Sarah McLachlan: Humbled and Honoured with Composure and Grace

Growing up, most girls my age were not listening to Sarah McLachlan’s music on the radio. In 1997, at the height of her fame, our palates were still too unrefined to digest the weight of a song like “Adia,” and we hadn’t yet gone up against the sort of hardships that women in the entertainment industry face daily—something McLachlan was already fighting for.

We were far more interested in the Spice Girls, and busied ourselves by riding our bikes to the corner store to buy foil-wrapped packs of Backstreet Boys stickers or lip gloss, and talking for hours on the telephone.

Those were good, warm suburban summers that I now recall fondly, but back then, when my primary exposure to new music was a Toronto radio station called Hot 103.5, I never would have guessed that twenty years on I’d be sitting on the other end of a landline with McLachlan talking about her forthcoming induction into the Canadian Music Hall of Fame and the challenges of raising her own two young daughters in a strangely Orwellian world.

Naturally, I’ve since recognized the incredible singularity of McLachlan’s voice, and if I’m being honest, often find myself sitting around with a particular old friend of mine, making impassioned attempts at singing the endless list of hits that comprised 1997’s Surfacing.

And yet, despite her stature as an artist who has not only sold more than 40 million albums worldwide, but is an Officer of the Order of Canada and the recipient of ten Juno Awards, three Grammys, and countless other accolades, McLachlan, who called from her home in Vancouver after returning from an afternoon walk in the woods with her dogs, was thoughtful, thankful, funny, and every bit as lovely as I had hoped she would be.

For the next hour, we spoke candidly about the ups and downs of a career that started almost 30 years prior in Halifax, Nova Scotia, when she was just 17.

Discovered by Mark Jowett, who was both a member of electronic group Moev and the co-founder of Vancouver-based independent label Nettwerk Productions (now Nettwerk Music Group), during a gig at Dalhousie University, McLachlan, who at the time was fronting a short-lived pop band called The October Game, was offered a recording contract with Nettwerk. Though her parents, a couple of American expatriate academics, felt strongly that she should finish high school and complete at least one year of post-secondary studies­­––something McLachlan did do at the Nova Scotia College of Art and Design––two years later she accepted the deal with Nettwerk and relocated to Vancouver to explore the possibility of starting a whole new life.

Evidently, that proved to be a wise decision on McLachlan’s part. Her relationship with the Nettwerk team, specifically her manager Terry McBride (co-founder / CEO of Nettwerk Music Group), endured for more than two fruitful decades and helped to take her from an insecure and musically inexperienced teenager to the multi-platinum selling internationally celebrated singer-songwriter she is today.

All of that began on the back of McLachlan’s debut album, Touch, which was released in the fall of 1989. Though the album itself, which featured fan favourite, “Vox,” was both a critical and commercial success in Canada, it really wasn’t until she met now long-time producer and friend, Pierre Marchand, that she truly began to find her voice and flesh out her distinctly atmospheric alt-pop sound.

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“When good things happen, it’s often about being in the right place at the right time,” says McLachlan. “I met Pierre, who is obviously a genius, at the perfect time when I was still really trying to figure out who I was as an artist. He would always say things like, ‘I know that you can do all of these vocal acrobatics but I want to hear what you sound like.’ Pierre just really pushed me. He asked me to sing a lot lower than what I felt comfortable with and he was really instrumental in helping me channel that.”

The result of Marchand’s efforts can be heard loud and clear on the pair’s first collaboration, 1991’s Solace. The album was McLachlan’s sophomore effort and became the foundation upon which the two have built an artistic partnership that not only flourished through the recording of seven additional full-length albums but that continues to endure today.

“I think the reason our relationship has endured is because it is based on a lot of mutual respect for each other’s ideas,” she says. “We also just really enjoy being around each other. I mean, I love Pierre and he loves me, but believe me we’ve butted heads. On the last record we fought more than we ever have––it was mostly about ideas and about whether or not to push them in a certain direction––but Pierre has always taken my songs further than I am capable of on my own, and for that I keep going back for more.”

By the time McLachlan had completed a 14-month promotional tour in support of Solace, which spawned two successful singles, “The Path of Thorns (Terms)” and “Into the Fire,” she was a bonafide star at home in Canada and had also developed a strong cult following across the U.S. But, at that particular moment in her career, it wasn’t record sales or recognition that impacted her perspective the most, it was a trip she took to Cambodia and Thailand to work with World Vision on a Canadian-sponsored documentary about poverty and child prostitution in late 1992.

“I came away from that trip really recognizing how lucky I was. I knew I had hit the jackpot getting a record contract and what a great opportunity I had been given, but beyond that it was about recognizing all of these things I had taken for granted in my life, like clean water, a roof over my head, medicine, my family, a home. All of those things were taken care of without me even having to think about them, but a lot of people in the world don’t have that. To see those challenges first hand, not for a day but for a number of weeks, was really profound. I just came back from that trip with such a sense of gratitude and that feeling really never left me.”

In fact, the experience cemented itself so deeply within McLachlan that it began to trickle down into various aspects of her career and daily life. Her time abroad not only informed much of her third album, 1993’s Fumbling Toward Ecstasy, but also opened the door for what would become a lifelong commitment to support various charitable endeavors including animal welfare, disaster relief, HIV/AIDS, and cancer research.

“When I got to work with World Vision, they sort of explained to me that the reason they wanted me to participate was because they were trying to engage a younger audience to take a bigger look at the world. At that time, I had a platform, and young people, people my age, were listening. In me getting to do that, I got to open up my eyes too, like, ‘Wow, it feels really good to do something important with whatever little bit of power you have, and it’s not hard to use your gifts to do something for the greater good.’

“When we started Lilith [Fair] that just came into an even bigger playground,” she adds.

Perhaps one of McLachlan’s crowning achievements, the now legendary Lilith Fair—which was the most successful summer package tour of 1997—focused on raising money for various women’s charities and on creating an infrastructure for female artists during a time when so many were being blatantly mistreated by their counterparts in music industry.

“Lilith was important for a number of reasons,” notes McLachlan. “Financially, in the three years we were active, we were able to raise over 10 million dollars for charity. Because we were donating a dollar from every ticket to a local women’s shelter and we had our corporate sponsors matching the charitable dollars on their end, we were able to give between 15 and 30-thousand dollars a day; that was an incredible feeling.”

At the time, top-earning festivals like Lollapalooza and H.O.R.D.E were primarily featuring male-dominated acts. Knowing this and that there was a wealth of great music being made by women who were having real success independently, McLachlan and the Nettwerk team felt it was important to bring those women together not only to have a little fun but also to celebrate them publicly.

“There were just so many roadblocks at that time,” she says. “We had so much opposition from radio programmers and promoters who were constantly saying things like, ‘We can’t add you this week because we added Tori Amos or Tracy Chapman’ and ‘You can’t put two women on the same bill because people won’t come.’ It just seemed like a no brainer to me.”

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Between the summers of 1997 and 1999, the Lilith stage was home to everyone from Sheryl Crow, Sinéad O’Connor, Erykah Badu, Lauren Hill, and Paula Cole to Fiona Apple, Martina McBride, Missy Elliot and even a still unknown Christina Aguilera. But, in spite of the festival’s spirit of goodwill, the media backlash against both McLachlan and Lilith began almost instantaneously.

“When we started the whole thing up we weren’t necessarily thinking about what we were going to achieve,” says McLachlan. “We just thought, ‘Man this is going to be great!’ But then it developed into such a huge thing; I wasn’t the least bit prepared for the criticism we received.

“Up until that point, I had always had a nice enough relationship with the press, critics were kind to me, and I had gotten through my career pretty quietly. Then suddenly, it was like I was the spokesperson for the new feminist revolution and I was being forced to defend Lilith on a daily basis, against statements like, ‘Why do you hate men?’ I was always just like, ‘What the hell does celebrating women have to do with hating men?’ But, it didn’t matter. Depending on whom you spoke to, sometimes I wasn’t even feminist enough.”

Sensing her frustration, country legend and fellow Lilith performer Emmylou Harris offered McLachlan a bit of much-needed encouragement.

“I remember taking Emmylou aside after a press conference, which we did every single day, and just saying, ‘Jeez, I don’t know, maybe we should include men. They just keep asking me.’ Emmylou, bless her heart, has been in the business years and years longer than me, and just said, ‘Hey! This is the beginning of something really beautiful. Stick to your guns here. If you believe in this and you believe in what you’re doing, you need to stick with it.’ And, that was all she had to say to me.”

In the midst of all the backlash, the then 28-year-old McLachlan was also promoting her fourth studio album, Surfacing. In what proved to be a very astute business move, her label made the decision to release the album to coincide with Lilith’s first run and Surfacing, which featured such iconic hits as “Building a Mystery,” “Angel,” and “Sweet Surrender,” became McLachlan’s international breakthrough.

“Honestly, it was all happening so fast and I remember feeling a bit like I was holding on to the tail of rabid dog,” she says jokingly. “With Surfacing being put out at the exact same time that Lilith happened it became a huge record so that meant there was also tons of pressure to succeed; it was all kinds of overwhelming.”

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But, by that point, the train was moving, and McLachlan wasn’t about to hop off. Over the course of the next two-and-a half years, she toured heavily, returning to the Lilith stage each summer, and released the multi-platinum selling Mirrorball, which chronicled her life on the road and served as her first live release.

“At that time, my life basically consisted of touring all year and then doing Lilith, then touring all year again and doing Lilith. Meanwhile, my record company was screaming for a new album. When we got to the end of the third Lilith I finally just had to say, ‘Hey, I’ve been on tour for two-and-a-half years, I’m dead exhausted, I need to go home and process and I process slowly. If I’m going to write a new record I’ve gotta have time off.”

And that’s exactly what she did. At the height of her career McLachlan took an almost three-year hiatus from the business and did not return until the release of 2003’s Afterglow.

A lot changed for her during that time. She lost her mother to cancer in 2001 and soon after became a mother herself when she gave birth to her first daughter India Ann Sushil Sood in 2002. She also founded the Sarah McLachlan Music Outreach program, a venture that has since grown into the Sarah McLachlan School of Music in Vancouver, and was designed to offer free music education, mentorship, and support to underserved and at-risk children and youth.

“I learned a lot about mentorship through doing Lilith and I had made all of this money that I had no idea what to do with it. I knew I needed to continue the work we were doing but I didn’t know how to do it quite yet.

“Around the same time, so many music programs were being cut from the public school system here in Canada and of course that was such a big topic of conversation. When that started to happen I thought, ‘Okay, that’s what I can do. I can give kids music.’ I wanted to give them some of the opportunities that I had growing up because I had music in school and parents who paid for private music lessons, and it saved me. I discovered myself and my own worth through music because it was something that I was good at and I felt it. To think that kids out there might not be able to have that same opportunity to discover who they are really bothered me.”

Not knowing how to create a music program herself, McLachlan turned to Carol Henriquez, the founder and executive director of Arts Umbrella, for guidance.

“I had no idea how to create a music program,” says McLachlan, “which is why I partnered with Carol. I went to her with this idea and said, ‘Listen, I don’t know anything about how to create music programming, I just have money. I noticed the only thing you don’t have is music programming and last time I checked that’s art too.’ She immediately said, ‘Yes! This is fantastic. Let’s do this!’”

McLachlan and Henriquez began by creating a pilot project that included 219 kids. They developed the curriculum and brought in an incredible group of teachers whose primary focus was helping their students to discover that they had voice.

“You can probably count on one hand, if you’re lucky, the teachers you remember through school,” says McLachlan. “I mean an adult that actually recognized you, spoke to you on an equal level, and really taught you something. If you remember them, that’s because they were important and they helped develop who you are today. I have three so I’m really lucky––three that actually gave me that sort of personal connection and helped me see that I had something of value to give and say.

“These teachers are that. They know the kids personally, they know their backgrounds, and so they come in and they already have an understanding of who the kids are. It’s not the kind of place where a kid gets labeled troubled or dumb; it’s a place where you can leave all of those things at the door. It’s a clean playing field where you’re respected and you’re expected to be respectful to others, and it works pretty amazingly.”

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The whole thing really boils down to communication for McLachlan, who views music as the true language of connectivity.

“To me, communication is paramount and that’s why I love being a songwriter and a musician, and why I love singing. It’s just such an amazing form of communication that I didn’t have growing up; I had to fumble my way through it to find out how to say what I feel.

“None of us are higher than anybody else. We’re all struggling and we’re all trying to figure out what the hell we’re doing. We lock ourselves up so tight because we’re afraid that if we’re vulnerable we’re going to be judged. And, you know what? Sometimes we are judged, but that’s okay because to me there’s nothing better than when someone hears a song and realizes, ‘Oh my God, I’m not alone.’”

But, that sort of vulnerability hasn’t always come easily for McLachlan—it’s something she’s grown into over time.

“I’m just thankful that as I’ve gotten older I’ve started to care less about what other people think, and I’ve allowed myself to be more vulnerable. I’ve learned time and time again that it’s way better to be open and honest about one’s failures; quite frankly, they are a lot more interesting.”

Naturally, over the course of an almost 30-year career, even the most successful of artists are bound to fail from time to time—McLachlan is no exception. But, even in her lowest of moments, particularly the ones that stopped her in her tracks and showed her no mercy when they turned up to break her down, like clockwork, she returned to her one true solace­­—music.

“I think I’ve always found some sort of sickly joy in my lowest moments,” she says with a laugh. “I’m usually like, ‘Oh boy, I’m going to get some good songs out of this!’ But, I’ve also been doing it long enough to know that it’s the ugly stuff, the stuff where you fail and you fuck up, or you betray or hurt someone, that’s where you really learn who you are, and you have to take that sort of stuff on head on if you want to find your way through it.”

In the same breath, some of the biggest lessons she’s learned have come by way of her two greatest successes—her daughters. McLachlan gave birth to her second daughter Taja Summer Sood in 2007.

“For me, becoming a parent has really been such an amazing ride. It’s definitely challenging, it’s the hardest job in the world, but it’s also the most rewarding in that I never knew I was capable of a love so intense. Kids just see the world in such different and interesting ways and they certainly are good teachers. They just shove that mirror in your face all day long like, ‘Oh you think your something special? Really? Oh, you’re used to people saying yes to you? I’m never going to say yes to you,’ she jokes warmly.

“My girls have made me realize that family is what’s most important in this life. And, when I say family I mean my extended family also; my girlfriends are my family too. Those you bring into your world and who are your tribe––that’s everything. If you have that community and that connection and those people who have your back, life is rich. Rich and friggin’ hard,” she says with a laugh, “but then nothing worth doing is ever easy.”

In these increasingly challenging times we live in, it can be easy to get caught up in the noise online or in the crazy apocalyptic narratives favoured by the news media. It’s overwhelming for the average adult, even on a good day. But, for an entire generation of young people who are still coming of age, it’s memes and videos of a rich, white, loudmouthed former reality-TV star who took a stab at the highest office in the land and wound up taking the cake. That’s pretty scary.

For that reason, when it comes to her daughters, McLachlan has turned their attention inward and asked them to focus on how their own actions can be a channel for love.

“Lets be honest, as a Canadian, there’s not a whole hell of a lot I can do about a guy like Donald Trump at the end of the day. Of course, when he came into office, my 14-year-old was ranting up and down and wanted to put ‘I Hate Trump’ on t-shirts. But, I told both of my girls, ‘Listen, like it or not, he’s been elected. He is the president of the United States. He holds an amazing amount of power and what he has shown us is that the world is incredibly divided. What we all need to do is stop shouting about the division and start trying to find bridges. We need to create bridges, and that starts with empathy and with love. So, I know it’s really hard but you’ve gotta stop saying you hate him because you don’t even know him and that’s a really strong word.’”

To McLachlan, music is that bridge—it’s the ultimate communicator of joy, understanding, acceptance, inclusivity, and love. And, in a time, when she says that “civilization often feels like it’s dangling from a very thin thread,” she’s adamant that, “it’s more important than ever that I carry on.”

When I ask her how she feels about her forthcoming induction into the Canadian Music Hall of Fame during this year’s JUNO Awards broadcast on Sunday, McLachlan, who is currently writing a new record and renovating her family home, is decidedly modest.

“You know, I’m really looking forward to it and I’m completely humbled that I’m being inducted. I’m bringing my girls with me and it’ll be the first time they’ve been to something like this where their mom is being honoured. I think they’re old enough now to appreciate and understand it though, oh and of course to see me as something else other than a servant for a couple of hours.”

See a new special exhibition honouring Canadian Music Hall of Fame inductee Sarah McLachlan at Studio Bell from March 29, 2017 until the fall of this year. More info can be found here.