The Art of Contradiction

photographs by Mark Van-S

Mondo 2000, Winter 96/Spring 97
Folk siren and recluse, Sarah McLachlan is the queen of contradiction. The candor is there, the complexity, the tensile strength of a soul quenched and tempered by her own excesses.

by Megan Olden

Mondo 2000: The Freedom Sessions are extremely playful and more of a raw energy - a departure from the careful delivery of Fumbling Towards Ecstasy.

Sarah McLachlan: Ooh. You think it was a careful delivery - really? [laughs] That's an interesting way to put it. For me, Fumbling was very much an exercise in allowing the mistakes to remain. And The Freedom Sessions was even more so. It's very playful and loose. A lot of the songs are outtakes from Fumbling, from earlier sessions. I really just wanted to show the process because people assume that the songs bloom full grown like they appear on the record, and they don't. One of the main focuses of The Freedom Sessions was to stop being anal, and stop editing myself and just let things flow. The very name itself is sort of like letting go, letting yourself be out of control. I wish I could get it back now.

M2: It's cyclical.

SM: Yeah. But it will be something different this time. You can't go down the same path again. That would be redundant. I don't want to. I've found none of my old tricks work anymore.

M2: In "Dear God" on Rarities, B-Sides & Other Stuff your voice was almost shrieky. How does your process differ when you're doing a cover?

SM: Well, there's a great freedom in doing covers. It's not your song. You already know it's a great song. I picked songs I had a strong emotional reaction to. In singing that, I was really surprised at what came out of me. I've never sung like that before. At the end of it, my heart was pounding and I was shaking. I got so angry and so aggressive in that last part. I have no idea where it came from. I did three vocals and I couldn't sing after that. I just completely destroyed my voice because I sang so hard. That's where the song asked me to go and so I followed it. But I thought I was going to have a heart attack.

M2: You're currently at work on a new album. Are you about to go back into the studio again?

SM: Basically at this point everything's taken precedence over writing. I've been kind of doing that on purpose - I just needed to have a little bit of a life, a normal life after two years on the road. In many ways, touring feels like suspended reality in that so much goes by you and you can't focus on it because you're moving in this whirlwind. So I really need to get grounded again and I haven't been focusing as much on music or songwriting, more on living, on getting rooted again. Once I'm in the studio setup. Focusing on that full-time, then hopefully the rest will come. I'm in no great hurry.


M2: So performing isn't your favorite part of the process?

SM: Oh, quite the opposite. I adore it. I love playing live. It's the 22 other hours of the day that are in suspended reality. Not that being up on stage and being put on the pedestal and somewhat idolized is not a suspension of reality, because it certainly is, but that's not the reason I do it. I simply love playing.

But you're living in this little cocoon on the road and the world is spinning around you sort of slightly out of your reach. Maybe it's just because I haven't found a way to balance both worlds, it seems like it's all or nothing.

M2: Sounds almost like it's a Through the Looking Glass experience, everything turned on its head.

SM: Very much. It's very surreal. You don't even notice until you've been shocked out of it back into your home after six months of being gone. Okay, you're home now, you recognize these walls, but everything is slightly lopsided for a while. It's probably like being out at sea for six months, or living in a submarine. I lose a lot of myself the longer I'm out. I've become ... not antisocial, but not as social as I used to be. The amount of people I have to deal with every day and be nice to - not that I don't want to be nice to them - but you know, some days you just feel like a bag of shit and you just want to be that and you can't.

M2: Because you're a public figure.

SM: Yeah. Twice in my life I've fallen off the track and decided to just be who I felt like at the moment and have really hurt people. It's like, Oh Jesus, what do you do?

M2: Do you think the content of your work - as introspective as it is - lends itself to people putting a lot of expectations on you?

SM: It is awkward. People often ask why do I lay my heart on my sleeve, as it were. I have this huge separation between me and my music even though when I'm writing it, it's very personal. I'm right in the middle of it and very involved in it. It's almost like I'm two people, or three, or five people. In one verse I'm talking about me, in another verse I'm talking about someone else. But because I'm talking in the first person it always seems like me. Half of the experiences in the song aren't mine, they're me putting myself in other people's shoes. How would I feel if...? And then there's creative license too. A lot of it is pure fiction.

M2: But the things you choose - even if you make them up -- do reflect on you.

SM: Exactly. Whether I'm saying "I" being someone who's been through a terrible relationship and is broken by it - and yeah, I have been - that's the thing... in a particular song, I'm not necessarily talking about me, but it seeps in there and it is personal and people do relate to it, to the honesty of it. That's one of the reasons I enjoy playing live so much. The greatest thing for me about making music is to see people affected by it.

It's not like I want to be disconnected from people. I really don't. The whole very notion of fame is so stifling because it's not just five people coming up to you in a day. When you have that kind of energy aimed at you with hundreds of people, it gets overwhelming sometimes. It's really eerie. I have to build up.. I wouldn't want to say a wall against it, but just a thick skin, or I'd dissolve within it. I have to keep a bit of separation or it just becomes too much.


M2: You repeatedly invoke mother imagery in your music, ranging from the absolute mother figure in "Mary", to a daughterly perspective in "Elsewhere." "Good Enough" merges back and forth...

SM: Yeah, that was one of the songs I was mentioning earlier about how one verse is "I," the next verse is someone else. That song is pretty skewed. There's lot of different things going on.

M2: It seems to parallel your growth from girl to young woman - your songs about a Bildungsroman in progress?

SM: I look at my music as a bit of a diary for myself, as a cathartic way of working through my own neuroses [laughs], being a product of my parents, and my upbringing. That is obviously something that has inspired me continuously, trying to sort out all my angers and my frustrations with my parents, with childhood, with all the weirdness that goes on through adolescence and stuff. I had never had an outlet for any of that before, so it all came out in the songs.

Whether it's obvious to the listener or not, a lot of these songs are very therapeutic in the process of writing them. It made me forgive on a lot of levels. I think one of the reasons I'm having such a hard time right now writing is that I'm so happy. I'm so zenned out and content - I have nothing to write about. It's weird. It's like I don't have any angst anymore.

M2: In the past you've written from a place of pathos.

SM: Most of the time, yes. There's a hole that I'm in and there's a desire to get out of it. Or being emotionally drawn and quartered. And I never find any answers. I don't think there are any concrete answers.

I haven't yet found a place to write from about happiness. I'm not sure if happiness is supposed to be written about. It's something untouchable and intangible for me, this beautiful thing, that trying to describe it would belittle it or would taint it.

M2: Create a parody.

SM: Yeah. It just wants to exist and just be. I don't have words for it. Maybe it's a state of nothing. [laughs] It has similar tones to depression, but just the opposite. Depression is really a tangible emotion that you can sink your teeth into. There are lots of words to describe it and lots of meaty stuff to whine about. I find it easy to write when I'm in that state. Now I don't have a need to do it. I've always said that writing is a selfish act. I've done it for myself to work through things.


M2: What are your creative constructions?

SM: That's the problem. I haven't been able to find my path. A lot of it is a matter of discipline. The other very necessary thing, at least in the past, has been for me to be by myself for a long period of time. When I'm alone and calm and quiet all sorts of stuff comes up, usually because I start to go a little crazy. It opens up all sorts of doors to the unconscious.

M2: That need for solitude ties into Rilke's Letters to a Young Poet, one of your favourite books.

SM: I continue to read it over and over. It's funny. I still haven't finished it [laughs]. There's something that resonates really strongly in Rilke's words. Sometimes I find that he's a bit over the top, a little too dramatic and romantic - I've become a little too sensible as I've gotten older - I love his sentiments, the way he words things ... how things in Paris "echo and tremble differently than they do in the country."

M2: Are your paintings another doorway?

SM: When I was making Fumbling, I went a little crazy because I was living in this cottage by myself in the woods for seven months and it was winter, about minus 35 degrees Celsius every day. It was just hellishly cold, and I regressed to animal form. I went a little nuts. I had just come off of the road again from a year of touring and had been with people 24 hours a day. To go from that to complete nothingness, to complete solitude was just such a shock. I freaked out and started painting because I couldn't write anything but my brain was going nuts. I had all these thoughts and ideas whirling around and no outlet for them. They wouldn't come out in the music and I couldn't sleep, I couldn't eat. Painting completely lulled me and put all the craziness into a sort of focus.

M2: So the writing process was a kind of metaphysical journey?

SM: In feeling so connected to nature I tapped into something great. It made me realize how incredibly tiny I was in comparison to the universe, but at the same time I felt really connected to it and really important in it, and it gave me a real freedom. I didn't edit myself. I just let things flow. I have never felt so strong or so in touch with everything as at that point. I'm there again, but at a really different level. I'm writing tons of music now, just no words. Maybe it's going to be an instrumental. [laughs]

M2: Your artwork reminds me of Gustav Klimt.

SM: Yeah. He's one of my favorite painters. Beautiful. Decadent. Very fantasy-oriented.

M2: Do you see your music as "beautiful, decadent and fantasy oriented?"

SM: [laughs] I'd like to see it as beautiful. I rely strongly on the mood of a melody to bring across certain emotions and I'm terribly drawn towards beautiful melodies and melodies of mourning and yearning.


M2: In "Full of Grace", your voice takes on such momentum, it almost becomes a wail.

SM: That's one of the most depressing songs I've written to date. I had just been through a really hard time with the person that I was with, sort of coming to an end and neither of us really wanted to admit it - it was really hell on both of us. That song came out of that feeling of sinking. You know: I don't know how to get out of this and neither does the other person, but it's just horrible - it's swallowing us both up whole.

M2: So in that cottage you connected to all the beauty, but what about the flip side - the Jungian shadow?

SM: That duality is another thing I'm drawn to. When I say I love beautiful and decadent things, I also mean I find incredible beauty in very ugly things. I like to mirror that in songs sometimes since my songs deal mostly with people and their psyches. What brought them to this. "Possession" is the most obvious example...

M2: Of a darker side?

SM: Yeah, but if you just listen to the song, it sounds like a love songs.

M2: It sounded like a rape song to me.

SM: Well, yeah. [laughs] It is. It has these implications. I fought long and hard with myself of how to write a song like this. It really frightened me that I could write something like this. Does that mean I have that in me? I think we all have that kind of violent streak in us somewhere whether we choose to acknowledge it or not. And we've all been obsessed about someone or something, so I decided to be like a novelist. They write about rape and murder and killers all the time and get away with it. I am that person the whole time. I am that man that wants to gout and possess this person so badly that they would do anything to get them. But in a sense I saved myself in the last verse by saying it will only really exist in my dreams. I'll never really act on this.

M2: A definite eroticism of violence.

SM: I had a few obsessed fans who were writing me a lot of letters based on this romantic, sexual fantasy world that I wasn't in, but they believed me to be there with them. Writing "Possession" appeased me - it was just sort of a sicko fantasy in my brain that wouldn't go any further.


M2: Some of your fans see you as this generation's folk siren, almost luring people with your music.

SM: That's something that's instilled by the image monsters, by the media, by people's imaginations. I'm living in a lot of people's dreams. I'm a fantasy creature.

M2: Are you afraid you might lose yourself in fame, be walking down the street and just disappear like Salinger's Holden Caulfield?

SM: [laughs] I think I'm too level headed for that. I got sucked into it when I was about 23 when _Solace_ was taking off. I definitely really dug the fame thing. But it got out of hand pretty quickly and I just wanted to be by myself again. That door is opened, and if I continue down the path I'm on, it's not going to stop. I have to find a way to put it somewhere and deal with it, not let it take me over. I'm really lucky with the people I've surrounded myself with. I'm just me. I don't put on any airs and if I do, I get smacked in the face pretty quick.


M2: You've grown up under the public eye, once removed through the veil of your music. What is it like to have your personal development on display?

SM: I became famous in a really gentle way. I didn't get famous like Sinead O'Connor got famous - who I really look to as a teacher. Her album came out just a little before mine. She was very opinionated, and God forbid, she changed her mind. The media just dumped on her. Same with Courtney Love who is always in the public eye and seems to feed off that. I'm quite the opposite. I don't want to be written about. I don't want to have my picture in the paper. I just like my own quiet little life. I would have liked it to go on that way. The little bit of fame I had was great, it fed my ego. It still is nice actually, because I'm still not a media darling. I can walk down any street and be recognized by hardly anyone.

M2: Tell me about the guises you shroud yourself in.

SM: A lot of it has to do with revealing some things, but not everything. I want to keep some parts secret. Often I'll put on another character and say things, but under the guise of somebody else. I can always go back and say that it wasn't me.

M2: Put down another veil.

SM: Yeah. As far as image goes, one of the people I respect and admire most is Annie Lennox. She is continually playing with her image, but it's always done so tastefully. I have great respect for her. For the first two or three years of my career, I was billed as this wispy waif. Maybe it was the nice soft dresses and the soft focus. It really stayed with me for awhile. Almost to the point of being reactionary, I tried to be gross.

M2: In being honest you had to be a contradiction.

SM: Exactly. That reminds me of Sinead O'Connor. She just got shat on by everybody. Here's a 21-year-old who's speaking out really loudly about all these heavy social and political issues, and then a couple months later completely contradicts herself. Because she's speaking in a public forum, she wasn't allowed to change her mind. I learned from her that I was going to keep my mouth shut about certain things 'cause I know I'm fickle.


M2: Have you found yourself as role model for women?

SM: The amount of teenage girls at the show the other night was unbelievable. Probably about 80 percent girls under the age of 19. It was really great though because it was a celebration of women in music: me, Paula Cole, Lisa Loeb, Emmylou Harris, and Michelle McAdorey. A total girlie extravaganza.

I've always tried to be non-gender specific in my music, and to be seen not as a woman musician, but as a musician. It's just a word game with the media. Where I feel my responsibilities lie is not really gender specific either. I have a responsibility to human beings first and foremost. I think that way first. But I'm starting to come more into the whole notion of being a woman - what that means and what those responsibilities are. Most of my friends at the show had tiny babies. My dressing room became a day care center. There were four women exposed with little babies hanging off of their breasts.

M2: Did that get you thinking?

SM: I just thought it was so beautiful, such a calm from the storm outside. There's a great responsibility right there. I haven't delved into that one yet. We did get a puppy. We figure if we can handle a puppy then maybe we can handle children. [laughs]


M2: You've become quite techno-savvy with your on-line chats and multimedia disk releases.

SM: Yes and no - to the extent that I talk and someone punches in my answers. I'm a terrible typist.

M2: Does the computer bring you closer to your fans or is the cyber-connection somewhat hollow?

SM: Some of both. Unfortunately the last couple times I've done those on-line chats, I've had someone over my shoulder saying "20 seconds per question, there's 160 questions waiting." I'd rather answer 20 questions well then 100 questions flippantly. I was really pressured to answer only the really simple questions, which defeats the purpose. People were asking really good questions, but they were questions that, because I rant, need to be answered in length. I found I couldn't really do that too well in the cyber-chats. I ended up rounding a lot of corners that I wish I didn't have to.

M2: The medium kind of takes over.

SM: I find it fascinating, from a technology end, that you can do that. It's amazing, that kind of connection. I think I steered away from technology and computers as long as I did because of the sense of ... I'd be talking to people at Nettwerk and they would say, "I e-mailed so and so and they haven't e-mailed me back yet." And they were sitting a few desks apart! Instead of talking to each other, they e-mailed each other. This is going to breed cultural and social morons. When you meet people face to face, you won't be able to talk to them.

M2: The global village as an iceberg.

SM: Yeah. You won't be able to communicate one on one. I mean, that's obviously a rather extreme idea, but it seems kinda scary, because communication is already so fucked. In other ways it's amazing. If you can go online with someone in Russia and ask them about their garden, that's great. But I find certain elements of it a bit disturbing too. There's a control factor too. Everyone glued to these machines. They're our lifelines, you know? You carry around your iron lung.


M2: You seem very happy.

SM: I love my life right now. I'm very happy. I wouldn't mind being a little more prolific. I'm surprisingly unneurotic about it though, which is unlike me.

M2: And you don't feel a need to whip out those neuroses to get some words out?

SM: No. You know, I'd don't want to bring trauma on my house. I'm not interested. I want to find a way to do it in the place I'm in. Bottom line is you can almost count on some crazy thing happening in your life. This sort of calm can only go on for so long before the roller coaster begins again. I'm just enjoying it while it lasts. I'm sure something will happen that will rock my world, that will be less than rosy. 'Cause there's a lot of shit out there, that's for sure. [M.2]

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