There’s worry in Sass Jordan’s voice as I answer her call. Right off the bat, she tells me she’s nervous for this interview. Wait, what? Because of my name, she’s worried we’ll have it in French, and she’s not confident enough. (Her french is fine; her years living in Montreal have worked their magic)
I reassure her: since the article will be in English, I’d rather have the conversation in that language so I won’t have to paraphrase what she says. “This is fantaaaaastic!” she half sings, relieved. “I can speak franglais pas mal, but just french… you’ll be left wondering ‘What the hell did she just say?'” With that weight off her shoulders, she just starts chatting, asking me questions about myself, and talking about whatever topic we drift towards. She’s full of energy, full of life; she’s, well, sassy, and already she’s treating me like an old friend. This will be a fun conversation.
It’s hard to believe it’s been 25 years already since the release of her breakthrough record “Racine”. “I had the same reaction you had: ‘What?'”, she admits. “Because who sits around and says ‘This is year one after Racine’, right? The best thing to do is to throw a year-long birthday party. 25, that’s a quarter century; that’s a big birthday!”
Having decided to mark the occasion, Sass searched for ways to make it interesting for her to come back to ‘Racine’ after so many years. There had to be something in it for her because “no matter what you do there’s going to be somebody who likes it and somebody who doesn’t. This is human nature”, she says philosophically.
But her fears that people wouldn’t be interested in a new version of a record they already have were quickly squashed. “I was WRONG!”, she exclaims with her contagious enthusiasm. “I started asking here and there and got an amazingly positive response to the idea; this is the part that’s so amazing.”
Her first challenge was to figure out a way to “make it different but the same. Because if I do a jazz version, I think people will go ‘Why?’ And if I do it too much the same, then they’ll go ‘Why did you even bother?'” She accurately describes this new version of ‘Racine’ as subtly different; familiar but updated. “You can’t do it exactly the same 25 years later”, she admits. “You’re not the same person, it’s not the same studio: the world is different. Organically, there’s going to be a difference.”
Getting reacquainted with this material was an interesting experience for the singer. “The songs are your children”, she explains. ‘You give birth to them and then they go out into the world and then they start to grow up. And I said to myself: ‘What happened to these kids? Did they have a career? Did they get married? Did they get sick and die? Where did they go?'”, she adds laughing, clearly having fun with the metaphor.
Some of these songs remained in the spotlight and thus were still familiar, but others needed more effort to catch up to them. “‘Make You a Believer’ definitely grew up and had a career”, she explains. “But then a song like ‘Winding Me Up’, well she got married and had triplets, that’s why you haven’t heard from her since.”
How do you redo a 90’s record? Sass says she never considered remaking ‘Racine’ with a modern sound; instead, she journeyed back to 1974, back to her own musical roots. She took inspiration from ‘Music from the Big Pink’ by The Band, an album she calls “one of the greatest records ever made. They went to this old house in upstate New York, and they all lived there for like a month or whatever, and they wrote it and recorded it there, all together, with basically no contact with the outside world.”
With that organic, free-flowing approach to recording in mind, she brought her band (Rudy Sarzo on bass, Brent Fitz on drums and percussions, Chris Caddell on guitars and her husband Derek Sharp on guitars and keyboards) to a studio out in the country outside of Calgary from May 2nd to May 9th. “We lived there, we ate there, we rehearsed there”, she recalls, “and we recorded there with that 70’s energy and vibe. That’s what I was looking for. I mean we did have cell phones, sadly, sadly, sadly…but it was as close to it as we could get. It was amazing, it was so much fun.”
Sass and her band worked out their parts individually then went in the studio to complete the arrangements and record the songs, with Sharp acting as producer. Most of the time, the new versions stick pretty close to the originals; there are less keyboards this time around, and the album seems to breathe a bit more, but the songs are the same we’ve come to love for a quarter centuriy, with a few exceptions. “There’s two or three songs that have a different arrangement that you’ll notice if you know the original”, she says. “I have been playing these songs live for 25 years and I prefer these newer arrangements. They morphed into something that’s actually better.”
A lot can change in 25 years. The world is certainly different, and Sass at 54 brings a different perspective than she had as a 29 years old trying to make her way int he music industry. Would she be able to slip back into her younger self and sing these songs from the same place she did back then? She pauses for a few seconds before answering. “That’s a really good question because it makes you think about it”, she starts to explain. “Every single song that I’ve written in my life, I wrote from a certain place, state of mind or energy, and every single time I perform that song, I go back to that state of mind or energy. That’s exactly what happens. I would probably deal with that energy or state of mind differently now, but to perform the song, I have to be an actor and go back to that feeling.”
Even for the original ‘Racine’, the idea of getting away from your daily lives to create a record was attractive to the singer. “I wanted to do ‘Exile on Main Street’ by The Rolling Stones. Sadly, the was already done” she laughs. But they recorded that in a castle in France and they were all together. That is the real true genesis of ‘Racine’. That is where I was mostly getting the influence, when I originally did it. It was the Faces, and that “Exile on Main Street” record. That’s what I wanted it to sound like. Obviously it wasn’t going to because it was 1992, I was in Los Angeles and I wasn’t the Rolling Stones; I was a girl. But it’s my version of that.”
Fortunately for her, the ‘Racine’ sessions weren’t as chaotic and self-destructive as ‘Exile” was for the Stones. “Ours wasn’t as drug infested”, she says laughing. “That wasn’t until I met that boyfriend who was completely strung out on heroin, but I didn’t know that when I met him. I wrote the NEXT record (1994’s ‘Rats’) about that.” Can we look forward to ‘Rats Revisited’ in a couple of years? “I have absolutely no plan for that right now”, she says, “but you should never say no cause you never know what’ll happen. Who knows.”
The more I listen to Sass talk about music, the more suspicious I grew of one thing I had written down in my interview notes. While doing my research, I visited her Wikipedia page, and was surprised to see names like Judas Priest and Ozzy Osbourne listed as influences, so I asked her if she was a closeted headbanger. “That Wikipedia page should be trashed!” she proclaims vigorously. “My influences come from everywhere, but that’s not really true although I did listen to some of that. I used to listen to 70’s soul, a lot of prog rock, all that British invasion stuff. I love the Faces and the Stones… my influences go on forever! Bonnie Raitt, the Allman Brothers… I love Southern rock. Steely Dan, Crosby, Stills, Nash &Young, Jackson Browne, the Eagles, Linda Rondstadt, you see what I mean.”
As our conversation is coming to a conclusion, and while we’re setting records straight, I ask Sass if there’s any truth to the stories that she almost joined Van Halen in the late 90’s. “I can only tell you my version of it”, she warns me. “I lived down the street from Eddie and one day I got a phone call from this enigmatic weird person going ‘Is this Sass?’ This is before cell phones and before you could see who was calling. It was the mid 90’s, when you would still actually answer your phone! It was just some weird guy but it turned out it was Alex Van Halen. The story they told me was that they had just fired Sammy (Hagar), and they needed someone to come down and sing on these songs that they were working on, while they looked for a new singer. That was the story.”
Being a huge Van Halen fan, Sass accepted the offer immediately. “So I went up to Ed’s house and I spent about two and a half to three months with them. It was only ever me, Alex, Eddie and his guitar tech Scott. That’s the only people who were ever there. I was their bum boy; I would go to the supermarket and buy their beer and cigarettes because they were supposed to be on the wagon. They were not supposed to be drinking or smoking or anything.”
“We listened to a lot of music and we talked a lot. We had great time. And then one day they were working on something, and I do not remember what it was, they were behind the board and I was in front. And I said ‘wait a minute, you guys weren’t actually thinking about having a female singer in this band, were you?’ And then their eyes got wide as saucers and they sheepishly went ‘noooooo… why?’. Because that’s the most ridiculous idea I’ve ever heard in my life. I can’t think of Van Halen with a female singer. And they looked at me and went ‘yeah, yeah, of course.’
But the exchange stuck with Sass who wondered if she’d been blind to their intentions. “That night I called their manager at the time, Ray Danniels” she recalls. “I said Ray, I swear to God, for a minute, I thought they were gonna ask me to be their new singer.” Danniels didn’t beat around the bush. “Of course they were!” he said. “What do you think you were doing there? But I told them it was the worst idea they’d ever had. They can’t have a chick fronting the band.”
But just like ‘Racine’ evolved over time, her opinion of that ‘what if?’ scenario has changed. “At the time, I thought it was a terrible idea”, she explains candidly. “If it were now, I would say yes. But can you imagine if that had happened and I was the person who destroyed Van Halen? Cause believe me, if it was a girl and that didn’t go well, that girl would have destroyed Van Halen. If they can say Gary Cherone destroyed Van Halen, and it’s all bullshit, you can’t destroy anything, but can you imagine the backlash if it didn’t do well?”
Looking at her future, the singer is taking ‘Racine Revisited’ on the road with some intimate concerts. “I’m trying it out”, she says. “Racine Revisited semi-acoustic. Two 45 minute sets, with a very small audience. We sit in a semi circle, we play songs, we drink wine, we tell stories, we talk with the audience. They ask questions, they sing with us: it’s like a house party in your living room. That’s the way i see it. I’m really excited to do this, it’s going to be so much fun. It’s always fun when you play music.”
Sass says she’s lining up shows in Quebec around January. So far only a Montreal date on January 26 at l’Astral has been announced, and tickets are on sale here. Racine Revisited is out now.
(This article originally ran on Montreal Rampage. Reposted with permission.)
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