Sarah McLachlan: Tale of the Mystery Builder
by Kyle Swenson
Keyboard, November 1997
reprinted without permission
Is there a concrete explanation for the creative process of songwriting?
There are certain formulaic guidelines: verse, chorus, verse, chorus,
bridge...but no one can really claim ownership to the recipe for the be-all
and end-all perfect song. Even after ten years as a signed artist, with
four studio albums and a live CD, 29-year-old Sarah McLachlan still winces
at the request to talk about the other-worldly planet of creativity. "Oh
nooo," she moans. What's wrong, I ask. "It's just one of those things
that's so benulous, I have no idea how to talk about it and I usually
don't." Shooting straight to #2 on the Billboard 200 carhts with her 1997
Arista/Nettwerk album, Surfacing, and doe to her conception of the Lilith
Fair - a traveling summer festival of female musicians - Sarah is
rekindling the whirlwind of press and admiration that she experienced after
her 1993 album, Fumbling Towards Ecstasy, which went double platinum. Aong
with that fame, Sarah was embroiled in an unfortunate event. In the lyrics
of her 1993 hit, "Possession," she explored the mind of a man who had been
stalking her, writing her endless letters to reveal his obsession. Later,
the overwrought fan sued Sarah for using his rants to write the song, and
then took his own life.
Born in Halifax, Nova Scotia, and later a Vancouver native, Sarah studied
classical piano, guitar, and voice as a child. While singing in a new wave
band, she was discovered by Canadian label Nettwerk and signed after a year
of art college, at 19. Her first album, Touch, went gold in Canada on the
strength of her underground hit, "Vox," and her follow-up, Solace,
penetrated into the mainstream. After the breakthrough success of
Fumbling, her first single from Surfacing, "Building a Mystery."
immediately jumped into heavy rotation.
Sarah and her band (including drummer and husband Ashwin Sood) are touring
through April 1998, only to take a month and a half break and go straight
back into another round of Lilith Fair dates. This is her idea of taking
it easy. "I'm going to make it more of a relaxed schedule," she says.
Sarah's got 12 minutes to give most of the press for interviews. We lucked
out with a half-hour call from Scranton, Pennsylvania, during which Sarah
was constantly being distracted by technicians running around her testing
phone lines, right before she rushed off to another interview, press
conference, and photo shoot. Hardly time to relax.
WHAT INSPIRES YOU TO BEGIN CREATING A SONG? IS IT USUALLY A LYRIC THAT
COMES FIRST, OR A MELODY?
It changes. Actually, it's a bit of both at the same time. I'll be
playing acoustic guitar or piano, just humming, singing along. A few words
and a melody will come out, or a cluster of chords that sound interesting
and a few notes. And from that I just keep working on it and working on
it. Or, other times, musically and melodically, a whole part, like a whole
verse or a whole chorus, will come in a matter of minutes. It's a matter
of, again, fine-tuning. So the initial inspiration can take place of 30
seconds and then the craft of fine-tuning can take the next six months.
YOU STUDIED THE PIANO AND GUITAR AS A KID. WHEN DID YOU REALIZE THAT YOU
COULD BREAK AWAY FROM ALL THE MOZART AND BACH AND CONTRIBUTE YOUR OWN
PERSONALITY TO THE PIANO OR THE GUITAR?
Pretty early on, and much to my classical teacher's chagrin. I would play
the first eight bars of the piece and then start improvising and get my
hand slapped, 'cuase like, [affects scholarly teacher's voice] "That's not
what's written on the paper!" "It feels right to go there. Don't you
think that sounds more interesting?" They'd just look at me aghast.
IS THERE A CERTAIN PLACE YOU GO TO FOR INSPIRATION? IS THERE ANYH POET,
NOVELIST, OR MUSICIAN THAT TAKES YOU TO WRITING A SONG?
For writing a song, no. For other inspiration, yes. But for writing a
song it's more a headspace that I need to go to than anything else. It's
openness and being very calm, which usually has to do with my surroundings.
Other times it can be completely hectic and something will come as well.
It's always changing. It's an elusive thing.
IT IS, AND IT'S KIND OF ODD TO TALK ABOUT IN A CLINICAL WAY.
For me, nothing about it is tangible. It's all instinctive.
HOW DO YOU THINK THAT YOU'VE EVOLVED LYRICALLY AND MUSICALLY OVER THE
YEARS, IF YOU WERE TO COMPARE YOUR FIRST ABLUM, TOUCH, TO YOUR LATEST,
I think that with each record I've sort of tried to tap into, try to get
closer to finding answers, finding solutions. Touch was the first time I'd
ever written music or lyrics. So for me, I've always worked from a visual
point of view as far as imagery, so I really drew from that and just tried
to create words that meant something as far as creating imagery, but also
that sounded good together, sounded interesting together. I think I've
gotten a lot closer to....For me songwriting is very cathartic for the most
part, lyrically especially. I'm often trying to work through a lot of
things. Of course, there is creative license in there as well. So for me,
Surfacing is, I've gotten the closet to....Again, I have no idea how to say
this, because I'm not going to say I've gotten the closest to _me_, to my
essence, because I'm not revealing my essence. I'm revealing my
songwriting skills. But I'm also revealing part of the essence. I just
don't want that to be generalized into...
...YOUR WHOLE BEING?
My whole being, yeah. But I definitely think that the lyrics have gotten a
lot stronger, as far as my ability to express certain things. I think that
has gotten a lot clearer. There we go. That's good. That's sort of what
I meant to say. My ability to express what I'm trying to get across has
become much clearer for me. The path has become much clearer.
DO YOU RECORD SEVERAL EARLY DEMOS OF SONGS AND THEN PICK ONE TO DEVELOP
FURTHER, OR DO YOU LIKE TO SEE EACH IDEA FOLLOWED THROUGH TO THE END?
No. For me, we record a bunch of different ideas on the same song, but
what I do is, I record all the time as I'm going, and I will play the same
song over and over for, like, four hours. And as it evolves, it
evolves...it evolves...it evolves, and then at the end I'm going, "Okay,
I'm finally happy with this. Now I'm going to lay this down properly."
And then I move from there and then I add different instrumentation. But
when I do demos, it's very rough. And for the most part, it's more
developing the song idea and then when I get into the studio I have the
chords, I have the melody, I have a rough structure. Then we start putting
it down for real. But even in the studio that changes. I'll play six
different guitar parts over the course of threee months working on a song,
and then take the guitar out and don't even use it, and then add a
different instrument, and the song goes in a completely different direction
- which is just the luxury of having a lot of time in the studio, because
you can really try out different directions. Fumbling was a good example
of that, and The Freedom Sessions [a 1994 [sic] release of live
performances], because a lot of those songs went in so many different
directions in the studio, that it was, like, "Well, this will be kind of
fun to show people the different places they went to, from the beginning to
YOU BROUGHT "THREE TO FIVE IDEAS - HALF-SONGS" TO PIERRE MARCHAND'S STUDIO
FOR THIS ALBUM. DID YOU CARRY THEM TO THE STUDIO IN YOUR HEAD, THESE
YOU HADN'T PUT THEM DOWN ON TAPE AT THAT POINT?
Oh, I had put them down on tape millions of times at home.
SO YOU HAVE A STUDIO AT HOME?
Yeah, barely. I've got a Mackie 1604 and a couple of ADATs, just a few
effects and stuff like that. But basically, I could have a 4-track, you
know? [Laughs.] It's not like I need it. All I do is press RECORD all
the time and just play for hours and hours. I have ADATs after ADATs full
me of ranting and playing.
OUT OF ALL THOSE TAPES, HOW DO YOU DECIDE, "THIS IS THE PART I'M GOING TO
I just know it. I feel it. It feels good, feels right: "I'd like to work
on that." It could be four bars of a verse progression I've been playing
and playing and I like the pieces of it. It's like, "Ah." You just go
back and listen to them and go, "Ah! That sticks out, that works." And
then I go and play that some more, and then I record again, and then I play
that part some more and do variations on that.
IN THE PRESS RELEASE FOR SURFACING, YOU WERE QUOTED AS SAYING THAT YOU HAD
A PERIOD OF WRITER'S BLOCK AFTER TOURING FOR FUMBLING TOWARDS ECSTASY.
WHAT, ASIDE FROM TIME, HELPED YOU TO GET THE CREATIVE PROCESS MOVING AGAIN?
I was very blocked in every way. I had built up so many walls to protect
myself while on the road and built of so many walls of denial, and it was
an I-will-deal-with-this-when-I-have-time thing. So when I got home, I
didn't know who the hell I was anymore and really and really had a lot of
work to do on myself. So I really had to implode, basically. I had to
take the time to let all that stuff come up to the surface, no pun
intended. Actually, maybe there is a pun intended. [Laughs.] I just let
that stuff sturface and just sort it all out. And of course, a lot of the
songwriting for me is dealing with some of those issues of denial and
repression and feeling responsible for other people's feelings or other
people's baggage. Feeling responsible for other people, essentially -
taking on everybody else's load as well as my own. That was a big issue
for me, touring. That whole world, they have so many people pushing you in
so many different directions. I lost my center early on and just strayed
so far from it that I got extremely lost and my judgment was all messed up.
And that's all on the record. [Laughs.]
DO YOU SHAPE YOUR LYRICS TO FIT THE MUSIC OR VICE-VERSA?
[Long pause.] I'd say I shape my lyrics to fit the music, to fit a melody
line, usually. On occasion, though, I will have a verse of lyrics that has
no music to it, and then I fit the music to that, but usually it's the
other way around.
HOW DO YOU AVOID REPEATING YOURSELF?
I have a wonderful producer [Pierre Marchand], 'cuase I write the same damn
song over and over again. [Laughs.]
HE HELPS YOU TO KEEP YOUR IDEAS FRESH?
Yeah. He never tires of new ideas, and he's always pushing the songs and
pushing me further than I would go on my own. He's great. It's a really
WHAT DO YOU CONSIDER YOUR BREAKTHROUGH AS A SONGWRITER?
Honestly, I think "Good Enough" was one for me. I thought that was a
really great song. It embodied so many of the characteristics of what I
call a really good song.
WHAT DO DEFINE AS A REALLY GOOD SONG?
Something that has a really emotional value to it. It really draws you in
and you can feel a great sense of empathy from it. I think lyrically it's
pretty good, skewed maybe, with lots of different things going on. But I
don't mind that. I really like the way the verse flows into the bridge,
into the chorus. The flow of it is really nice.
HOW LONG DID IT TAKE YOU TO WRITE IT? WAS IT A LONG PROCESS?
It would have been a longer process, because I remember very clearly the
few songs that ever came out easily. I can count them on one hand.
YOU SPEND MORE TIME WORKING ON THIS ALBUM BECAUSE YOU DREADED GOING BACK ON
Certainly. I had a big psychological block: Finishing record equals
touring. Therefore, never finish record. I just wanted to have a life.
The last thing in the world I wanted to do was write music for a while. My
life had become so linear due to what I was doing, touring and doing the
music thing, that I needed desperately to do something else, mainly because
that music for me was a wonderful distraction. But it was a distraction
leading me away from dealing with all the shit I had to deal with in
myself, which is funny that I would say that, because in the end, of
course, the music is one of the ways of helping me to express myself really
WERE YOU UNDER PRESSURE FROM THE LABEL?
Actually, the label was pretty nice. Although, I felt the pressure. They
didn't say anything to me, but I felt it anyway. Like, "Oh God, it's been
three years since you've had a record out. You've got to get another one
out or everybody's going to forget about you." It's like, bullshit! I'm
very lucky. I have loyal fans and I'm a music fan, and anybody who I like,
consistently, when they put out a new record, even if it's five years
later, I don't need to hear the single on the radio. I go buy it.
IF THEY TRIED TO FORCE THAT ALBUM OUT OF THEMSELVES IT MIGHT NOT BE NEARLY
Absolutely not. These things take as long as they take. You have to give
in to it. You have to work and struggle with it, but you also have to let
it take its natural course. That's why our world is so messed up. Nobody
wants to let anything take its natural course. That's another rant session.
DO YOU EVER WORK WITH SEQUENCERS AND KEYBOARDS, OR WOULD YOU RATHER LEAVE
THAT TO PIERRE AND OTHER BAND MEMBERS?
In the studio, as far as making a song more interesting, I'm find and
completely open to that and have worked with those things, but for me,
songwriting is an organic process and I need wood resonating instruments.
Although I have been known to write songs on a keyboard, like on a
synthesizer, because they have a lot of inspiring sounds. And also, we've
worked a lot with drum programs that Pierre's created early on for
inspiration to help the song along.
YOU DIDN'T PLAY PIANO AT LILITH FAIR THIS YEAR.
I was playing a song and we had to cut a bunch of stuff out because our set
was too long, so that's why. And we're playing at the end of a very long
musical day. Usually it's hot and sunny all day and people are tired and
need to be flogged over the head a bit. So we're playing mostly uptempo
stuff. Well, what I am saying, not like we have uptempo stuff. We don't
really. We do play one song with piano, but Vince [Jones, touring band
member] plays the piano and I sing, which is relaly nice for me.
YOU LIKE TO HAVE THE BREAK?
Yeah I do, because I find if I play any instrument it's 50/50. I can't
give everything to one thing.
DO YOU EVER VISUALIZE HOW YOUR ALBUM PRODUCTION SHOULD BE?
No. I can't. It doesn't work that way for me. I can't picture how things
are going to sound. I've never been able to picture how things are going
to look either. You can explain something to me 'til you're blue in the
face and I won't get it until I see. For me the most important element in
everything in my life is just, stay open. Stay focused and stay open.
Things will reveal themselves to you if you are open to them, and they will
point you in the right direction. I've found that consistently with making
music. If you are just open and patient, things will reveal themselves and
they will be wonderful.
WHAT WILL YOU DO TO AVOID THE WRITER'S BLOCK THAT YOU CAME ACROSS LAST YEAR?
I'm not going to tour that long, for one thing, and I've done therapy,
which will help me not to lose my center.
HOW DID YOU MEET YOUR PRODUCER, PIERRE?
He was just given to me in a list of producers, but the different thing was
that he sent a tape of his own composition, which was wonderful. I can't
say enough good things about Pierre. He's just so awesome. He is the most
wonderful producer in the world, because his heart is so open. He's taught
me so much.
YOU'VE BEEN INTERVIEWED WITH FIONA APPLE BEFORE. DO YOU HAVE ANY THOUGHTS
ON WHERE SHE IS AND WHAT SHE'S ABOUT?
I think she's very young, very raw talent. If she's doing what she's doing
now at this age, I can't wait to hear what she's going to be doing in a few
AT ONE POINT YOU WERE THAT AGE. YOU HAD YOUR FIRST ALBUM OUT AT 20.
I was a bit worried for her when I saw how fast she was rising up. But
she's got a good head on her shoulders. Anybody that young getting
famous....It's a twisted world being famous at any time in your life. It's
perverse. North America's idea of fame, I mean, Kato Kaelin's famous for
God's sake. It doesn't matter what you're famous for, as long as you're
famous. People put you up on a pedestal and idealize you. It's wrong.
We're no better than anybody else. We've got the same problems. We're
probably more fucked up than your average person. [Laughs.]
I KNOW THERE WAS A STALKER IN YOUR CASE AND I'M VERY CURIOUS AS TO HOW YOU
DEALT WITH THAT. YOU WROTE "POSSESSION" ABOUT HIS LETTERS....
You know what I tried to do more than anything? I tried to ignore it,
because it wasn't my shit. It was his projections, and I didn't buy into
it. And then he tried to sue me, because he figured, well, maybe that was
the way that he would force the issue and actually get to meet me and then
I would see how much I was in love with him at that point of course. And
then he ended up committing suicide.
WERE YOU TRYING TO SAY ANYTHING TO HIM IN THE SONG?
WHAT WAS THE MESSAGE?
Actually, no. Let me rephrase that. I wrote the song from an empathetic
point of view in a sense, trying to get into a person's shoes who was very
obsessed and lost. It's kind of a sad place to be. Now, I chose to talk
about it in the press. And at that point I chose to talk about the place
behind the song, where the inspiration came from, which is the
unpleasantness of getting stalked, of having an obsessed fan who has all
the weird ideas about who you are and the fact that you should be with him.
So that's where I talked about it and that's where I really talked about
how wrong it was and how society in general is really messed up with this
fame thing. That's when I really started realizeing where I was, what
being famous meant. It's like, I don't fucking want any part of this.
This is gross! I want my privacy back. I don't want some stranger telling
me that he owns me, because I wrote a song that he hears and empathizes
with to the point of lunacy.
IN "POSSESSION" HE WAS SAYING, THROUGH YOUR VOICE, "NOTHING STANDS BETWEEN
UP HERE THAT I WILL BE DENIED." [sic] THAT WAS THE GIST OF HIS LETTERS?
Yeah, like we were "betrothed before birth."
THAT SONG SOUNDS VERY PASSIONATE. IT'S NOT SOMETHING THAT YOU WOULD
AUTOMATICALLY ASSUME TO BE ABOUT A STALKER.
No, and that would be very disappointing if it was that obvious. I like
songs that have many layers to them, the dounble-entendre. Honestly, when
I was thinking about the idea of it, it was like "Every Breath You Take",
the Sting song. [I knew it! - jhd] Maybe unconsciously I took the same
idea with the lyrics. "I'll kiss oyu so hard I'll take your breath away."
It's like, yeah, that sounds really nice, but it's threatening. "I'll hold
you down and kiss you so hard I'll take your breath away."
IS THERE ANY ADVICE YOU COULD GIVE TO A YOUNG SONGWRITER?
Get a good lawyer.
Anybody entering the music business, get a good lawyer and find a good
manager. Find somebody who you can trust, and find somebody who really
loves your music, and even if you don't know what you're doing, even if you
don't know where you're going or where you're headed, find somebody who
will grow with you and not try and dictate. Often managers are much more
experienced than the artist and they know a hell of a lot more about the
business. And they will try and guide you, but there are so many people
out there into it for the fast buck and they don't give a shit about the
artist. It's a judgment call, and that's tough. Musically, know what you
want to do as much as you can and stay true to that, and don't let other
people push you in directions you're not comfortable in.
HOW CAN YOU FOCUS TO FIND OUT WHAT IT IS THAT YOU REALLY WANT?
Surround yourself with good people who you trust, back to the manager, and
anybody else you happen to be working with. Try to be clear in your own
mind what it is you want to do and how you want to do it.
IT SOUNDS LIKE THERE'S SOME SORT OF MEDITATION INVOLVED.
Absolutely. It's a lot of work on self, of being clear in your own mind,
not letting outside influences take you over and push you around, and there
are so many coming at you all the time. This is a job and it's a really
hard job. It's really wonderful and I'm really polkeased that I'm making a
living at something that I love to do, but it's not easy.
Typed by Jennifer Heather Davidow ([email protected]). Typos were silently corrected by me :)
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