is such a wide range.
How has your work evolved stylistically across the first three albums?
Every album is a marker. It never fully encompasses everything that you want it to, but merely provides a glimpse. Each recording is a revelation. My work has become much more refined and reflective of my natural voice. I have discovered more tones and colours that I possess and how to ensure they are present, pure and free at all times.
I have become much stronger and direct about my visions, yet I am constantly developing and searching for ways to evolve and grow. That is something that will never change.
My contemporary material now has the timeless qualities that I have been searching for and I feel more confident delivering these songs. My classical training has required a great deal of patience and dedication and I am finally at a point where I am excited to share what I have learned and am continuing to learn.
What are people saying about your new album domestically and internationally?
La Carissima is being very well-received! Many people have expressed how soothing and calming the album is and others are touched by the romantic and inspiring qualities that the songs have. Many of my past listeners are thrilled to hear some classical material but it seems to be the crossover songs that are sneaking their way into people's hearts. Everyone seems to have a different song that has special meaning for them, as it should be.
So tell us about the writing, recording and production process.
La Carissima was an international project. It was a challenge to plan, as my producer was in Nashville and I was in Ontario. We spent countless hours on the phone and the internet trying to plan all of the details for the project. Searching for the contemporary crossover material was difficult, as there is not a plentiful supply of original songs in this genre. However, we were very fortunate to find a few songs that I connected with immediately.
For example, I initially heard an English version of the first track "Il Mio Respiro." While I loved the melody, there was something about it that I thought would suit Italian or Spanish lyrics far more. Luckily we were able to find an Italian adaptation, which is beautiful and definitely one of my favourites. It was quite comical because no one else realized that the meaning of the song was completely different in Italian, but it all worked out eventually.
We worked with a great Russian-Canadian arranger who flew the scores overseas to record my songs with the Moscow Studio Symphony in Moscow, Russia. I recorded all of my vocals at Iguana Studios in Toronto and the album was mixed in Nashville at Blackbird Studios and mastered in Toronto at Silverbirch Studios.
Tell us a little more about the songs on the album.
La Carissima means 'the most dear' in Italian and I really wanted to find a title that reflected how important these songs are to me. Many of the classical pieces have been a part of me for many years and have grown and evolved with me. I first sang "Ave Maria" when I was six years old, so it is quite incredible to see how it has transformed with me.
I love the Bach Quia Respexit and the Puccini, but I cannot imagine excluding Mozart (Laudate Dominum), one of my all-time favourite composers. Mozart bring me such joy and energy. Brilliant! I always tend to gravitate to songs that are very passionate, romantic, emotional, sometimes inspirational and spiritual. The message of the song is crucially important and it has to be something that resonates with me deeply.
"Every Time I Breathe" and "Il Mio Respiro" stand out for me. "Nella Fantasia" and "The Day I Came Undone" have inspirational messages which I love and of course I have a soft spot for both "Carry On" -- originally written for my album Remember and re-arranged to truly reflect my vision for it -- which has such a universal meaning.
"Nunca" discusses the feeling of being powerless to change the world around you and the sadness and darkness that can be overwhelming and yet someone exists who can transform the way we view every aspect of life and we finally start to see the beauty and light that will never leave us.
Will you perform material from the album and any of your back catalog to launch the album?
I have been performing a series of concerts across Ontario to promote La Carissima with my quartet. We have a beautiful programme of classical and contemporary selections along with material from La Carissima. It is the ultimate for me to be in front of a live audience. Whether it is in a church, cathedral, performing arts centre, theatre or an arena, each one of them brings a different type of energy!
I am looking forward to performing more shows across Canada and internationally. I love to travel and sing for new audiences. I am constantly seeking those opportunities and am very eager to do so. However, much of that is dependent on financing, promotional support and my profile as an artist.
Will you be traveling abroad?
I am very excited about my trip to Mexico to perform with counter-tenor Fernando Lima. I will be performing material from La Carissima and a number of duets with him. We are working on a number of joint projects together and I will be recording a duet with him for his new album.
What can you tell us about your live performances?
You cannot imagine how much joy it brings me to share my music with audiences and what a privilege they grant me. That is what I live for. I believe it is important that an audience feels completely engaged and immersed in a performance and as the artist, it is my job to be able to break through the exterior and reach them on a deeper level. The only way I can do that is to completely expose who I am, what I stand for and every emotion and experience I have, whether they realize it or not.
I always like to perform with live musicians, sometimes it is a small intimate setting with a quartet -- piano, violin, cello, clarinet/flute -- or this music is brilliant with a bigger orchestra. However, live musicians mean that the music communicates much more powerfully and allows room for creation and evolution.
My on-stage demeanor does surprise some people because on an every-day basis I am very soft-spoken and unassuming. They are astonished when they see how natural and comfortable I am on-stage.
I enjoy talking to my audiences and share my experiences and stories with them. I have had some very interesting feedback. Some people feel that there is a certain energy that I radiate from the stage that is indescribable; some have even said an angelic presence, one of honesty, purity and grace which they feel is rare to find today. It is such a honour that they embrace me this way. Many people also sense a certain aura surrounding me; and are struck by the obvious joy that I feel. Some people have told me that while they love my recordings, it will never replace being able to see me live in front of their eyes and the feelings I ignite in them. Wonderful people!
What are your personal views regarding the relative importance of "image" to a female recording artist these days?
I am very fortunate to work with an amazing photographer, Richard Sibbald and stylist Paul Langill. They did the photos for Remember and La Carissima and my most recent press shots. They understand fully who I am and what my music is about but they always find it fun to draw different elements out of me through clothes and make-up.
However there are basic qualities that I try to maintain: class, elegance, grace and sophistication. I believe these qualities are just as important as the shock-driven overly sexualized images of a lot of pop and urban artists. Perhaps I am more traditional in my thinking, but I believe that softness and tenderness can be just as appealing. There is also a way to incorporate these aspects with a young current feel. I am very conscious of the audience that I am performing for and that is why my clothing choices may differ slightly depending on the occasion, out of respect for them.
For many female artists, image seems to work one of two ways. Either physical beauty takes precedence over the music or talent, in some cases being non-existent. Priority is placed on how effective the artist may be in selling merchandise completely unrelated to their musical endeavours or their ability to generate press, cross-promotions, or tie-ins rather than on the artistic and musical quality.
However, there are other occasions where physical beauty can actually be a deterrent because artists have to fight harder to prove their worth and their image conflicts with the idea of being a ‘serious' musician or a regular person ‘with a gift' that people can relate to.
Do you think that MySpace is becoming an important location for musical artists nowadays?
My official website is launched and has been re-designed to be quick and easy for new and old viewers! You can find lots of information about my albums, background, photos, and links. My web designer is brilliant and very business savvy aside from being very creative. My website will keep changing and growing! Web presence is vital, personal websites and tools such as MySpace!
I have met so many fantastic people from across the world, who have embraced my music. This would never have been possible without a community like MySpace. I really enjoy receiving messages from new MySpace friends and learning about their stories. MySpace is inexpensive, a very rare commodity in this business), easy to keep current and allows artists to communicate directly with those visiting our pages. MySpace is also amazing for artists to be able to connect on a personal level and discuss collaborations or share ideas. It is encouraging to see so many diverse musicians thriving.
How has the album been received on iTunes?
My album was just released on iTunes. We are living in a digital age, and services like iTunes have the potential to reach listeners internationally at a level that most independent and major label artists would never be able to attain without an enormous team of contacts in every individual country. It also allows listeners more diversified and personalized choices.
However, it seems like part of the artist is missing without a physical product. The package is a reflection of the artist in some ways and you learn a little bit more about them, reading their thank you notes, looking at visuals or seeing how it is organized. I definitely enjoy that part of an artist and their music. Especially if it is someone who I will follow for quite a long time! With CDs you have the chance to trace their steps and follow their journey a little more personally. Somehow it feels like there is a stronger bond between artist and listener.
What does the future hold for you?
Presently I am preparing for performances in Mexico and Spain with Fernando Lima. I will also be recording a number of duets with him in the next few months. As well, I am expanding my own show and I definitely hope to be travelling a lot more to gain a more international profile!
Last fall I shot an independent film, Sons of Eden, that will be making the rounds at some film festivals and within the next few months I will be shooting Bounce. It is a feature film in which I have a leading role that requires me to play five different characters. I am very excited about it! I am always planning for the future and I already have a list of songs I want to record! I'd really like to create a collection of Christmas music at some point too.
Is there anything you'd like to tell our readers before concluding this interview?
Thank you for all of your support. I have been an active reader of this website for many years and I am only too thrilled to now be a part of it! You show such a strong commitment to encouraging new and emerging artists and showing people that beauty and serenity still exists.
My goals are to be able to sing internationally and have a career of longevity! The music remains the most important and I am its messenger. I also want to use my voice to bring joy and support to social causes, issues and charities that I feel passionate about. I feel so blessed to have the privilege to sing for people and anything I can do to show my gratitude for the blessings I have been given, is something that I will spend my entire life doing.
Again thank you very much for your vision and encouragement. Thank you for being so diligent and thorough and taking the time to be interested.
Sarena has grown over her three album recording career to date and is now firmly on a classical crossover trajectory. Her albums are available online in digital and in physical forms and sampling streams are also available at her MySpace. With a round of live performances scheduled, five roles in a single film that will be soon released and duets with other major artists, Sarena Paton is certain to have a bright future.
Return to website contents