Songs for Angels
“Playing Live has the intimacy of gentle sex,” says singer and songwriter Sarah McLachlan. “You’re emotionally wide open up there on stage, and when it’s good—when the audience is giving back—you feel part of something much bigger.” Speaking from her home in Vancouver, British Columbia, McLachlan chuckles with mild embarrassment at her admission, but it explains her sense of excitement heading into her tour this summer in support of Shine On, her first album in four years.
For fans of the singer, the album and the tour can’t come soon enough. For McLachlan, though, the timing is perfect. “I started writing songs for this album three years ago,” she says. “But I had some big distractions: revamping and running an afterschool music program at an inner-city school in Vancouver; being a parent to two kids. By the time I got back to those songs, I realized I was a different person.
My father had passed away as well, and I recognized that life was so much bigger than what those songs were about.” McLachlan started fresh, fueled partly by the loss of her father, partly by the changing perspectives that come from being a parent to her daughters, now 12- and 7-years-old (Of parenthood, she says, “It’s a terrifying and joyously beautiful responsibility”). Many of the songs on the new album are about mourning a loss, but she explains that because of her children, she found herself dwelling less on the past and more on moving forward in a meaningful way. Finding solace through her music, McLachlan uses the songwriting process to work through her own demons and issues. “It’s very therapeutic,” she says. “If I’m feeling wound up and frustrated, I’ll go settle down at the piano and noodle around. If I like something, I’ll record it on my iPhone and keep going.”
Eventually those therapy sessions turn into melodies that become songs. “There’s nothing sharp about the process,” she says. “It happens when it happens.” Her lyrics come after the melody, and she’s learned in her 25 years as a professional to jot down those snippets immediately or lose them forever. In the studio, the melody and lyrics come together to form a song that she’ll perform for the rest of her life. With more than an estimated 40 million records sold in her career and Grammy awards for songs on her 1997 album Surfacing, McLachlan brings her emotionally powerful voice to cities across North America this summer.
When asked how she knows whether a song will work live or not, she replies, “If a song works while singing solo and playing a single instrument, then you know it’s strong.” Exhibit A: “Angel,” her smash-hit song from Surfacing that features McLachlan, her piano and nothing else. She enjoys summer tours for the chance to play outside.
The first half of the show is under the fading light of day, when she feels surrounded by the audience and embraces the casual atmosphere. Then for the second half, darkness sets in and the dramatic stage lighting takes over. For this tour, she gave herself plenty of time to line up venues she loves that allow her to do just this: Red Rocks in Denver, the Santa Barbara Bowl and Berkeley’s Greek Theatre, among them. But beyond the venues, a summer tour schedule means that her children can come with her on their summer break from school. “It’s a big camping trip and road trip for them, and it’s wonderful to show them new places and new cities,” she says. “I’ve been to many children’s museums and science and natural history museums. It’s all about exploration with the kids. Everything looks new again through their eyes,” she says. “If we have time, I do like to seek out nature. I get a truer sense of place from the landscape—the trees, mountains or the ocean—than I do from the downtown streets where our hotels are usually located.”
Two weeks after she finished recording Shine On, and mere days after returning from a well-deserved Hawaiian vacation, McLachlan sounds ready to open herself to an audience on a nightly basis, revisiting heartache and triumph through songs old and new, and recharged by the presence of her children and fans, many who’ve already snapped up the tour’s VIP tickets months ahead of her opening night. “It’s comforting to know that those people are there, and they care about what I do.”