Sarah Pagé, the Montreal harpist, was not the fifth Beatle.
But she did play in the same room where The Beatles in 1964 nearly broke American television, at the Ed Sullivan Theatre on Broadway in New York City. And though they weren’t The Beatles, Pagé was essentially the third Barr Brother as a founder member of that influential indie folk band with whom she performed for more than a decade, landing upon the Sullivan stage as the musical guest on Late Show with David Letterman.
“I wasn’t counting on being very inspired by it,” Pagé tells me of the Letterman appearances — there were two, the second of which featured Bill Cosby’s last-minute replacement with Regis Philbin.
Pagé and I talk via Zoom between late-night Montreal and early-morning Japan; she is there for three months taking “serious, serious Koto lessons,” she tells me. For now, however, I’m less interested in those lessons. I want to know what it was like playing on Letterman’s legendary variety show, or as the host himself habitually quipped, “the only thing on CBS right now.”
“My imagination,” Pagé recalls, “doesn’t extend into the past and the future as much as some people’s. So even though I know it’s in the Ed Sullivan Theatre, and there’s all this history to it, and I’ve seen amazing performances from that stage for my entire life, I’m very much always like, I’m in a room. But actually, it was pretty surreal and incredible.”
Paul Shaffer, Letterman’s musical director, knew that their number would be in the key of C, and had the band play “Tomorrow Never Knows” in C during the commercial break “so that we could tune,” Pagé remembers. “And as soon as I stepped on the stage, hearing that band playing a Beatles song, I really felt it. It totally blew me away. I felt the Ed Sullivan Theatre thing. It was amazing.”
Sarah Pagé’s latest recording, Voda, the Russian word for water, is only her sophomore solo album. And yet it still became a collaborative effort of sorts — with the Russian/Ukrainian choreographer, Nika Stein.
Stein in 2014 invited Pagé to participate on a contemporary dance piece exploring themes of vitality and mortality by way of water. “It’s her concept, this whole album,” Pagé says.
“The central theme is water, but water is a metaphor for the cycles of life and death, and the workings and layers of the subconscious, and the depths of the mind. We talk a lot about how confrontational and uncomfortable it is to deal with any of that subject matter. And the difficulty is, it can’t be dealt with in a literal sense. It always has to be approached through metaphor and myth.”
Appropriately, Voda was made in the mountains about an hour north of Montreal, in a studio constructed just on the cusp of the pandemic. Pagé managed to escape the city as the most severe of the Covid lockdowns went into place, and spent that extended solitary time mastering the recording arts.
“There was something about the narrative content of Voda that I felt,” Pagé muses.
“It’s almost like doing a cinematic score for a movie that you’ve got in your head that nobody else has seen, and nobody else is going to see. It was a lot to take on, and I really didn’t plan on it ballooning into such a huge production.” Though a few co-conspirators did manage to sneak onto the album, Pagé composed, engineered, edited, and mixed the record herself.
She describes the experience as “really intense — the recording process is really the time where, like a painter, you get to look at the canvas and be super controlling about it. Like, I want this colour right here, and that light over there is getting in the way, so I’ll put a little bit of a darkness here.”
Pagé’s commitment to detail holds water on a subtle and emotional album that is an aesthetically pleasing but not always easy listen. Although its central theme is fluidity, Voda is decidedly an anti-streaming collection of works — a deliberate move, Pagé reveals, “because of the artistic context we’re living in today.”
Structurally and thematically, Voda resists the mass audience and music industry demands of pushing forth evermore watered-down content. “I think I’ve created an album that many people will either be completely interested in, or turned off by,” Pagé concedes. “And that’s fine.”
Part of her niche appeal is Pagé’s disregard for generic boundaries, a sensibility informed by an insatiable fascination with all sorts of music. A wunderkind classically trained pianist, Pagé loved to discover the odd clash of 1970s rock and classical music stashed in her family’s record collection: The Beatles, The Rolling Stones, Pink Floyd, Bob Dylan — and Bach.
“Definitely playing Bach was always a big thing for me,” Pagé recounts. “There’s something about the intricacy of the way he writes counterpoint, and arranges. Particularly his music for solo and single-voice instruments: cello, lute, violin. There’s something about the way he can develop a single melody and give it so much shape and direction and real drama and harmony, in rhythms that, at that time, were all pretty square and predictable. There’s just a real mastery of melody there that I’ve always really admired.”
Pagé sensed early on that her life would be devoted to music-making. “I have pretty vivid memories of my first recital as a kid,” says Pagé.
“I can remember the feeling, which is one that I have often felt later in life, which is a bit juvenile to admit to, but I don’t mind. I think I wasn’t used to getting a lot of attention or having a lot of space as a kid, and I recognized in performance that the audience had no choice but to sit there until I was done. I take a lot of space. Sometimes I decide to repeat a whole section, or change the setlist, or stay on one thing for a really long time. Like being a kid, I’ll take a super overly long dramatic pause if I feel like it, if I need to get people’s attention in a different way.” Pagé realized right away that she could be the only show on the station.
Still, Pagé occupies the stage with poise, and shares it with grace. “I really feel that most of what I do is in the hopes that it reaches another musician and there’s a possibility to get into each other’s spaces,” she says.
Despite her reputation as a dream collaborator — with the likes of Stein, Esmerine, Joni Void, and the late Lhasa de Sela — Pagé seems to steal the spotlight wherever she goes. Even David Letterman couldn’t help but crack a joke in her direction as he bid the audience goodnight.
Always the gentlemen, Letterman wanted to ensure that Pagé didn’t have to schlep her harp on her own. “Did someone carry that into the studio for you?” Letterman demands. “If not, I’m calling the union!”◼︎
Voda is released via Backward Music.
Photos by Thomas Boucher & Jean Cousin.