Life’s hard knocks stoke the creative fire for Sarah McLachlan

By Russell Hall

For Sarah McLachlan, life in recent years has been punctuated by loss and change. Her 2010 album, Laws of Illusion, mourned the dissolution of her near decade-long marriage. Since then she’s endured the death of her father, and—less traumatically—ended a 24-year partnership with her management team and record label. “Losing my dad, separating from my husband, leaving a long-term management situation—all those things happened around the same time,” she reflects. “I’m still sorting through them. It’s been a huge shift.”

McLachlan’s emotional life has informed her songwriting from the beginning. Growing up in Halifax, Nova Scotia, she studied voice, piano and guitar before signing to Vancouver-based indie label Nettwerk at 19. Her 1988 debut, Touch, placed her in the Canadian spotlight, and the 1991 follow-up, Solace, made inroads in the U.S. The latter album also marked the beginning of her creative partnership with producer Pierre Marchand—a working relationship that continues to this day. “I was fortunate to grow my career quietly, in an organic way,” she says. “I had time to mature into it, to absorb the attention as it came in fits and spurts.”

Further fame came with 1993’s Fumbling Towards Ecstasy, McLachlan’s international breakthrough, and 1995’s “I Will Remember You,” which first appeared on The Brothers McMullen soundtrack. But it was 1997’s Surfacing that brought full-blown stardom. Spawning hits “Building a Mystery” and “Adia,” the record earned two Grammys and four Juno Awards—including one for Best Album—and established McLachlan as a force in pop music. “Angel,” a mournful ballad from that same record, remains one of her most affecting songs.

Her artistry in full flight, McLachlan then turned her ambitions in another direction—founding the Lilith Fair festival tours. For three years, beginning in 1997, she organized and headlined the all-female events, raising more than $10 million for local and national charities while launching the careers of many of her peers. “It was really a great time,” she recalls. “We all helped one another—strength in numbers. I must say it also put me on the map in an entirely different way. There were great personal benefits.”

Following a lengthy hiatus, McLachlan re-emerged in 2003 with Afterglow, a studio album that again brought multiplatinum sales. Wintersong, a holiday-themed record, followed three years later, but by then McLachlan’s priorities had shifted toward raising her two young daughters and spearheading various charitable endeavors. Chief among these was the Sarah McLachlan School of Music, a Vancouver-based nonprofit founded in 2002 that provides free music education to disadvantaged children. “We have more than 700 kids enrolled this year,” she says. “It’s been amazing.”

Shine On, McLachlan’s latest album, stakes out new ground on several fronts. While Marchand remains her primary creative partner, acclaimed soundman Bob Rock and keyboardist Vincent Jones helmed parts of the production as well. Similarly, co-writes are distributed among Marchand, guitarist Luke Doucet, country scribe Tom Douglas, pop songsmith Matt Morris, and former Eagles guitarist Don Felder.

“I wrote a bit more on guitar this time,” says McLachlan, citing the finger-picked “Song for My Father” and the midtempo rocker “Monsters” as examples. She also broke out a ukulele for “The Sound That Love Makes,” a sprite ditty penned by Doucet. “That’s the instrument I started out on,” she laughs, “when I was just 4.”

Sequencing the material proved fun but challenging, a result of sprinkling full-blown rockers among the preponderance of ballads. “I wanted to honor the story of how the songs came about—the chronology of that—but also create an emotional arc,” she explains. “The album starts off with a bang, and then goes down and back up a bit, with some honey at the end. Some of my favorite albums are dynamic in that way.”

Changes in the fabric of her professional life helped fuel the process. A new label—Verve Records—and a new management team inspired and rekindled creative vigor. “The past two years have been about challenging myself, stepping out of a comfortable place and embarking on a fresh start,” she says. “This album is about moving through the second half of my life in a more mindful and meaningful way. I’m excited about that.” From her home in Vancouver, McLachlan, 46, discussed the new album, how she’s evolved as an artist, and the value of great songwriting.


Did you have an overarching goal?

I never do that. I go into the process of writing making a conscious effort to not think about the whole. Otherwise it seems like an insurmountable task, like trying to eat a whale all at once. I feel my way through. When a song idea comes, I mine it, work on it—and things reveal themselves over time. Even now it’s hard to talk about any grand scheme because I’m still way too close to it. I process information slowly, although I spent a lot of time and energy on each song, creating a story.


Does it feel like a departure?

I never set out to reinvent the wheel, but these songs are a bit more raw than what I’ve done in the past. The subject matter in my older material has often been veiled. I have a habit of creating parallel universes—a secondary storyline that cloaks the meaning. With these songs, it’s pretty obvious what they’re about.


Losing your father had a profound impact.

I write about things that are affecting me from an emotional point of view. It’s cathartic to work through them through the music and the lyrics. My dad suffered with cancer for 18 months, and the last two months weren’t pretty. Seeing the grace he maintained throughout that process and how he clung to life was incredibly inspiring, a great gift. He wasn’t dying—he was living every day to its fullest. Of course it also made me more aware of my mortality.


What’s the story behind writing “Song for My Father”?

I had been playing that riff for years. A couple of years ago I did a session with a young songwriter, Matt Morris, and we wrote a song around it, but it was a breakup song. I put it aside for six months, and when I came back I thought, “I covered that ground on the last album.” I wanted to move on to different subjects. Later I went to Nashville and played it for Tom Douglas. We spent a couple of hours talking about life, all the things that had happened. He said, “Why don’t we write about your dad?” He pulled it all out of me and put them into the song. It came about that way—got rewritten, essentially.


How has your writing process evolved?

I have two small children—a 6-year-old and a 12-year-old. I can’t do things the way I used to—I can’t sequester myself for a month and do nothing but write. Life intervenes every five minutes. I sit at the piano, and one of the kids will say, “Mom, I’m hungry.” The writing process is constantly punctuated with interruptions, so it’s a lot slower.


How do the co-writes with Pierre work?

He or I will bring in an idea. Mine are usually melodic—with maybe a chord structure and a couple of lines. I’ll play him the melody and then he’ll write a bunch of stuff and bring it back. I pick the lines I like, and those lines usually inspire other lines. We go back and forth in that manner usually for a couple of days. “Broken Heart,” for instance, happened fairly quickly. It started out with different lyrics and a different melody. Pierre took it and came back with a new melody and new ideas. I was like, “Oh, I actually like that better.” Other times we have chunks of time, maybe a week, where we work together and take the songs to a certain place—and then go back to our lives. We might sit on those songs for six or eight weeks, and then come back together with new ideas.


Are you involved in production?

It depends on the song. With “Turn the Lights Down Low,” for example, I was deeply involved. I took a country solo that was too obvious, and basically cut it every two bars and finally turned it backward and rewrote the part. That’s the weird solo that’s in there.


What was it like writing with former Eagles guitarist Don Felder?

He’s a lovely man—thoughtful and wise. We went to lunch, and I told him I had this song I needed help with. He has a child—second time around—and he also has grown kids. So he has a wealth of knowledge about parenting. That song is very much about the responsibilities of parenting.


How did you come to play the ukulele?

I was working with my longtime keyboard player, Vincent Jones, hanging out in his studio in L.A. He had a ukulele and I picked it up, but I couldn’t remember how to play it. My guitar player, Luke Doucet, had just sent me a guitar version of “The Sound That Love Makes,” and I thought, “I’m going to learn this on the ukulele—it will be a good way to figure it out.” Later I played it for some friends, and they were like, “It’s perfect—exactly what the song needs! Don’t change it!” I thought, “But the ukulele is so corny, I don’t know.” But it stuck. It’s light, fluffy and effervescent—like a ray of sunshine.


Is it easier writing lighter songs now?

I do what the songs ask for, but I am trying to have a more positive outlook. It sort of fits my mood these days. I’m working harder at being positive—trying to be more joyful. That song fit perfectly with that.


What music affected you growing up?

Things really shifted when I heard Peter Gabriel. I was 16 and thought, “Now that’s what I want to do.” It was aggressive and sexy and had really strong melodies. And it was unusual. “Shock the Monkey” was unlike anything I had ever heard. After that I joined a new wave band and got indoctrinated into David Bowie and Duran Duran and Cocteau Twins—lots of ’80s stuff.


Ever try to mimic other singers?

Kate Bush. I discovered her around the same time I first heard Peter Gabriel. I loved her first album—I think she was 18 years old when she wrote it. I was really attracted to her voice and songs. Before I started writing my own material I was busking all the time. Gabriel’s songs were too challenging to play but I would often perform Kate Bush or Simon and Garfunkel. I could do a pretty good imitation of Bush’s “Wuthering Heights.”


Is celebrity different in Canada?

Absolutely. You also have to consider that I came up slowly, and not under the scrutiny of social media. I would go to a city and play to 100 people, and then 300, and then a thousand—growing a fan base in that way. All the stupid things I did were in private, without TMZ nearby. From early on I’ve had a healthy attitude about celebrity and fame. Those things have nothing to do with me—it has to do with people’s perceptions. And I don’t let that in.


How are you approaching your live shows?

I’m going out with a five-piece, which is considerably smaller than I’ve done in a long time. In some ways I want this to be a little rock band, with really great players. It’s sort of forcing us—because of the constraints—to do some of the songs differently. But that’s exciting. I’ve played some of these songs for many years, so I’m looking forward to reinventing them.


Last year was the 25th anniversary of your first album. Did you pause and take stock?

Only for a moment. It’s nice to pause and think, yes, I did some good things—but I’m always pushing forward, thinking about what I’m going to do tomorrow. I’m only as good as what I’m creating at this moment. I didn’t get into this to be rich and famous. I got into it because it’s the only thing I’m good at, the only thing I knew how to do. I want to continue to grow and thrive and produce—do things that have meaning.  M



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