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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, SURFACING?
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 the end."

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 HALF-SONG IDEAS?
Mm-hmm.

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 DEVELOP FURTHER?"
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 good partnership.

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 TOUR AGAIN?
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 well.

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 AS GOOD.
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 years.

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?
Absolutely.

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 (jennifer[email protected]). Typos were silently corrected by me :)


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