[the sea of waking dreams]

McLachlan's Fine Fumble

The Washington Post
September 16, 1994
By Mike Joyce
Listen carefully over the phone and you can hear stock cars whizzing across the television screen as Sarah McLachlan chats up her latest album, "Fumbling Towards Ecstasy," from a tour rest stop in Canada. Hardly what you'd expect to be the viewing choice of a singer-songwriter known for plumbing the dark emotions of the heart. But then, when McLachlan is in the tour mode, as she has been for the past year, she's not inclined to write or contemplate much.

"I'm collecting ideas, but that's about all I can do," she says of her current tour, which stops at Lisner Auditorium on Friday. "Out on the road, it's a 14-hour day, devoted solely to playing the record and promoting it."

Writing for McLachlan, on the other hand, requires quiet and concentration. Prior to recording "Fumbling Towards Ecstasy," which was recently certified gold, the classically-trained pianist sequestered herself for months while working on the lyrics, free from any distractions and temptations. She had just returned from a trip to Cambodia, where she visited parts of the country ravaged by war, poverty and AIDS. The experience, she says, had a profound effect on her songwriting, prompting her to view personal and social issues more sensitively and honestly.

"Basically, I follow a process of getting to a place inside myself where I feel comfortable enough to bring up stuff," explains the 26-year-old native of Nova Scotia. "Mostly very personal stuff about either myself - my own problems - or remarking on other people's problems and trying to put myself into their shoes and see how I would feel if that kind of thing happened to me."

The isolation was essential, she says. "Otherwise, I'd never be able to focus long enough to get anything out. I had been on the road for 14 months, and I had basically shut so much of myself down that I had to deprogram myself and come out again and be whoever I was again."

McLachlan emerged from seclusion with some of her finest songs, sketched out on piano or guitar and told from a variety of perspectives. The themes include obsession ("Possession"), the emotional toll of AIDS ("Hold On") and unraveling love affairs ("Circle"), while the arrangements, crafted in part by Daniel Lanois protege Pierre Marchand, often gracefully underscore the beauty and poignancy of McLachlan's breathy soprano.

"At a very simple state, I take the songs to Pierre and we work them out musically and arrangement-wise," she notes. "He's very integral to the way the album sounds."

McLachlan sees the three albums she's made so far - 1988's "Touch," 1992's "Solace" and her current recording - as separate and distinct chapters in her life, each chapter progressively more revealing of herself.

"I don't tend to super-overanalyze the stuff because I have media people to do that for me," she says with a laugh. "But the older I get the further back in my life I go and the more I progress forward. I just do it. It's instinctual. Part of the secret is to figure out who I am and where I'm going, and I think that's getting stronger on the albums. The truth in the music is a lot stronger because when I was younger I knew I'd hide behind a lot of things."

She's "amazed" that an album as pensive as "Fumbling Towards Ecstasy" has turned gold and thrilled that in America, unlike Canada, she's receiving plenty of airplay. "I really think radio is opening up in America," she says, "but I guess I have to say that because they're playing me now. But I think that the new formats coming in allow them to play me with someone who's a little harder and a little softer. Canada has the problem; it's entirely narrow-minded save for the CBC, which is great. We even have something called 'Canadian Content,' which means that every radio station has to play 30 percent Canadian music. I think that's great, but I'm Canadian and I don't get played."

While "Fumbling Towards Ecstasy" is McLachlan's biggest commercial hit, it's also her most emotionally complex and probing. And as with all her recordings, the songs have been open to a wide variety of interpretations, something that she's not only come to accept but encourage.

"I used to struggle with misrepresentation and think that people don't understand where my songs are coming from," she explains. "Now I think it's great if you have a different twist on it because it means you've taken it into your own life and made it important. It may not be where the song is coming from for me, but that's not the point anymore."

CAPTION: Songs on Sarah McLachlan's "Fumbling Towards Ecstasy" are emotionally complex.

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