Sarah McLachlan reflects on making music and giving back
Fans of Canadian singer-songwriter Sarah McLachlan don’t just love her music - they love her.
Some have said Sarah’s music - her followers tend to call her by her first name, like she’s a longtime friend - has given them solace or the courage to come out and be who they are.
And McLachlan seems to get as much from her fans as she offers them.
“This all goes back to being 12 years old and so wanting people to accept me and like me,” McLachlan told Rolling Stone in 1998. “I get to go up onstage and have all this adulation. … It’s the best drug in the world.”
Twenty-two years later, McLachlan said her fans’ ardor continues to get her high.
“It’s still the best drug in the world. It absolutely is,” she said in a recent phone interview from her home in Vancouver. “It’s that sense of connection and being part of something bigger than yourself. We all want to belong, and music has given me that sense of belonging.”
McLachlan’s upcoming tour, her only one scheduled for 2020, comes to Santa Rosa’s Luther Burbank Center on Tuesday, Feb. 25, a day after stopping at Oakland’s Fox Theater.
McLachlan is best known for her 1990s songs, especially “Good Enough” and “Ice Cream” from the album “Fumbling Towards Ecstasy” and “Building a Mystery” and “Angel” from “Surfacing.” Yet her recent music, such as 2014’s “Shine On,” can be just as compelling, if less intense than her earlier work.
The winner of three Grammy awards is also mom to two daughters, ages 17 and “almost 13.” Starting in the mid-2000s, she lent her voice to ads for the Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals. The heartrending commercials have been a boon to the SPCA’s fundraising and adoption efforts.
She’s also the founder and principal fundraiser of the ?Vancouver-based Sarah McLachlan School of Music, which provides music instruction and mentoring for about 1,000 at-risk youth.
“I wanted to give back in some way to show my gratitude to the universe,” McLachlan said of her altruism.
But perhaps the effort she’s most identified with is the ?women-centric music festival she founded that bucked industry norms.
McLachlan launched the Lilith Fair in 1997 after being told by a promoter that tickets wouldn’t sell with two women on the same bill.
The music festival - headlined by McLachlan, Tracy Chapman, Jewel, Natalie Merchant, Joan Osborne and Indigo Girls - was the most successful touring festival of the late 1990s, with 1.5 million ticket sales, according to NPR. The Lilith concerts raised millions of dollars for women’s shelters and other women-focused support agencies. McLachlan sometimes hand-delivered checks to shelters of up to $30,000, often the largest donation they’d ever received.
“They would say, ‘This is going to keep women away from their abusive husbands or off the street. This is going to give them a second chance.’ Just knowing I was part of that was incredibly gratifying.”
“Music is like church for me,” she said. “When I feel connected to the world and to the people around me, it’s usually through music.”
McLachlan also spoke with The Press Democrat about balancing motherhood with being an internationally celebrated rock star and making music in her 50s. This interview has been edited for length.
Q: Last time you visited Oakland (in June 2019), you sang “O Canada” before Game 6 of the NBA finals, and your Raptors took the title from our Warriors.
A: Yeah, that was pretty exciting. I can’t believe we (Toronto) won. It’s so funny, we were sitting with a big group (of Warriors fans) and everybody was really polite. They even bought me a glass of wine.
Q: What do you have planned for this tour?
A: It’s fairly simple, stripped down, just myself and a cellist. I’m playing piano and electric and acoustic guitar, and I talk about the songs and life experiences. It’s like sitting in my living room, just talking to people, telling stories. We all go on a journey together.
Q: How have you been able to balance family life with going out on the road?
A: I chose to have kids a little later. I waited until I was 34 to have my first kid and almost ?40 until I had the second one. Then I took a step back and didn’t tour much for a number of years.
I’d been touring quite consistently, sometimes 16 months, two years, out on a record. So when I had my kids, it was wonderful to be able to take them out on the road.
Q: When might your next album might come out?
A: I just keep pushing it, maybe within a year. Sometimes I think I should just record a damn song and release it, instead of waiting.
I’ve got a couple of songs that are in various stages of completion. As usual, it’s postcards of my emotional world and what I’ve been going through, what’s been happening in my life, things that I care about and things I’m trying to sort through.
Q: When you write, do think in terms of making an album with a concept?
A: No, I’ve never done a concept. It’s always by feel, what’s happening in the moment. What am I going through? What am I witnessing? What needs figuring out, especially emotionally? It’s been my catharsis to be able to go into the muck and mire and try to work through stuff through music and through writing.
Q: Is it harder to find that creative fire when you’re in a sweet place in life?
A: It is, for sure. But there’s always drama, there’s always conflict and there are always things to latch onto to try and work through. It doesn’t seem to get any easier as we get older, at least not for me.
I’m going to be 52 tomorrow (Jan. 28). I’m recognizing I have a finite amount of time left. I’m much more aware of my time and how I spend it.
Even three weeks away from my kids, they change. And high school is tricky. It’s been wonderful to be able to be physically present for my kids much of the time. If something happens at 2 in the morning, I can be right there. If I’m across the country, that’s a whole lot harder.
Q: Your songs can have a profound effect on people. Is that daunting, gratifying?
A: It’s gratifying, after the fact. I don’t honestly think about that when I am making music because it’s an incredibly selfish, lonely process, making the music and writing the songs. It’s by me, for me. I’m not thinking about pleasing anybody else.
And crazily enough, I put it out into the world and people seem to enjoy it.
Michael Shapiro writes about the performing arts, travel and the outdoors for national magazines and The Press Democrat.