Sarah McLachlan Surrenders On Shine On

GRAMMY winner discusses the emotional journey of writing her new album, Shine On, and why she's not a "Debbie Downer"
  • Photo: Kharen Hill
    Sarah McLachlan
May 07, 2014 -- 11:45 am PDT
By Bryan Reesman /

It's been four years since Sarah McLachlan released her last studio album, 2010's Laws Of Illusion. Her latest offering, Shine On, released May 6, marks arguably the Canadian singer/songwriter's strongest album since 1993's GRAMMY-nominated Fumbling Towards Ecstasy — a sentiment with which McLachlan wholeheartedly agrees.

The 11 songs on the newly minted collection span gentle ballads such as "Song For My Father" and "Broken Heart," to guitar-driven tracks such as "Flesh And Blood" and "Monsters" and the piano-driven single "In Your Shoes." An edgier atmospheric vibe reminiscent of her first three albums resurfaces on Shine On, and in contrast, the whole affair closes out with the upbeat, ukulele-driven "The Sound That Love Makes." It positively wraps the emotional journey of an album whose creation followed the death of McLachlan's father, her divorce from her husband and splitting with her longtime label and management company.

On June 20 McLachlan will kick off a North American tour in support of the album, with U.S. dates scheduled through August and Canadian dates launching in October. In an exclusive interview, the three-time GRAMMY winner discussed her emotional songwriting journey for Shine On, why she's not a "Debbie Downer" the importance of music education.

Your music has often had an ethereal quality contrasted by grittiness, and Shine On is filled with many different moods and textures. "Turn The Lights Down Low" features a backward guitar solo and an intro that's reminiscent of the a cappella beginning on "Fear" from Fumbling Towards Ecstasy. What inspired that?
Necessity. We recorded a solo at the very last minute. We were recording in EastWest Studios in Los Angeles with Bob Rock, with great musicians, and we basically had an hour left, [so we said], "Hey, what about this song? Here's a chorus, go!" We recorded a really rough version of what they did, and there [are] some great bits in it, but it was very much a completely different genre, almost like a country song, if you can imagine that. When we sat down to go through the song and figure out what we were going to do with it, it didn't make any sense, but I thought there was something really cool and [the guitar had] a good tone. So, basically what I did is took every two bars, cut [them], flipped [them], moved them all around, and created a new solo.

Many of the lyrics on the album were inspired by the passing of your father, and also by your divorce. You're known for being melancholy, but this album isn't all downbeat. You're going through many different stages, and it feels like a journey.
Absolutely, and I wanted to document that. I feel like the arc of the last six years [has] been huge, from turning 40 [and having] the whole rug being pulled out from underneath me. You've got your whole life in front of you. You've got your husband, your house, your job, your kids, that's all sorted out, and then all of a sudden it's not anymore. That was a big shift. Then my father became ill and passed away two years later. I separated from my management and record company of 23 years at the time, so there were a lot of really big changes that took a long time to happen and a lot of processing. I do tend to process things slowly. … [I was] writing about my dad three or four years after he passed. It took me that long to start understanding what it all meant to me and how to move forward.

"Turn The Lights Down Low" is very much about parenting, for me anyway. It's so funny, the whole "Debbie Downer" thing, because a lot of people assume that I'm unhappy all the time and sit there in the dark and write poetry. I'm a happy person. I'm not always happy obviously, but I strive for that. And when I say happy, I mean calm, peaceful and fulfilled, and that there's not a lot of trauma in my life. We all have suffering. We don't get to this point in our lives unscathed. What I've come to recognize and almost embrace is the fact that we are going to suffer, and it's what you do with that suffering. You either let it sink you or you figure out a way through it, and so much of the process of songwriting for me has been figuring out a way through it.

There are songs on the new album about accepting love coming into your life, such as "Flesh And Blood," which is about that kind of surrendering.
There's a real excitement to it as well. There's a raw, visceral energy to it that I feel a lot in my life, and I wanted that to be emulated in the music. I think "Flesh And Blood" is a great representation of that unbridled passion. … I love being in love. I love feeling it, and I throw myself in 150 percent. You get hurt that way too, but I'm not going to live my life any differently because of that. Again, when you fall, and you're going to at some point, that's when you find out what you're made of because you have to pick yourself back up, sort yourself out, and move forward. That's the juicy stuff. That's the hard stuff, but that's where you grow.

You founded the Sarah McLachlan School of Music in 2001. How has that been going?
Fantastic. We're in our 13th year, and I have over 700 kids in the program. … It's just an incredible program. There are a couple of kids [who] do more than one discipline, but we have a lot of outreach as well. We have 13 schools in at-risk and underserved communities, and we're also doing further outreach to kids who can't even get to the schools. We have guitar, piano, percussion, junior/senior choir, songwriting workshops, and a lot of ensemble stuff. There's a lot of cross disciplinary stuff and a lot of performances. They go out in the community and do performances. They've done videos with me, and we do a Christmas song every year that either the kids write or I [help] them write and we shoot a video for it. There's a lot of stuff that they're getting to partake in because of my involvement, and giving them that opportunity is fantastic.

More importantly, I absolutely don't know what I would've done if I didn't have music in my life growing up. It was in all the schools, and my parents could afford to pay for private music lessons. There were lots of options, and these days [in Canada], and it's the same in America, the music programs are all being taken away the same as the sports programs. It's just so important for kids to have art in their lives, and music in particular. It brings us closer to ourselves and gives us a place to be able to feel things and understand things that resonate in other people and in ourselves. With this school in particular, these kids come disenfranchised from different schools. They've already been labeled, especially a lot of teenagers. They get to leave those labels at the door and come in and are all in it together. There's a real sense of equality and of being in something together that's bigger than yourself. I think we all need that. I think that's what church does for a lot of people. I'm not religious, but when I think about music and about gathering for music, that to me is my church.

(Bryan Reesman is a New York-based freelance writer.)

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