By: Juliette Jagger (@juliettejagger)
Growing up, most girls my age were not listening to Sarah McLachlan’s music on the radio. In 1997, at the height of her fame, our palates were still too unrefined to digest the weight of a song like “Adia,” and we hadn’t yet gone up against the sort of hardships that women in the entertainment industry face daily—something McLachlan was already fighting for.
We were far more interested in the Spice Girls, and busied ourselves by riding our bikes to the corner store to buy foil-wrapped packs of Backstreet Boys stickers or lip gloss, and talking for hours on the telephone.
Those were good, warm suburban summers that I now recall fondly, but back then, when my primary exposure to new music was a Toronto radio station called Hot 103.5, I never would have guessed that twenty years on I’d be sitting on the other end of a landline with McLachlan talking about her forthcoming induction into the Canadian Music Hall of Fame and the challenges of raising her own two young daughters in a strangely Orwellian world.
Naturally, I’ve since recognized the incredible singularity of McLachlan’s voice, and if I’m being honest, often find myself sitting around with a particular old friend of mine, making impassioned attempts at singing the endless list of hits that comprised 1997’s Surfacing.
And yet, despite her stature as an artist who has not only sold more than 40 million albums worldwide, but is an Officer of the Order of Canada and the recipient of ten Juno Awards, three Grammys, and countless other accolades, McLachlan, who called from her home in Vancouver after returning from an afternoon walk in the woods with her dogs, was thoughtful, thankful, funny, and every bit as lovely as I had hoped she would be.
For the next hour, we spoke candidly about the ups and downs of a career that started almost 30 years prior in Halifax, Nova Scotia, when she was just 17.
Discovered by Mark Jowett, who was both a member of electronic group Moev and the co-founder of Vancouver-based independent label Nettwerk Productions (now Nettwerk Music Group), during a gig at Dalhousie University, McLachlan, who at the time was fronting a short-lived pop band called The October Game, was offered a recording contract with Nettwerk. Though her parents, a couple of American expatriate academics, felt strongly that she should finish high school and complete at least one year of post-secondary studies––something McLachlan did do at the Nova Scotia College of Art and Design––two years later she accepted the deal with Nettwerk and relocated to Vancouver to explore the possibility of starting a whole new life.
Evidently, that proved to be a wise decision on McLachlan’s part. Her relationship with the Nettwerk team, specifically her manager Terry McBride (co-founder / CEO of Nettwerk Music Group), endured for more than two fruitful decades and helped to take her from an insecure and musically inexperienced teenager to the multi-platinum selling internationally celebrated singer-songwriter she is today.
All of that began on the back of McLachlan’s debut album, Touch, which was released in the fall of 1989. Though the album itself, which featured fan favourite, “Vox,” was both a critical and commercial success in Canada, it really wasn’t until she met now long-time producer and friend, Pierre Marchand, that she truly began to find her voice and flesh out her distinctly atmospheric alt-pop sound.
“When good things happen, it’s often about being in the right place at the right time,” says McLachlan. “I met Pierre, who is obviously a genius, at the perfect time when I was still really trying to figure out who I was as an artist. He would always say things like, ‘I know that you can do all of these vocal acrobatics but I want to hear what you sound like.’ Pierre just really pushed me. He asked me to sing a lot lower than what I felt comfortable with and he was really instrumental in helping me channel that.”
The result of Marchand’s efforts can be heard loud and clear on the pair’s first collaboration, 1991’s Solace. The album was McLachlan’s sophomore effort and became the foundation upon which the two have built an artistic partnership that not only flourished through the recording of seven additional full-length albums but that continues to endure today.
“I think the reason our relationship has endured is because it is based on a lot of mutual respect for each other’s ideas,” she says. “We also just really enjoy being around each other. I mean, I love Pierre and he loves me, but believe me we’ve butted heads. On the last record we fought more than we ever have––it was mostly about ideas and about whether or not to push them in a certain direction––but Pierre has always taken my songs further than I am capable of on my own, and for that I keep going back for more.”
By the time McLachlan had completed a 14-month promotional tour in support of Solace, which spawned two successful singles, “The Path of Thorns (Terms)” and “Into the Fire,” she was a bonafide star at home in Canada and had also developed a strong cult following across the U.S. But, at that particular moment in her career, it wasn’t record sales or recognition that impacted her perspective the most, it was a trip she took to Cambodia and Thailand to work with World Vision on a Canadian-sponsored documentary about poverty and child prostitution in late 1992.
“I came away from that trip really recognizing how lucky I was. I knew I had hit the jackpot getting a record contract and what a great opportunity I had been given, but beyond that it was about recognizing all of these things I had taken for granted in my life, like clean water, a roof over my head, medicine, my family, a home. All of those things were taken care of without me even having to think about them, but a lot of people in the world don’t have that. To see those challenges first hand, not for a day but for a number of weeks, was really profound. I just came back from that trip with such a sense of gratitude and that feeling really never left me.”
In fact, the experience cemented itself so deeply within McLachlan that it began to trickle down into various aspects of her career and daily life. Her time abroad not only informed much of her third album, 1993’s Fumbling Toward Ecstasy, but also opened the door for what would become a lifelong commitment to support various charitable endeavors including animal welfare, disaster relief, HIV/AIDS, and cancer research.
“When I got to work with World Vision, they sort of explained to me that the reason they wanted me to participate was because they were trying to engage a younger audience to take a bigger look at the world. At that time, I had a platform, and young people, people my age, were listening. In me getting to do that, I got to open up my eyes too, like, ‘Wow, it feels really good to do something important with whatever little bit of power you have, and it’s not hard to use your gifts to do something for the greater good.’
“When we started Lilith [Fair] that just came into an even bigger playground,” she adds.
Perhaps one of McLachlan’s crowning achievements, the now legendary Lilith Fair—which was the most successful summer package tour of 1997—focused on raising money for various women’s charities and on creating an infrastructure for female artists during a time when so many were being blatantly mistreated by their counterparts in music industry.
“Lilith was important for a number of reasons,” notes McLachlan. “Financially, in the three years we were active, we were able to raise over 10 million dollars for charity. Because we were donating a dollar from every ticket to a local women’s shelter and we had our corporate sponsors matching the charitable dollars on their end, we were able to give between 15 and 30-thousand dollars a day; that was an incredible feeling.”
At the time, top-earning festivals like Lollapalooza and H.O.R.D.E were primarily featuring male-dominated acts. Knowing this and that there was a wealth of great music being made by women who were having real success independently, McLachlan and the Nettwerk team felt it was important to bring those women together not only to have a little fun but also to celebrate them publicly.
“There were just so many roadblocks at that time,” she says. “We had so much opposition from radio programmers and promoters who were constantly saying things like, ‘We can’t add you this week because we added Tori Amos or Tracy Chapman’ and ‘You can’t put two women on the same bill because people won’t come.’ It just seemed like a no brainer to me.”
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