Sarah McLachlan takes on love, loss and ‘self-loathing’
VANCOUVERóSarah McLachlan, the child-woman who was the heroine for an entire generation of Canadian music, is 42 years old now, with her marriage a thing of the past, two daughters to raise in the present and her future still uncertain.
ìBut I donít think about that,î she insisted in a recent conversation. ìI live in the moment. Today is a good day and Iím happy to be here and talking to you, but a few days ago, I spoke to someone else who asked me what my favourite part of myself was and I couldnít answer.
ìThat day, I didnít have a favourite part of me. I couldnít think of anything about me that I cherished. Nothing.î
June 15 will see the release of her first studio album of new material in seven years, called Laws of Illusion, but she made it clear that she had only one law while making it: no illusions.
ìIn the past two years, I went through the hardest time of my adult life. The bottom just sort of fell out. But with that bottom falling out, there was a whole lot of reckoning to do.
ìWhat have I bought into all these years? Who am I, anymore? Whatís real in me? Whatís false in me? All of these illusions Iíve been living with. Itís time to strip them all away.î
Itís strange to hear such heavy words being spoken by McLachlan with the same sweet, otherworldly voice thatís beguiled millions over the 22 years since she shot to prominence with her first album, Touch and later went on to Grammy-winning fame and supernova status as the Earth Mother behind the wildly successful series of concerts known as Lilith Fair.
ìIf thereís going to be any hope and growth in your life, then you have to fight the fear and the uncertainty.î
If McLachlan should feel safe and comfortable anywhere, itís here, in West Vancouver, with the forest rising up behind her and the sea beyond. Sheís just stepped out of a rehearsal in the home studio where sheís recorded some of her greatest hits and sheís doing the work she loves, getting ready to promote an album into which she poured her soul over the past 18 months.
Ask her how sheíd describe her latest work and she ponders. ìIs it a sad album? Iím not sure ësadí is the right word for it as a whole, but yes, thereís a lot of sadness in it.î
And sheís right. Laws of Illusion is filled with exquisite songs, as good as any McLachlan has ever written, while her voice sounds clear and true, but thereís still a sense of malaise in the air. Even the happier cuts, like ìLoving You Is Easyî have a slightly bitter aftertaste that lingers long after the initial sweetness has faded.
Although itís written in a style thatís unmistakable McLachlan, it bears an overall tonal resemblance to Joni Mitchellís classic Blue. Thatís not surprising, considering itís one of McLachlanís personal favourites and when asked at the Governor Generalís Performing Arts Awards in 1996 to select a single song to perform to honour Mitchell, she picked ìRiverî from that very album.
And the same melancholia that lurks in the background of Blue is there in Laws of Illusion, the aching tooth you canít help caressing with your tongue, because the pain is so sweet.
McLachlan serves notice in the opening song, ìAwakeningsî about where things are headed, when she zeroes in on ìThe feeling we are going nowhere fastî which drowns out any magic that ìshooting stars and hopeful heartsî might have felt in the past.
Unlike many artists who act coy about what inspired their work, McLachlan is almost savagely honest about what lies behind that song and most of the album.
ìA big part of it was the relationship with my husband,î she says, talking about Ashwin Sood, who was her drummer when she married him in 1997. They had two daughters, India Ann Sushil and Taja Summer, but the marriage broke up and they separated in 2008.
ìI blame a lot of it on the relationship. All those walls and things that you build up over the years to hold the chaos at bay, they finally start to close in on you and you have to tear them down.
ìI went through so much loss. The loss of a husband, the loss of a life partner, the father of my kids and the loss of myself in all of that.î
McLachlan makes it clear that the world of music superstardom had nothing to do with her troubles. This was purely personal.
ìI went through my mid-life celebrity crisis 10 years ago,î she says. ìThis was about trying to find out who I really am. People have all sorts of images built up of who or what they think I am or ought to be. And they all have a bit of truth of them, but none of them ever see the whole picture.î
And though clues to what makes up the complete Sarah McLachlan are scattered throughout her songs, theyíre never stated as bluntly in her lyrics as she suddenly does now, out of the blue.
ìIíve got a healthy dose of self-loathing inside of myself. Itís a big problem for me. I often think if I could just get a bit of perspective, pull up to look down on the whole picture instead of getting tangled in the details, I might have a chance.î
And at this difficult point in her life, McLachlan is finding her greatest trials and her greatest joys both lie with her two daughters.
ìItís tricky, itís the hardest job in the world, parenting. I like to think I can manage anything, put it in a box, get it under control. But I canít that do that with my daughters, especially the older one.
ìShe is the biggest challenge of my life. She will make me discover things about myself I never wanted to know. She holds up this mirror every day, saying ëHereís all your insecurities and shortcomings,í and shoves it in my face. Sheís teaching me patience.î
But there is balance in everything, including McLachlanís children.
ìThe younger one is so easy, such a pleaser,î she says with a laugh. ìShe sees a man, walks up to him, puts her arms around him, smiles and he melts.
ìI guess Iím like both of them, in a way.î
Having been through the dark night of the soul she catalogues in Laws of Illusion, itís surprising to hear her discuss her current relationship with Sood.
ìWe get along really well now. Heís a wonderful man, a decent guy and a good father. We just werenít meant to be together any more.î
And despite the personal feelings that fill her recent songs, McLachlan also wants to make it clear that itís not to be read as a point-by-point autobiography.
ìFiction is way more interesting than truth and sometimes you say something to make a point, or create a rhyme, or finish off a thought. Two of my friends went through the same journey I did at roughly the same time and some of their story is in these songs as well. It becomes a universal journey.î
Sheís also recommencing another journey, by reviving Lilith Fair, which has remained a glorious memory since 1999.
ìI wanted to be a part of it again,î she affirms. ìI missed the sense of community that was created. The society weíre in now has everyone texting and twittering and the world is too fast-paced. We donít have time to connect on a personal level.
ìI love getting large groups of people together. Rituals are all dissolving. People donít go to church any more, the family unit is falling apart. Itís so important to get people together and connect on a visceral level.î
I think back to the first time I ever met McLachlan, in 1986 in Halifax, when she was our weekly babysitter for 18 months for our infant daughter Kat, now 24. I ask her how she remembers herself back then, just before she left for Vancouver to begin her career.
ìI was desperate to be liked and to please people,î she says, after a pause. ìI had a lot of insecurities.
ìIt sounds pretty much like I still am today.”
Sarah McLachlan takes on love, loss and ‘self-loathing’