The Georgia Straight, August 14-21, 1997
Under the Surface
Sarah McLachlan emerges from writer’s block with a new CD and Lilith Fair ~ by Alexander Varty
There’s nothing like a dark night and a peat fire to fuel a myth, as some garrulous and long-forgotten progenitor of the McLachlans surely knew. Huddled in the croft or the castle – for we know not the fortunes of the clan in those far-off days – this wizened seer invented a tale that persists into the present: that the McLachlans are protected by a fairy guardian, the Brounie, who, as Scottish historian Neil Grant puts it, "has watched over them since ancient times."
This tweed-sheathed tribesman had good reason to concoct such a story: in those pagan years, the supernatural was as powerful a weapon as axe or broadsword. Clans warred against clans, and a family blessed with an uncanny protector was sure to triumph over one reliant on flesh and blood alone. Legend was the disinformation of the day, and the reverence that Celtic cultures still have for a good storyteller is surely a holdover from an era when a well-placed rumour could win a battle.
Halfway around the world and at least a millenium later, the old Scottish legends carry less weight than they once did. Yet at least one member of Clan McLachlan still seems somewhat blessed: singer Sarah McLachlan, who has fought off depression and writer’s block to emerge with renewed artistic vigour and a strong new CD, Surfacing.
On a hot morning in late June, McLachlan’s clear eyes show no sign of her trials. Her comfortable Dunbar garden casts a domestic spell over an otherwise hectic schedule: despite nonstop meetings with the media, new songs to rehearse, legal business to attend to, and the impending release of her fourth full-length studio effort, the singer is relaxed and gracious. And why shouldn’t she be? With her husband (and drummer) Ashwin Sood fetching lemonade, Rex the dog snuffling at her feet, and a soft breeze making the wind chimes ring, life is good.
Not that McLachlan isn’t up for the biggest challenge of all. "I can’t wait to have kids," she says, beaming. "Not a day goes by that I don’t think about being pregnant. I mean, I’m madly in love, I’ve found a wonderful man to share my life with, and I think it’s just a normal thing to want to have a child in our likeness."
"I suppose it’s kind of a selfish thing," she continues, then laughs. "It’s so fascinating to see another manifestation of that love – a creature born out of our love."
It’s hard to imagine that only a few months later, McLachlan was struggling to give birth to a single finished song. Writing had never been easy for her, but it once seemed as easy as breathing; now, though, deadlines came and went and she had nothing to show for her labours save a few half-finished sonic sketches. With her Fumbling Towards Ecstasy CD having topped the Canadian charts, and the American market warming up to her work, the pressure was on for the single to come up with a hit – but nothing was working. Rumours were rife that McLachlan was in trouble, and her label, Nettwerk Records, was so worried that it flung an album of B sides, studio outtakes, and dance remixes onto the market just to keep her profile high.
McLachlan blames her creative impasse on her success – or at least on one of its more unpleasant ramifications. "I had been on tour for almost two-and-a-half years, and I’d drained myself to the point of no return, or so I thought at the time," she explains. "Touring, you just slowly, slowly get worn away until you’re reduced to this little ball, like the core of the earth, that’s somewhere inside of you, and you have no idea how to get yourself back, because you’ve built up so many walls for protection. It’s like ‘I can’t deal with you right now; I can’t deal with this anger I’m feeling right now ‘cause I’ve got to go onstage in two minutes, and if I freak out at you I’m going to be bawling and I’m going to look like hell, so I’ll deal with it later.’ You push it down, and you do that every day; you push it down and you push it back and you turn around one day and you have no idea who you’re looking at in the mirror any more."
A failing romance compounded McLachlan’s worries; in a less resilient soul, the combination of heartbreak, fatigue, and pressure might have resulted in an emotional or physical breakdown. "I was just writing the most horrendous snivelling-victim shit," she admits. "I was so embarrassed by it, but it was all that was coming out. So I thought for quite a while there, ‘That’s it; I’m not writing any more.’ I mean, what’s the point if I’m not producing anything good, anything I’m comfortable with? But I was still feeling this guilt and the pressure of ‘I gotta get a record out or everybody’s gonna forget about me.’"
With that weighing on her, she headed to Montreal in the spring of 1996, where she hooked up with Pierre Marchand, the producer of Fumbling Towards Ecstasy and its predecessor, Solace. But she didn’t really want to work. "I wanted to force the issue, just to give myself three weeks to see what I could come up with," she says. "but I felt like I had less than nothing to say. And I had many psychological blocks, the big one being that I didn't want to write songs, because if I wrote songs I’d have to put out a record, and if I put out a record I’d have to go on the road again – and I never, ever wanted to go on the road again. So I had a big block."
"We just hung out and talked about things," Marchand recalls, reached by phone at his Montreal home. "Sarah would play the piano, and I’d encourage her. There was a lot of pressure to make this record, and that might contribute to a block, I think. Fumbling was a great record, and we thought we could beat it, or do the same thing, so I think a bit of fear was part of that block too. I did help her write some of the songs, and there’s some of mine on there that she helped me finish, so that helped. It’s kind of like as soon as there’s one or two things coming out of the speakers and they sound good, it’s encouraging to write more to see what will happen. But we just waited for the right moment. We didn’t ask Sarah to lock herself up; I was just trying to take all the pressures and details of making a record out of the way, and she wrote tunes."
It was a start – but not enough of a start to guarantee a happy ending, especially as McLachlan still craved diversion more than discipline. She broke off the sessions to organize the initial Lilith Fair concerts in the summer of ’96, then removed herself even further from her own record by playing piano and singing on Blue Rodeo guitarist Greg Keelor’s Marchand-produced solo debut, Gone. Ironically, working on someone else’s music helped renew her willingness to make her own.
"Greg’s great to be around," she says. "He’s really inspiring – and while I was working on his record, I started to write again. It’s probably just that I was in a creative atmosphere again, so I was creating."
As naked a journal of self-discovery as anything by Neil Young or Joni Mitchell, Gone recounts an assortment of experiences too strange to be anything other than true. In the space of a few month, the singer survived a traumatic stepladder fall, met his birth mother for the first time, nearly slipped into a diabetic coma, hooked up with an Indian guru, and came close to drowning in the frigid waters off the coast of Nova Scotia. Processed in near-hallucinatory fashion by Keelor’s poetic mind and presented with guileless intimacy, these events made for weirdly engaging songs, and Keelor’s brave decision not to censor himself – or pander to the expectations of his fans – proved profoundly inspirational to McLachlan.
"I had to learn to trust myself, that if I did just let things go and not give a shit, it would come," she says. "It’s that old [Rainer Maria] Rilke thing: if you try and force yourself to know the answers you won’t be able to see them, ‘cause you’ll be clouded by all these other things. So if you just trust yourself and let things move in their natural way, you’ll slowly learn your way into the answers – when you’re prepared to hear them."
That trust came slowly. "When we started out, Sarah wanted to do a real heavy record," Marchand recalls, noting that in the end, though, what he describes as the "true Sarah" came through. Surfacing flirts with more aggressive sonorities in "Witness" and "Building a Mystery", which singer and producer wrote together, but for the most part it is an album of slow to mid-tempo songs, based on haunting melodies and sung with nuanced intensity. It is a gradual rather than a radical departure from the formula that made Fumbling such a success; what is most notably different is that the production values are not quite so glossy, and there’s ore of a live feel to many of the tracks.
"With this record, we really wanted to try and be a little more spontaneous," McLachlan says. "And that’s partly reactionary; not that I have anything against the last records – I actually love them – but because I’m working with the same producer again for the third time, it was ‘Let’s try and do something new. Let’s try and think of a different method of recording – or anything.’"
One more thing that’s different about Surfacing is that amidst the songs of heartbreak and abandonment are a few numbers that are simply radiant with happiness, as if McLachlan simply couldn’t contain her joy over the budding romance with Sood, whom she married in February. This may be the biggest change of al: where writing, for McLachlan, was once an act of therapy or catharsis, it has become just another aspect of a fulfilled life. Even the dark songs are deeper, which she credits to Sood’s support.
"It used to be more difficult to write when I was happy," she admits. "Now I think it’s kind of easier. It took me a while to realize that by having that incredible support of ‘I love you regardless – I know all about you; I know your dark side; I know your light side; I know the ugly things; I know the good things; and I love you anyway’ – I would be able to go into those places that you really don’t want to look at inside yourself, which I did a lot of within the past two years, when writing this record. It gives you a lot of confidence, to be able to go there and know that when you come out you’ve still got that person saying ‘I love you.’
"And to write, you just have to submerge yourself in those ugly places within yourself. That’s why ‘surfacing’ is the big metaphor for me. It’s like looking into a black lake at night – and I’m terrified of water at night; I could never go into it – and those are my demons. So the album, for me, is just closing my eyes and going ‘Eeyuggh!’ and throwing myself in and then forcing myself to swim around in it and lose myself in it for a while – knowing that if I do, and I survive, I can come up to the surface and be so much better off for throwing myself in there in the first place."
If any one tune could be said to encapsulate McLachlan’s new attitude, it would have to be Surfacing’s first single, "Building a Mystery". "It’s about masks, and how people would act a certain way to be loved, and not be themselves," says Marchand, who came up with the original idea for the song while singing in the car.
"It’s about me; it’s about Pierre; it’s about pretty much everybody I know," McLachlan concurs. "We’ve all worn masks on some level or another."
But the song’s power goes beyond its universality, and its appeal draws on more than McLachlan’s inspired singing or her buzzingly psychedelic guitar break. The song could also be seen as a metaphor for marriage, as an analogy for the recording process, and perhaps most importantly, as an explanation of the way people have to define faith for themselves in a society where all the icons have been broken.
"Absolutely," says McLachlan. "Yeah, you have to define it [faith] for yourself, for what it means to your life. You have to find something that isn’t just prepackaged and organized so you’re just expected to buy it hook, line and sinker. People generally are losing faith in that: they’re needing something a little deeper than that, something that they can relate to their own personal lives. Which is one of the reasons I think music is such a powerful force. And art, and literature. It has the ability to create a sense of empathy and to create a resonance that people can hear and feel in their own lives that maybe they couldn’t put into words themselves."
Perhaps McLachlan does have a guardian angel after all. But it’s no Brounie, no ancestral spirit summoned up from the depths of some Scottish loch – it’s art itself. Music has brought her love, fame, respect, and some degree of wealth; soon it will bring her a family. And, in turn, she has given her legions of fans her voice: an increasingly strong and steady reminder that all things, even self-doubt and fear, can be transformed into beauty.
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