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When It Rains, She Shines

Sarah McLachlan on her latest album, her melancholy streak and the importance of having a lighter side

Author Erin Brady Photography David Bergman

 culture1

You could be forgiven for assuming that Sarah McLachlan is a painfully serious person. The mezzo-soprano acoustic rock artist and Lilith Fair co-founder rose to success on the wings of emotional breakup songs with such lyrics as “The life I’ve left behind me is a cold room.” Even her musical cameos, in the 1998 drama City of Angels and a series of ads for the ASPCA, are known for being more tear-jerking than foot-tapping.

But McLachlan’s first album in four years, Shine On (out May 6), takes it a little easier on the pain. “A lot of the songs are about moving forward,” she says, “and trying to understand what’s gone on in the past—not just to endure and survive, but to shine.”

Explaining the melancholy nature of her work, McLachlan, now 46, says that her music has simply followed the contours of her life. The 1990s albums Fumbling Towards Ecstasy and Surfacing
dealt with love and romance while she was developing a relationship with her future husband. Her more somber 2010 release, Laws of Illusion, drew from her divorce. Her latest is mostly about moving on from the death of her father.

 “I speak a lot about love and loss,” McLachlan says. “You can’t make it halfway through your life, which a lot of my peers are, without losing things you care about. For me, the process of moving through that is fascinating.”

This is not to say that McLachlan doesn’t have a lighter side. In 2011, she and fellow ’90s icon Aimee Mann had walk-on roles on the IFC sketch comedy show “Portlandia,” in which they tended gardens and cleaned houses because illegal music downloading had driven them into poverty. And during this year’s Super Bowl, she appeared briefly in an Audi spot that parodied her famous ASPCA commercial calling for better treatment of doberhuahua hybrids.

“It’s great to rescue animals,” she says, “but it’s good to step away and say, ‘I’m aware that this commercial is brutal.’”

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Sarah McLachlan on…

Touring with kids: “I take my kids out with me during the summer. It’s like a glorified camping trip for them. They love being in a different city every day. Basically, I get off the stage, get into the bus, put on my jammies and read them stories.”

Her writing process: “If I’m thinking about an idea and I can’t sleep, I just keep turning on the light to write more lyrics. If I don’t, then they’re gone. I can’t hold on to thoughts. I have thousands of notes on loose pieces of paper. It’s kind of mad scientist–esque.”

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