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Does Sarah Jane Scouten Have The Midas Touch? 

The folk historian continues to bring a well-researched, nearly alchemical blend of sounds to her work on Turned To Gold. 

by Ben Boddez

Sarah Jane Scouten’s music can often sound like a historical and geographical tour of the far-reaching genre umbrella of folk, and that’s because she’s experienced the birthplaces of the sounds that she grew up loving firsthand. Gathering up sounds to use, she’s adopted the Cajun and gospel influences of Louisiana, the country and bluegrass of Nashville and West Virginia, the woodland storytelling of the Pacific Northwest and the ceilidh and fiddle cultures imported to her by a Scottish immigrant mother. And despite having lived in Toronto and Montreal – even singing a couple tunes in French as the result of the latter – it’s truer to the coalescence of her rustic sound to be hanging out in her Bowen Island hometown or the Scottish village of Moniaive (population: 520), where she’s now making a home with her husband.

“It feels quite familiar to live in a small village. It’s digestible,” she says. “But it also feels like a better ecosystem of community. It’s a more diverse community than if you live in a big city, and you just hung out with people who were your age and did the same thing.”

While “Wilder When I Was With You,” the first single to be released off of her most recent project, Turned To Gold, zeroes in on some of her law-bending teenage escapades on Bowen Island, the latest single “Wanderlust” adopts the same kind of adventurous mindstate for Scouten’s current position in life. A sudden move to a Scottish village saw her find a balance between adventure and settling down, but it started when Scouten’s husband took her half-joking wistful longing about finding peace seriously.

“It was literally on a whim,” she says. “My husband kind of called me out on saying ‘Oh, I want to move to this little village in Scotland,’ like ‘Haha, we could never do that,’ and he was like ‘Let’s do it.’ I was just waiting for my chance. We’re pretty spontaneous, and that’s what brought us here. Yesterday we drove six hours to spend one night at a music festival and drove six hours back, which was super worth it. We went to see Sierra Ferrell and Margo Price, and all these bigger country names, but if they aren’t spitting distance from John Prine, I probably don’t know who they are.”

As Scouten goes on to describe the landscape she’s looking out over during the call, full of stone walls, forests and rolling green hills dotted with sheep, she settles on another inspiration behind being drawn to folk balladry that might be a little more familiar – “It literally looks like the Shire in the movies,” she says.

While quite a few of Scouten’s tracks can get deeply personal and emotional about some of the hardships in her own life, she still makes room for some of her nerdiest passions in her music – and a Tolkien superfandom that’s partly based in his ability to adapt tropes of classic Northern European myth and folklore found its way into the project’s least serious song, “Dragonheart” – with a dash of the 1996 Dennis Quaid film of the same title.

“There’s this very common theme of a dragon, and its only weakness will be a missing scale right above its heart. That’s how you have to kill it, with excellent aim, otherwise it’s impenetrable,” she says. “I wanted it to be really cheesy, like the dumb movie I loved as a kid, but it’s also a song I wrote for my husband, because he’s emotionally impenetrable sometimes. I called him my little Dragonheart, because he was difficult to access, but he’s doing a lot better in that department.”

The album’s title track, “Turned to Gold,” finds her applying some of her medieval fascinations to something a lot closer to the heart, as she compares the emotional transition she went through after experiencing her mother’s passing at a young age to a kind of alchemy – an ancient practice that was part scientific and part spiritual, often involving attempts to turn various chemical elements into gold.

“When they’re looking to turn lead into gold, it was a metaphor for the purification of the soul,” she says. “Because they thought that when something happened in chemistry that couldn’t be explained, it must be the spirit of God doing this thing. So being bereaved as a child, it transmutates the soul. It changes you irrevocably, and it might feel painful, but ultimately, it’s what makes you more beautiful, strong, and able to make art. Speaking to a few people who experienced early childhood trauma, they feel like they see the world in a slightly different way, but there’s beauty there too.”

The familial ties that drive Scouten can be felt in more than just the lyrical content of her work. She has spoken about being raised on Bowen Island by a mother steeped in Scottish artistic tradition and a father that wasn’t often found without a 5-string banjo. Not owning a TV set, gathering around the dinner table to learn and sing in harmony to folk standards was a much more common activity for winding down. When Scouten found herself getting caught up in studies to become a medical herbalist during the pandemic, questioning if a return to music was what she really wanted, thinking about her parents’ favourite tunes sent her back into the recording studio.

“I suppose I just had to get as immersed in something else as I had been in music to realize that I still loved making music just as much, if not more,” she says. “Because of the way I was raised with music in the house, jamming bluegrass with my family members, it’s like an actual identity. I can’t not do it, even though I think I burnt out and resented it for a while. So it was important to take enough time away to realize what about making music was important, and I’d say the most important part was connection to community.”

Luckily, Scouten believes that all of the time she dedicated to herbalism not only informs the art she’s making today in a meaningful way, but actually helps her make those kinds of connections as well. As a singer-songwriter often dealing with the kinds of tracks that might make you bust out a handkerchief or a couple of tissues, Scouten also wants to translate her newly learned therapeutic abilities to the way she presents herself to an audience on stage.

“No one teaches you that being a songwriter on stage means you’re facilitating an emotional space for people. So that is therapeutic in and of itself, but it also means that like other therapeutic practitioners, you need to have boundaries,” she says. “It was only through that that I realized I didn’t have a lot of that in music – I would just give everything to somebody if they needed a shoulder to cry on.”

While Scouten is protecting her own emotions a little more these days, the emotional connection for her audience still hits home – even when she’s not particularly intending it to. In fact, the story behind her delightfully Southern-rock-inflected new song “Crocodile Tears” comes from Scouten’s amused reaction to a hysterical room of nine-year-olds after she performed an Elvis song for them.

“I was teaching kids in Canonbie, which is just over the border into Scotland. It was Valentine’s Day and I sang them Elvis, and it was mass hysteria because one after another, they started to cry, and then dramatically had to leave the classroom,” she says. “Towards the end, there were a few of them that weren’t genuinely having an emotional response, but everyone else was, so they had to, too. That’s what made me think about crocodile tears, and that’s what made the song take off.”

Despite all of Scouten’s many influences, reason why she feels so at home in a small village of diverse ages, professions and opinions is the reason why she’ll never be a fan of applying any kind of labels to her music, valuing the melting pot of styles that all boils down to the community-driven, story-based and lyrically-focused essence of folk. If she had to term her work anything, it would be “space country” – a term she made up to suggest classic techniques for a modern world.

“I love country and Americana music, but what I struggle with is the heavy nostalgia portion of it,” she says. “I’ll rarely have a banjo on a record, because that’s what’s maybe expected of me. I grew up with bluegrass banjo in the house, so maybe I OD’d on it at a young age, but I always want to make sure that I’m writing for a contemporary audience and giving myself the opportunity to touch on modern themes as well. It’s contemporary country music, maybe not for the future, but certainly for the present.”