We’ve Got A File On You: Sarah McLachlan

Kharen Hill

We’ve Got A File On You: Sarah McLachlan

Kharen Hill

We’ve Got A File On You features interviews in which artists share the stories behind the extracurricular activities that dot their careers: acting gigs, guest appearances, random internet ephemera, etc.

“I’ve got three raccoons outside and my dogs are losing their minds right now.”

It’s just another Vancouver day for Sarah McLachlan, a famously soul-touching singer/songwriter who helped define ‘90s culture with adult-contemporary classics such as “Adia,” “Building A Mystery,” “Angel,” and “I Will Remember You.” It’s also fitting that McLachlan would mention having pets; in recent years, the Nova Scotia-born performer is perhaps best known for reducing us to puddles of tears with her emotionally brutal ASPCA ads. (She can’t watch them either.)

On a more serious note, McLachlan is (and has always been) the type of artist whose music so compellingly radiates compassion, warmth, and understanding that it has practically turned her own name into an adjective. To be like Sarah McLachlan is to sing with such aching tenderness that you beam out an otherworldly, almost divine energy. Of course she also took that passion and channeled it into a first-of-its-kind all-female music festival. But it’s not all bright lights and celestial peace: Across albums like 1993’s Fumbling Towards Ecstasy, 1997’s Surfacing, and 1999’s Mirrorball, McLachlan is half in the darkness, examining obsessive love on “Possession,” well-hidden insecurities on “Building A Mystery,” and the high rates of drug use and overdosing within the music industry on “Angel.”

In a few months, McLachlan will return to the stage for a Fumbling Towards Ecstasy 30th anniversary tour featuring fellow Canadians Feist and Allison Russell. Ahead of rehearsals, McLachlan spoke to Stereogum about revisiting her landmark third album, soundtracking a bumper crop of Y2K teen shows, and always being down to poke fun at herself.

30th Anniversary Of Fumbling Towards Ecstasy (2024)

What significance does your third studio album hold for you now, three decades on?

SARAH MCLACHLAN: I think it’s my favorite record. It was the easiest record I’ve ever made. Things came naturally and easily, and for that I have very fond memories of it because there wasn’t a whole lot of drama or strife attached to it or around it. It was a joyful record to make and joyful time to make a record.

I was single for the first time in my adult life, so I felt very unencumbered and free. The only expectation or need was to create music. Having the freedom to fully immerse myself in that — I was living up in the Laurentian [Mountains], in the woods. [I felt] like I was finally entering into adulthood and on my own and feeling good about it. That all fed into immersing myself in the experience of making of the music.

What might Americans, or anyone not from Canada, find interesting about the Laurentian Mountains?

MCLACHLAN: This was about an hour north of Montreal in a very small town called Morin-Heights, where the studio was.

But I wasn’t even in the town. I was maybe two kilometers out of town, and I remember very clearly, I didn’t have a car. The studio was about two kilometers away, so I would often walk home at one or two in the morning. It was so dark because there were no streetlights. There was a white line in the middle of the road, and I just followed that home.

And it was minus 35, so you dressed for the weather. I felt infinitely small, but also — like I said — free, because I was living my dream. It was the first time where I was like, “I got this. I know what I’m doing.” The first two records for me were like, “I have no idea what I’m doing.” I suppose in some ways I still don’t, but I felt more sure of myself and the path that I was on.

Are there any particular songs, and they don’t have to be singles, that hold a special significance for you when you revisit them?

MCLACHLAN: “Possession” is definitely one of my favorites, and I still love playing that. It started out as a piano ballad on the album but ended up as one of the singles and more, I guess you could say, rockier, or more pop-ish.

I really love “Ice Cream.” I just listened to the record again in anticipation of this — I haven’t done much press around [the tour] because we don’t start rehearsals until May. I’m working on a new record right now, so just my head’s in so many different places.

I love “Ice.” It’s so beautiful and dark. I love the guitar playing. What other songs? “Mary.” I’m excited about reworking that one musically. I think that’s the trick about this: trying to figure out what to stay true to on the record and where I can stray musically. We’ve got about 10 days of rehearsals before the tour, and I’m very excited to dig into that and try different things with the songs.

You’ve got Feist and Allison Russell joining in at different points on the tour. How much involvement do you have in selecting your openers, and what is your relationship to both of these artists??

MCLACHLAN: One hundred percent [involvement]. Yeah, I know both Leslie and Allison and I purposefully chose women, and I purposefully chose Canadians. Just like Lilith [Fair], I love having any opportunity to bring other women forward. I have a great platform and I love the chance to help celebrate other women who are making beautiful music. I love Leslie’s music; I love Allison’s music. They’re both fantastic humans. The people who are behind the music, you have to like them. Because you’re spending a lot of time with them on the road, and they’re both incredibly wonderfully wonderful people.

Singing In First Band The October Game (1985)

As an artist, where did you see yourself going at this time in your life? Did you always see yourself as a solo performer, or fronting a rock band?

MCLACHLAN: I was 17 when I joined the October Game, and I joined as a keyboardist until they heard me sing. Then they said, “Oh, no, you need to sing.” I pushed really hard to be in that band, from my parents’ perspective. They were dead against it, and I begged and pleaded. I said, “I promise it won’t mess with my homework. I really want to do this. They’re not bad people.” My parents had a negative attitude about that kind of popular culture. It was very foreign to them, and they were very concerned. My mom was very strict with me, so it was a lot to ask of her to allow me to do this.

I’d been making music since I was four years old. I’d been taking a ton of music lessons. I lived and breathed music. It was my reason for getting up in the morning. For me, this was breathing new life into something that I already loved. The first time I ever got up on stage with the band — I think we’d rehearsed three times. We played a bunch of covers and a few originals that I had a hand in writing the melodies. It was a discovery of the new best drug in the world — to be up in front of 400 people who were smiling and dancing and seemingly loving everything that we were doing. I remember it so clearly, even now. I was like, “Oh my God, this is what I want to do. This is the best feeling in the world.”

We only did a few more gigs in the year-and-a-half that we were together because [my bandmates] were in university. None of us had any money either, so trying to find rehearsal space and getting those opportunities were few and far between in Halifax. But it was magical to have that experience. When I got signed, it was because of someone seeing me in that very first gig. [October Game] came back and asked me to join the band. Of course, I rushed home to my mom and dad, barely getting through grade 11 saying, “They want me to move to Vancouver and join this new wave band.”

Clearly that didn’t happen. I listened to my parents and finished high school. Then I went to art college and [Nettwerk Records] came back and offered me a five-record deal. I remember that really clearly too — the band was at the venue where I was working, and they knew that Terry [McBride], the president of Nettwerk Records, was talking to me and had offered me a solo deal. I couldn’t bring my band. He said, “No, we just want you.” On one hand, there was elation, and on the other hand there was, “I have to go tell the guys that they are not included in this.”

I think they were a little heartbroken, but the other thing is, we weren’t really together anymore as a band. They’d gone too deep into their studies at university, and we hadn’t really talked about what we were doing moving forward. We were all busy and it fizzled out. I was like, “Well, how can I bring [the band] along too?”

And [Nettwerk was] like, “No, no, we just want you. Come to Vancouver. You’ll work with other musicians, other bands, and you can write.” I’d said, “Look, I haven’t really written a lot. I’ve written melody lines, but I’ve never really written a song all by myself before.” [Terry] was like, “Ah, that’s okay. You’ll figure it out.” Fake it until you make it. That’s kind of what I did.

Meeting Longtime Producer And Collaborator Pierre Marchand (1991)

What do you remember of your first meeting with Pierre Marchand?

MCLACHLAN: I remember having lunch with him and my manager at the time. My manager was grilling him with a lot of questions about, “Well, how do you see this and how do you want to make the record, and how do you see these songs evolving?” I remember falling in love with Pierre in that moment [when] he said, “I have no idea. We’re just going to figure it as we go. We’re going to explore and see where the songs take us.” Of course, that horrified my manager. I was like, “I love this guy. I want to work with him.”

There is no math to it. It’s about discovery and letting the songs… Figuring it out as you go, that kind of thing. That was always what I’d done, following my heart. It sounds obnoxious, but it’s true. It’s following my gut and my heart. That’s all I’ve ever done. For me, the best outcomes are always when I do that.

How has your creative relationship evolved over the years?

MCLACHLAN: Oh, we’ve had 30-plus years of making music together. He’s a dear friend. He’s an incredible guy, a musical genius. I love working with him. We talked about always thinking, “Okay, well, at some point it would be good to try to work with other people, for a creative challenge.” Because you get to certain levels of comfort when you have that long [of a] relationship. It’s like, “Okay, we need to try something else here.”

I am working with a different producer now, and that feels really good. I’ve got Pierre’s blessing. He’s like, “Awesome, wonderful.” But it was kind of like, just thinking about this feels like cheating on him. But he super supportive. it’s all good… It’s unconditional love at this point.

Poking Fun Of Lilith Fair On SNL (1997)

Instead of asking you directly about Lilith Fair, I’m more curious about your willingness to tease out the humor and be in on the joke when pop culture has targeted the festival. There’s an obvious sincerity in your music and your projects. Lilith Fair, of course, addressed the very real gender inequalities in popular music, gender inequalities that exist to this day. At the same time, you’ve always appeared self-aware about its idiosyncrasies as a subculture.

MCLACHLAN: I’m Canadian, and I think we’re very good at poking fun at ourselves and not taking things too seriously. For me, that’s a really important element of everything I do in my life. There are some things I take very seriously, but I think we have to find light in things. I like the opportunity to poke fun at things and myself, because humor is so incredibly important. If we can’t laugh at ourselves and the ridiculousness that goes on around us, things get dark and depressing. We should be able to keep laughing and find things that bring us joy and light.

I’m not a dark personality. I’m super optimistic and I have a pretty sunny, easygoing disposition, which I guess is a juxtaposition to my music. I enjoy the opportunity to surprise people too, because everybody just assumes I’m sitting in the dark, listening to Edith Piaf, drinking red wine at two in the morning. And yeah, hey, I’ve done that, but that’s not necessarily who I am. I have those moments — they end up a lot in my songs. It’s not as easy to write about that happy, light, joyful disposition. I’d rather be in that when I am, and music is my outlet for the other stuff.

It’s a good opportunity for me to show another side of myself, because none of us are one-dimensional. We have different likes, desires, and passions, and we don’t necessarily show all those faces of ourselves.

Recording The Trance Classic “Silence” & Releasing A Remix Album (1997, 1999)

Speaking of not being put into a box — when you appeared on Delerium’s “Silence,” was there any pushback on you about moving into the dance space?

MCLACHLAN: Not from my perspective. I think that band was on the same label, and they asked me to come and work on this song with them and put a vocal down. When I got it, it was a 12-minute piece and I had to recraft it into a pop format. It was like, “Oh, this is a challenge. Let’s just do something simple.”

It was a day-and-a-half in the studio. We put that out, and we had no idea, of course, how successful it would be. I think because of its success, and going into this different genre for me, one of the guys at the record label who was in the dance department was like, “We should make a remix record.”

I’m like, “Well, what does that even mean?” He explained it to me: “You’ll have 100% creative control, but they’ll take your stems, your vocals, and whatever other pieces of music they want, and they create something in a completely different genre.” To me, that’s super exciting and fun. It’s not a place that I would think to take my music, [but] I loved the outcome… I didn’t have any precious attachments to having [my songs] stay the way they were. Once I put them out in the world the way I enjoyed them, I welcomed the opportunity for them to be taken in a different direction by someone else.

The Felicity Sarah McLachlan Speech (2000)

I have to admit, as a huge Felicity fan, I’ve always wanted to know if you’ve ever seen the big Sarah McLachlan Speech in Season 2.

MCLACHLAN: You’ll have to tell me what the Sarah McLachlan speech is, because I don’t know.

Felicity’s (Keri Russell) college roommate Meghan is telling her crush Ben (Scott Speedman) that the reason she knows Felicity still likes him is directly correlated to how much Sarah McLachlan she listens to.

MCLACHLAN: Oh, that’s cute. Yay. Wow. I had no idea I was getting so much airtime.

Felicity speech aside, your music famously soundtracked so many coming-of-age dramas in the 1990s. “I Will Remember You” closed out Felicity in 2002. Also, Dawson’s Creek, Buffy The Vampire Slayer, Roswell.

MCLACHLAN: Yeah, I love that. I love when songs are properly used in movies or TV shows where it pushes forth an emotional response. I write from such an emotional point of view, so I love that those interpretations can happen.

It was another way of getting my music out there too. I remember City Of Angels, they asked for “Angel” to be put in the movie. It was a super sappy movie, but it was also beautiful and tragic and sweet, and I think it was such an amazing placement.

I remember being at an award show and Nicholas Cage was in the front row, and I had literally just seen the movie a couple months before, and I was just terrified. I hate public speaking. I was terrified of being up there. I think I had to give out an award or something like that. I remember looking out and seeing [Cage] in the front row, and he just gave me this huge smile. It was so comforting. I was like, “Oh, there’s a friendly face.” I had never met him. On one hand, it’s like, holy shit, what the hell am I doing here? How did I get here? But on the other hand, it was very calming, because it was like, oh, okay, I’m supposed to be here. This is okay. I can do this.

Singing “When She Loved Me” With Randy Newman At The Oscars (1999)

Speaking of award shows, what did it mean to you to get up in front of Hollywood to sing “When She Loved Me” from Toy Story 2 with Randy Newman?

MCLACHLAN: That was one of the highlights of my career. Just getting to be part of something so iconic, and to perform at the Oscars, to have a song that meant enough to that many people…

My manager took me into his office one day and said, “I got this song for this movie, but I don’t know, it’s kind of weird. But have a listen.” I sat in his office and listened to Randy Newman sing “When She Loved Me” and was basically a sobbing mess. It was like hearing Kermit The Frog singing “It’s Not Easy Being Green” for the first time. It blew my mind.

Randy is an amazing writer, and I was super honored to have been asked to sing that song. I got to hang out in the studio with him and record it. It’s one of my very favorite songs. It’s just so achingly beautiful. I was super excited to be able to record that song and to go to The Oscars. I really wish we won. I think he won the next year.

That song broke me apart when it came out, even as a kid. The older I get, the more I can’t listen to it because I get too emotional.

MCLACHLAN: Oh, yeah. He nails that emotion. It’s incredible. What’s that book, that horrible children’s book? I’ll Love You Forever. It’s fucking brutal.

That Infamous ASPCA Commercial (2007)

Speaking of crying and poking fun at oneself, I’m sure by now you’ve seen all of the parodies and memes from your ASPCA advertisement. You even starred in a Super Bowl commercial that parodied that ad. Do you have a favorite parody?

MCLACHLAN: I probably haven’t seen a tenth of them, but again, I do like poking fun at myself. I think that ad was so powerful and so painful at the same time. That was its purpose — to evoke a really strong emotion in people so that they would give. I think the success of it kind of became ridiculous. It was so successful, and it worked so well that it’s like, okay, can we just take a moment and make a bit of fun of this?

Again, this desperately serious Sarah McLachlan saying, “Please save the animals.” I can’t watch it. I just want to… I can’t. I’ll never forget the director, “Just a little more, Sarah, a little more emotion.”

I’m like, “Are you fucking kidding me? You’re killing me. But okay.” I was like, “Just act, honey. Just act and get it over with.” I am an animal lover too, and I’m saying this with reverence to the work that the ASPCA does and how much I want to save every single animal, but at a certain point, it just becomes a bit ridiculous.

You just have to go, “Okay, I’m just not that serious. Let’s find some levity here.” I can’t watch that commercial. It’s brutal. It’s so painful. The one-eyed cat is like, “They’re killing me.”

D.M.C.’s Book On How “Angel” Saved His Life (2016)

In his memoir Ten Ways Not to Commit Suicide, Darryl “D.M.C.” McDaniels wrote about approaching you in the 90s and thanking you for the song “Angel.” What do you remember from this moment?

MCLACHLAN: I have a super strong memory. It was one of Clive Davis’ pre-Grammy parties, and I met him on the stairs. I think I was at the bottom of the stairs, and he was at the top. I think he’s 6’4″ or something, this massive guy, and he stopped me. He’s like, “Sarah, I need to tell you something.”

I’m like, “Okay.” And he just told me this whole story. I’m like, “Oh my God, that’s so amazing. Thank you so much for telling me that.” I gave him a big hug and it was just this beautiful moment.

I have to say, that song for me, which is my favorite song, those kinds of stories have happened to me so many times. I’ve had people come up to me over the years — that song in particular has resonated really powerfully with people. That is the most beautiful validation as an artist and as a person to have created something that has helped other people and made them feel better in one of the hardest times in their lives. That feels great to know that I got to be part of that somehow.


Sarah McLachlan’s Fumbling Towards Ecstasy 30th anniversary tour kicks off in May — dates and details here.

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