Sarah McLachlan Shares What Makes Songwriting Special To Her

On her way to Vegas to perform three nights at the Wynn Las Vegas starting tonight, February 19, Sarah McLachlan took some time out for a quick conversation about songs and songwriting.

But before diving into songwriting, we spoke about another subject close to her heart: music education.

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As her own life was transformed very early on by the love and support of her parents, who recognized her talent and bolstered it with music lessons, she’s been a serious activist for music education. But she’s done a whole lot more than talk about it. She’s started the Sarah McLachlan School of Music in Canada, a non-profit created to bring music education to all kids, not only those whose families can afford it. Her school provides music education to more than 1000 kids a year. For free.

She played three sold-out shows at the Wynn Las Vegas last year,and is returning for these three shows starting tonight, February 19 and also Friday Feb. 21 and Saturday Feb. 22. Called “An Intimate Evening of Songs and Storytelling,” it’s a rare opportunity to hear her solo, accompanied only by cellist Vanessa Freebairn-Smith. She will shine some light into the origins of many of her most beloved songs, including “I Will Remember You,” “Angel,” “Building a Mystery,” and more. 

AMERICAN SONGWRITER:  It’s great to get this chance to talk. You’re not only one of the finest songwriters around, you’re also a wonderful singer. Had you been a singer only, that would have mattered. But you do both.

Sarah McLachlan: [Laughs] Thank you. I had great teachers.

AS: Did you?

SM: Yes, I was lucky that way.

AS: It’s nice you say that, because you are a champion for music education, even starting your own music school in Canada. How did music education impact you?

SM: Well, it kind of saved my ass. Growing up, music was the one thing that I felt really connected to and gave me a sense of my own value, my place in the world. It made me feel like I had purpose when I would make music. When I played music and sang, it connected me to myself, and to the world around me. It made me feel whole and we had vibrant music programs in the public schools.

My parents provided a lot of private music lessons for me. Just having that really strong basis of understanding of music and theory, it just was really beneficial. Who knows where I would end up if it was wasn’t for that.

AS: It starts with the support of the parents, that they honor your talent and love of music.

SM: Yes. It feels like I’m further living my purpose, like I get to do something that’s actually meaningful beyond my own selfish needs and desires. I’m so grateful for this crazy life that I’ve been given because of music. I feel responsibility to give back and to be thankful for the gifts that I’ve been given and the school is a great tangible way of doing it.

AS: Songs have always mattered a lot, of course, but it seems these days, when truth is questioned constantly and people aren’t sure what’s real anymore, that the song means more than ever. Because you can’t fake that. When we hear you sing “Angel,” for example, it’s undeniable. And people need that more than ever.

SM: Yes. I think musicians always have been the tellers of truth. There are things that can be hard to hear in any other way.

Music is a great bridge. A Republican and a Democrat can love the same music and it’s connective. It brings all sorts of people together that normally would never be in the same room together and it helps, it’s like a common ground. God, we need that more than ever in North America, in the world for that matter. Our connectivity’s just disintegrating with digital media as you said and not knowing, not being able to find the truth of the matter at any level anymore.

I think we’re really struggling to find authentic experience, and music provides that. Music gets you in your gut, it gets you in your heart and opens up that space that needs to be there. It’s what makes us be human, to be empathetic and thoughtful. It helps us know how to move forward when we’re struggling, when we’re all feeling alone and isolated.

You hear a song that someone is singing, and it speaks to your heart. It speaks to your spirit. And it makes me feel less alone. Somebody else is going through the same things and they’re able to articulate it in a way that hits me in my gut and makes me feel connected to something bigger than myself.

AS: Yes. And you can hold on to those songs for years, they don’t wear out. If I hear “Angel” today, it is as powerful as ever.

SM: Thank you. People attach music to emotional experience, and to things that happen to them in their lives, and that makes it so much more so closer to the bone, and so much more emotional. I’ve had so many people over the years, with that song in particular, tell me so many stories about what it did for them, what it meant for them, whether it was playing it when their mother passed or playing it after some sort of loss. That’s the most beautiful validation as an artist. The song did that for me and it’s doing it for a bunch of people I don’t even know. What a beautiful connection that is.

AS: It’s true that you started playing at 4?

SM: Yeah. Started taking ukulele when I was four, I wanted to be Joan Baez.

AS: Uke because you were so little?

SM: Yeah. I was just too small for a guitar, so I started with the ukulele and it was also way cheap, cause my parents didn’t have any money. Their attitude was, “Yeah, you’re four, I’m not buying you a guitar, we’ll buy you a $20 ukulele, that’s it, that’s a commitment we can manage.”

AS: Was Joan Baez the one that meant most to you then?

SM: At first. My mom listened to a lot of American folk music. Joan Baez, Cat Stevens, Simon and Garfunkel. Those were the staples in the house. That’s what I grew up listening to. Real strong storytelling with beautiful melodies was what always pulled me in.

AS: What other music impacted you then?

SM: Peter Gabriel. I heard him when I was 16 for the first time and that totally changed everything for me. Because it was very modern and compelling, and very different than American folk obviously.

AS: What music of his did you hear?

SM: “Shock The Monkey.” I remember thinking, “What is this crazy weird music?” The video was a big part of that too. It was unexpected. It was powerful, it was political, it was social, it was passionate and I had to find out, “What is this?” So I did a deep dive into everything Peter Gabriel and Genesis, and decided he’s my hero. This is who I’m going to follow. To this day I want to make music that makes other people feel the way his music makes me feel.

AS: His songs, like yours, are very melodic—

SM: Yeah. His songs have really strong melodies with really smart, thoughtful lyrics. And there’s something about the timbre of his voice that connects with me. I believe everything he says.
It’s like Billie Eilish. You hear her voice, and she’s fricking 17, but there’s something really unique and different about her. When she sings, you believe it.

AS: When did you write your first song?
SM: I co-wrote a few songs when I was between 17 and 18 with a band that I was part of. But my first time writing alone was when I was 19. I was given a record contract, and the idea was that I’d come up to Vancouver and work with all the other bands that were this the small independent label. But when I got out there, the folks at top hadn’t actually talked to any of the bands, none of whom wanted to have anything to do with this 19-year-old punk from Halifax who’d never written anything before. So they told me to come up with my own stuff. I just started plugging away at writing my own stuff, which ended up being on the first record. The first song I wrote was “Out of the Shadows.”

AS: That’s the inverse of what often happens, which is that people spend years writing their first album, and come in with material and writing experience. Yet you started then, and wrote all those songs.

SM: I got handed the golden ticket and thankfully had enough talent and enough understanding about what it is that I loved about songs to be able to formulate a way through. I do remember trying to write songs with 14 chords and they were all like opuses. I had to learn how to simplify, simplify, simplify. So yeah, it was definitely a sharp learning curve. I’m still learning.

AS: It’s amazing how strong those first songs are. Was it tough for  you to write those?

SM:I was 19 and as green as they come. I was super excited about the opportunity, but it took me awhile to develop a proper work ethic around it. I was a little lackadaisical and lazy. I’m actually kind of surprised I didn’t get sent home. It took me about nine months which I now realize is actually pretty short for writing.
But I didn’t know what I was doing, so it was just trial and error. With the exception of making two songs that didn’t end up on the record, everything else that I wrote did end up on the record. I’ve never had a lot of excess material.

AS: I know these days you mostly write on piano. Did you do that then?

SM: No, I started mostly on guitar. I played 12-string. I wrote most of the songs on that. It was a new instrument for me and it was really inspiring. I had played guitar for many years, but a classical guitar. So a 12 string just had so many different sounds to it that it was really inspiring. Most of the first records were written on that, and then also acoustic guitar and piano. I do tend to write way more piano now, but it’s wonderful to be able to go back and forth between the instruments because it brings different things to the music and takes it different places.

I find the piano is a much more accessible instrument for me. Everything just feels laid out in a way that it’s easier to experiment, for me. I can take things further on piano that I can on guitar. It’s an easier instrument to play for me. I think, in terms of exploration and finding different chords and different nuances, those are often easier on piano. That’d being said, if I get stuck it’s great to be able to go to guitar and take it a different place.

AS: Yes, I find that too. They lead you to different places. It’s much easier to do complex chords with different bass notes on piano than on guitar.

SM:  Exactly. It’s easy to do inversions. A piano is like having your whole band; it takes up a lot of space. Whereas the guitar often simplifies it, and it’s often more rhythmic.

If I just play like a simple chunky chord structure underneath something that I’ve been kind of fussing with on the piano, that can kind of bring it back down to a more earthy, simple place. Which, again, is something that I still struggle with. I’m so jealous of someone like Tom Petty who could write brilliant songs with few chords. How do you keep it simple? How do you keep it that simple and still have a really strong song? I’ve yet to figure her out but I’m working on it.
AS: Cool you chose Tom. He did master the art of simplicity.

SM: Oh yeah. He’s amazing. It’s been a really sad time to lose him so young. He was really brilliant.

AS: Do you have a favorite song of his?

SM: There’s so many. But I’ll say “Free Fallin’.” I just absolutely love it. It’s just so perfect.

AS: Yes. And he made it seem easy. But getting to that essential simplicity isn’t so simple.
SM: Right. You need simplicity and authenticity. Pierre Marchand is my producer and we’ve written a lot together. He’s also a dear friend. On the second record he said, “Okay, look, I know you can do all that vocal acrobatic stuff. I know you can sing really high. But I feel that where your truth and your energy is down low.”

That sort of forced me to try and sing lower, more in my talking voice and it made such a difference. That’s when I found my voice.
The first record for me was me looking at Kate Bush and the Cocteau Twins and Peter Gabriel and I was kind of pulling all those references. I was pulling them pretty strongly for support, because I didn’t know who I was as a songwriter, I didn’t know who I was as a human being. I was so green. With the second record it was really about finding where my voice is. What do I sound like? And he really brought that out in me which is so valuable, and such a gift.

AS: You’re always been really great at layering your own harmonies, and singing many vocal parts.

SM: It’s a lot of fun too. It’s one of the most fun parts of being in the studio. It’s very self-indulgent in getting there and layering, layering, layering.

AS: It’s a great sound. Did singing harmony always come easy to you?
SM: Yeah, I have a really strong ear and every single song that I like, when I sing along, I never sing the lead, I always sing the harmonies to it. It drives my kids crazy. They both have beautiful voices and they always sing the lead, which is great, so I do the harmony. I finally got my eldest daughter to sing with me. Not on stage, but if we’re out, ultimately someone always hands us a guitar, and I’ll ask her, “Can you, sweetie, will you please, will you sing `Angel’ with me? Because you have such beautiful voice. And I want to cry every time I sing with her because it’s just such a beautiful full circle. She finally started singing it last year, and I sing a harmony to it the whole time, and it’s just this beautiful, beautiful moment. So I said, “Will you please, someday, sing in the studio with me?”

And she’s said, “As long as nobody’s looking.” She has no interest in the spotlight at all. But she’s got a  beautiful voice. But like me, when she sings she sounds like everybody else that she’s singing. She’s a real mimic. So I’m not sure what her voice sounds like yet. She’s also 17 and basically whoever, whatever song she’s singing, she sounds like that person. She kind of takes on that personality, which I can do too. At 18, if I sang “Wuthering Heights,” you’d be hard pressed to say it wasn’t Kate Bush singing it.

AS: Do you remember writing “Angel”?

SM: It was one of the first songs I wrote for Surfacing. I’d been on the road for almost two and a half years and I utterly exhausted, emotionally and physically. Everybody was screaming for the record. So, I was up in Laurentian in Quebec, in a little cottage and I was reading Rolling Stone and I read the article about the Smashing Pumpkins keyboard player who had OD’d on heroin in a hotel room, and it struck me so hard, the tragedy of that and the empathy that I felt. I know that feeling of being drained and alone and in another hotel room and another day by yourself, away from your family, away from the anchors that holds you to the earth, and just wanting so desperately to find some relation, some escape that you’re not able to find naturally.
I’ve never done heroin in my life and don’t intend to, but I just understood that pain. I felt a flood of empathy. That song came out in like two days, which pretty much never happens for me. It’s more like stacking a bunch of stones [laughs] to write songs. I think because it’s hard to go there, it’s this thinking into the tough stuff that you don’t really want to deal with. But that’s also the greatest gift for me. It’s always been so cathartic as a writer to have an opportunity to go there and find a way through with writing.

Songwriting is lovely and it’s isolated. But it’s also very necessary. For me it’s been my therapy. That’s been how I move through loss, sadness, things that I’m struggling with, things I’m trying to figure out and overcome. Music has always been that tool for me. It’s like an emotional release to be able to go in and to write about it. It’s how I process it.
It’s sort of like having all these pieces of a puzzle that are unclear. It’s like when you have a slab of granite and you have to create something out of it and you have no idea. I have no idea what the song’s going to be. I follow whatever thread is revealed to me in the moment and go down that path until it feels like there’s a wall and then I let go and I step away from it and then try something else and maybe come back to it a week later or the next day, and plug away at it again and see if there’s a new thread that takes me further.

It’s a process of discovery, both lyrically and musically, although I will say the music comes way more naturally to me and it flows much more naturally than words. The lyrics are the biggest struggle, to try and hold onto a thread and go down that path with it and to figure, okay, what do I want to say? What is this revealing to me and how can I expand on it? How do I tell the story and show something that has been revealed? How can I do this? What’s the thread? And I never know what it’s going to be. I don’t go in saying, I want to write a song about X. I’ve done that, maybe, once or twice in my life, but usually not. I just let things flow, or not and just discover that way.

AS: That’s such a beautiful way of explaining it. It is always about discovery, following where the song is leading you. You can’t calculate a song.

SM: Yes. Some people can do that, I think, and that is a discipline that some people are good at. But it’s never been my process. For me it’s always about feel. Everything in my life is about feel. Does it feel right? Does it feel good? Does it feel authentic? Are you lying right now? Are you being honest with yourself? How much are you pushing it? How much do you feel comfortable telling this particular story? Are you being honest?

And then there’s always creative license as well, because I write from an emotional point of view and I’m often writing about other people in my life. Much of what I write about is human interaction and how we relate to each other, which I find fascinating.
But ultimately, my lovers or my friends or my children find their way into the music. And I have to, on occasion, just skip that and find ways of telling the story so as not to really offend or hurt anybody. That being said, I find myself editing myself less and less in that regard as I get older. Because this is how it was. So I’m just going to stay with it and let the chips fall where they will.

AS: Do you usually finish the melody first and then work on lyrics, or do both at the same time?

SM: Both at the same time. But the music is more fully formed often before the words are. And I think often what happens is there’s like a phrase, there’s a sentence or a phrase, theoretically, that falls in line with the melody. Then I need to figure out how to expand on it. How do I tell a story around it? That’s where the process of discovery comes in. I follow that line of thought and see where it takes me.

AS: In your experience, have you found any methods which help you get to that place of discovery?
SM: For me it’s about clearing out my brain. It’s pretty cluttered, I’m wearing a lot of hats and a lot of things going on, I’m ADHD, so my brain is flitting about all the time on a bunch of different things. So, one of my best tools for focusing is I go in the woods, I hike every day. I have a dog and I usually go by myself, a good hour and a half, two hours every morning and I just write. I think, I write and I’m clear headed because there is nothing around me.

AS: You mean you’re writing while you’re walking, that’s when you’re working?
SM: Yes. That’s a big part of it. Then of course I also sit at the piano every day, but often it’s after being out in the woods. After that, I go back and sit down at the piano and looks at the lyrics I wrote to see how they fit in now with the music.

AS: Writing in motion is good, isn’t it? Driving too.
SM: Yeah. Sitting on a surfboard, waiting for a wave to come, same thing. Whatever song I have in my head and I’m working on the moment, I just sit there and sing it and see if something else comes. It’s like having those moments of calm and clarity where there’s nothing else happening. But usually I’ll have 50 things going on in my head and a thought will just pop in.
AS: Do you have any idea what makes a melody compelling?

SM: [Pause] It has to move you. It has to grab you somehow and pull you in.
AS: One last question: Do you feel meaningful songs will continue to be written, and will always matter?  

SM: I sure hope so. Yeah. I think it’s a valuable and important means of expression. I think we’re all desperate to be on the receiving end of that beauty and that understanding, and many of us have a need and I think we’ll continue to have a need to express ourselves Whether it’s visual art, music, literature, people have stories that need to be told and they will always have stories that need to be told and that need to be heard.

Sarah McLachlan at Wynn Las Vegas.
Ticket Information

Dates: Feb. 19, 21-22 at 8 p.m.

Public On-Sale: Friday, Nov. 22 at 10 a.m. PT

Price: $59.50 – $179.50 plus applicable fees

Points of Purchase: Wynn Las Vegas Box Office (702-770-9966)

For more information on The Sarah McLachlan School of Music:

Calling all music aficionados! Purchase your tickets now for Sarah McLachlan’s 2024 tour and be part of an intimate and emotive live experience.

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