Sarah Jane Scouten finds unending beauty in life's challenging times on Turned to Gold

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      Listen to Sarah Jane Scouten’s vocal inflections, and it quickly becomes clear she’s been putting down roots in one of the planet’s most romanticized countries. When the Vancouver-spawned singer-songwriter picks up the phone in a tiny village of Moniaive in southwest Scotland, the first thing one hears is a faint but noticeable soft Scottish lilt. This, despite the fact that the singer grew up on Bowen Island, a locale she pays loving tribute to in “Wilder When I Was With You” off her rich and rewarding new full-length Turned to Gold.

      Asked if she’s aware she’s officially fitting in with the locals, Scouten laughs and says, “Yeah­—it’s really weird. I don’t want to sound like Madonna when she was married to Guy Ritchie, but you can’t help it. Otherwise, when I’m at the grocery store, they’ll look at me like I’ve got two heads.”

      Scouten ended up in Scotland after falling in love with the man who’s now her husband.

      “He’s half-Belgian and half-British, so immigration-wise we had to figure out somewhere to live,” she recalls. “We were in Luxembourg for a while, but that wasn’t really working for either of us. Then I remembered visiting this kooky little village a few times on tour—it’s on the folk-music circuit. We both kind of looked at one another and were like, ‘Let’s just do it.’ We messaged someone we knew, and 24 hours later they found us a rental place. That was shortly before COVID hit. So it was like a trial thing that turned into us having to commit really quickly.”

      Today, there are few things Scouten adores more than exploring the hills of Dumfries and Galloway. But she admits she wasn’t in the best frame of mind right before the world as we knew it was upended.

      On the positive side, being locked down in rural Scotland was something of a blessing. Life for the past decade had consisted of steady touring in between records that bridge the worlds of throwback folk and pine-splintered Americana. Looking back to the tail end of the last decade, Scouten realizes she was starting to get worn down, the demands of doing everything DIY—including keeping a full band on the road—creating challenges that snowballed.

      Right before COVID, Scouten was gearing up to return to the road for 2019’s Confessions. As the pandemic hit and the months stretched on, she locked onto the idea that maybe there was something else out there for her beyond music. That led to her diving into the world of herbal medicine, which is something she already had an interest in.

      “There was a serendipity to COVID happening when it did,” Scouten says. “I know plenty of artists who took it as an opportunity to delve in creatively, but I was just burned out. I realized I needed to go to an entirely different place and discover myself outside my role as a musician.”

      Entirely correctly, she notes that being a working musician might seem like the greatest job in the world. But as anyone who survived hours in the tour van, endless days of sleep deprivation, weeks of cheap diner food, and the other endless challenges of being on the road knows, reality isn’t exactly the same as perception.

      “I wasn’t very boundaried with my artistic practice and the business side of things,” Scouten says. “I didn’t know anything else. You write about musicians all the time—I’m sure they’ve talked about how their health can suffer significantly. Health-wise, being a musician can be dangerous.”

      Curious about herbal medicine for years, Scouten decided she was ready, as she puts it, to “add another string to her bow.” The more she explored plants and their benefits, the more centred she began to feel; this eventually led her to enrol in school to become a medical herbalist in 2020.

      Having her own practice today has had benefits that have spilled over into her first career.

      “I’ve spoken to other musicians, and they’ve said that if you have something to fall back on, it gives you the mental stamina to keep going,” she notes.

      That sense of renewal is borne out by Turned to Gold, an unendingly lovely record that suggests Scouten definitely sees life as beautiful, even during the challenging times. One of the major themes running through the singer’s fourth full-length is the importance of connections, whether that be to family members, childhood friends, or partners who make moving halfway across the world seem worth it.

      Sometimes the memories that come from those connections are indeed golden, with “Wilder When I Was With You” capturing the magic—first loves, smoking joints with friends, small-town joyrides—of Scouten’s teenage years on Bowen.

      Sometimes those memories are complex or painful. With lyrics like “You can see the sunlight shining down on the other side”, the introspective “The Great Unknown” has Scouten turning her lens on dementia and assisted dying, and how it can be a strangely uplifting thing.

      Elsewhere, the shimmering “Turned to Gold” finds the singer processing the death of her biological mother, who passed away when she was two. Explaining that she’s now older than her mother when she died, Scouten says, “I realized that her death dictates every move I make. As an artist, it shapes the way that I see the world. A lot of the fear and trepidation that I have, but also an almost unbearably precious feeling that I have towards life. I know that it can be taken away so quickly, and when you least expect it. That’s been the backdrop of my life.”

      As heavy as that sounds, Scouten has a gift for finding the uplifting in the sadness.

      “I feel like the last thing people needed after COVID was a downer,” she says with a laugh. “Everyone just wants to have a great time.”

      On past records Scouten hasn’t been afraid to veer off into the worlds of juke-joint rockabilly, moonshine blues, and ragtime jazz. Turned to Gold is a more reflective collection of songs filled with gorgeous moments. Witness the way “Is It Just the Whisky Talking?” mixes classic ’70s country with desert-sunset guitar and campfire harmonica. And the way that pedal steel sweeps through the sunflooded sepia-toned folk celebration of “Rose and Carnations”.

      Standing back and looking at Turned to Gold, the singer credits producer Johnny Payne for “getting” her in a way no one has in the past.

      “For instance, I brought ‘Turned to Gold’ to him and it was much more sombre,” Scouten shares. “After we workshopped it he was like, ‘This is a gospel tune.’ Gospel is a lot like blues in the sense that you can take very, very dark subjects and make them joyful and playful. You can talk about dark things more directly in a song if the music doesn’t take things down even further. Sometimes you have to go that way out of respect for the lyrics and the content. But this particular song, he knew that if people were going to get through it to the end, we needed to find the joy in it.”

      And if Scouten has learned anything during a journey that now has her happily juggling two careers, it’s that finding the joy in things isn’t that hard if you put in the effort. Like many of us, though, she’ll allow that there were dark moments during COVID, when she was a world away from her family with no way to connect other than through a screen or a phone line.

      “But my adoptive mother was amazing—her spirits were so high the entire time that she was kind of a force of nature,” Scouten reflects. “So she showed us you have to put one foot in front of the other.”

      Today, she couldn’t be happier in her newfound home. You can, in fact, almost hear it in her voice. “We’ve been here four years now in September,” Scouten says. “My dad pointed out the way I’m talking last Christmas, and I was like, ‘Oh God’ . At least the Scottish accent is apparently the most trusted accent in the world. I don’t know who made that survey, but it’s supposed to be true.” 

      Sarah Jane Scouten’s Turned to Gold is out today (September 15) on Light Organ Records.