Songwriting Business

Sarah McLachlan Finds Her Own Walden Pond

by Bill DeMain

Thoreau once said that every writer's duty was to give "first and last, a simple and sincere account of their own life." More than his sage words reached 26-year old singer/songwriter Sarah McLachlan. In preparing the songs for her latest release, Fumbling Towards Ecstasy (Arista), the Canadian songstress, perhaps inspired by Thoreau's Walden experience, retreated to an isolated cabin in the mountains for nearly seven months of meditation and soul-searching. "It was just an amazing time for me," she relates.

The results of her temporary sabbatical are intensely personal, emotionally rich, dark, moody, stirring songs like "Good Enough," "Plenty," "Possession," and "Circle." Listening to these songs, one can almost hear McLachlan going through cathartic changes, making discoveries about her self and her life. Indeed, several times during this interview, Sarah talked about the songwriting process as a self-therapy. "It's given me so much, as far as learning about myself," she says.

Born in Halifax, Nova Scotia, Sarah McLachlan studied guitar and piano as a child. She remembers being drawn to the sounds of such seminal folk/rock artists as Cat Stevens, Joan Baez and Simon & Garfunkel. Later, as she reached her teens, it was Peter Gabriel's music that touched her most. "The emotional response you get from his songs, because of the honesty, that really inspired me to find my own voice and write from that point of view," she says.

At 19, she signed a recording contract with Nettwerk Records. The first ten songs she wrote comprised her debut, 1988's well-received Touch. Her sophomore effort, 1991's Solace announced McLachlan's talents to the world and brought into focus her intimate, moving vocal power and evocative songwriting gifts.

Currently on an extensive tour supporting her new release, Sarah McLachlan recently stopped to share her thoughts on writing, art and solitude with The Performing Songwriter.

You said that it took about six years to learn how not to edit yourself and remain open in your music...

(laughs) Hopefully I'll get that back again someday.

What kinds of things can a songwriter do to reach that place in their writing?

Well, for me on this new record, it was mainly secluding myself, being away from society and being away from everything. I locked myself up in a cabin in the mountains and stayed there for seven months. It was just an amazing time for me to really focus on a lot of stuff that had sort of been lurking behind the scenes in my brain, but never had the time to come out. Or it kept being put aside, because there were so many distractions. Also I think, I got incredibly in tune with the earth, with nature, like I hadn't before. I couldn't write a thing for three months. My brain was eating itself. It was terribly cold out and I couldn't do anything creative. I was just frozen.

Everything was churning around inside but nothing would come out. Then spring happened and everything totally opened up. I was blossoming as well. Most of the songs—I had written four previous to going to the cabin—were written then, about seven of them, between April and May. The place that I got to in myself of feeling calm and peaceful and also for the first time in my life, feeling I'm happy now. Not 'I would be happy if . . . ' There was always that going on with me. I finally got to a place where I was totally happy and peaceful and living in the present tense instead of in the future, you know and projecting things.

Did you go into that experience with any sort of agenda?

Well, in the process of not being able to write, I kept a journal, these sort of morning pages. I wrote three pages before I'd do anything else, just to try and clear my head. Most of it was totally banal like mmm, coffee smells good, I have nothing to say, I have nothing to say (laughs) for ten times. But sure enough, about midway through the second page, sometimes I'd really open up and all this stuff would come out. You know, you're not really awake yet and you're just sort of spewing whatever's on the top of your head sort of free form. And there was no editing happening there at all, because no one was going to read this book. I could say whatever I wanted. I didn't have to hide behind anything, and I think that really helped me. To be really open and honest with myself, that was good. I'm pretty good at deceiving myself or I've known myself to do that in the past (laughs).

Did you listen to music while you were there?

I listened to a lot of Tom Waits, and Talk Talk's Spirit of Eden, which is one of my favorites.

The opening lines of your songs are always captivating and they seem to contain the germ of the whole song in just a few words.

I figure the first two lines usually tell the whole story of a song (laughs). The first two lines are what comes out first when I'm writing, and they basically tell which direction, for me lyrically, the song is going to go. Sometimes those two lines will sit for months by themselves, until they find a completion to the story, or a completion to the stage that I'm in of trying to work through something, until hopefully I'm somewhere near the other side of it, when I can be a little more objective and write it down. It's the same with titling the songs. Most of the song titles come from the last word in the second line (laughs).

Say you have those two lines and the music wants to continue. Will you let it go on without words?

Unfortunately, I often try to fill it in. I'm sort of still a bit stuck to that convention of writing a song with a four-line verse, the more traditional phrasing of a stanza or whatever. So if there are only two lines, there usually end being four lines. I work at making it four before I stop (laughs). But there's also this thing, when I go in the studio, Pierre (Marchand, her producer) is great at editing. He'll say, why don't you just not sing that line, do you really need to say that, you kind of already said it. He has done that, which is something that I can't really do, because I'm not as objective about it. And I don't see things from the same direction that he does, which is why he's so good to work with.

Do you demo songs before you go into the studio?

Well, I demo them in a very simple way, with acoustic guitar or piano. Sometimes a drum machine. But my sort of restrictions on myself for going into the studio are making it strong by itself in the simplest form. So if you're hiding behind a lot of production, if you take it away, you can still play that song and it'll still be strong on its own.

You mentioned a drum machine. Do you ever write with just a groove?

I have never have before. I'm pretty lazy as far as technology, and I think it's something I'll probably have to get more into, because I'm sort of exhausting the instruments that I'm using, or exhausting the inspiration that they give me. I can go back and forth, but I don't have a piano, so I end up doing a lot of stuff on guitar. But when I was in Montreal I did, so a lot of this record came from piano because it was such an exciting thing, a new sound, a new instrument. That happened with electric guitar as well. I started writing with that, because it was a new sound. So maybe I will get into the drum machine. I just have to learn how to use the damn thing first (laughs). I always fight against technology. I want to be grass roots and I want where it comes from to be organic.

Well it sounds like you have a good combination with your producer, because he strikes me as a technically minded guy...

Oh, he's amazing that way, because he's such a techno-head. But at the same time, he totally comes from the organic sense of letting the song happen in whatever direction it goes in. Just following and not pushing the song for any wrong reason, whatever feels right go with it.

A lot of your songs have an air of mystery and darkness. Is there something you do during the writing process to conjure this mood?

(laughs) I just think it's what's in my brain. It's not that I'm really pessimistic or anything—I'm not. But I sort of like the effect of two sides of things—one being really pretty and one being really ugly, like when you lift up a pretty rock and there's all these mites and worms underneath it (laughs). I think that sort of came from this one poem I read in grade nine. It's funny, the little things that stick with me my whole life. Wilford Owens, he's a World War I poet and he wrote about being in the field in the war and all the horrors that went on. But somehow, without glamorizing or romanticizing it, he made it incredibly beautiful. In the same breath, he'd be talking about something horrendously grotesque. I just really loved that. That's actually where the title of the record came from too, "Fumbling Towards Ecstasy." It was taken from a line in one of his poems. "Quick boys, in an ecstasy of fumbling we fit the masks just in time . . ." and I thought that was amazing, that "in an ecstasy of fumbling." It was so beautiful, and since grade nine I've been trying to fit that into something (laughs). I sort of have a little library of phrases and words in my head that I like. Like "murmur." Never been able to use it yet, but it's a beautiful word. I like words that say so many things. Language is such a beautiful thing and words are so amazing.

Tell me about writing "Possession." Were you writing from a male point of view?

Yes. I tried to put myself into their shoes, into the mind of someone who is so obsessed with another person that they could conceive murdering them. It took me awhile to justify that one. As a woman, living with that fear in the back of your mind every day with the possibility of being raped. And so, it's kind of weird for me, but then I save myself in the third verse by saying I'd never really act on it, except in my dreams. And maybe that's putting me into a false sense of reality, but it did help. Not just that, but writing the whole song, was kind of a cleansing thing for me, because I had two people in particular who just became incredibly intense with the fantasy world that they created, and demanded that that was reality and we had to be together. And they went to great lengths to make this happen. It became frightening, but it ticked me off that I had to look over my shoulder every time I walked out the door. There was one point where I was told I'd have to have a bodyguard. It was like, screw that, I don't want to live in fear. It makes me so angry.

When you're writing a relationship song, do you keep a particular person in mind while you're doing the lyric?

Yeah, I usually do set up a fairly clear image of who I'm talking about. "Plenty," for example, is definitely aimed at another individual. I tend to switch people in a lot of the songs. Sometimes I'll say "you," and sometimes "I" and I'm not really sure why I do that.

What was the inspiration behind "Good Enough?"

A lot of things. That song has been such an amazing experience for me because I've learned so much from it. There's so many different stories that I attach to it now. But it sort of came from, initially really missing my best girlfriend. It started out as fiction, about a couple in which the woman was pretty much alienated by just about everybody, because her husband was really abusive and domineering, which sort of somewhat mirrors my mother and father's relationship. And basically, I am the friend coming in, saying hey, you deserve more than this, why don't you come with me and I'll take care of you. The video that I'm going to do for that song is the first sort of dramatic narrative that I've done. Everything else has been pretty abstract, trying to find a parallel universe to describe it differently. But we're going to have a little girl, a man and woman, and a friend, possibly an imaginary friend. We're going to look at the relationship between the little girl and her friends and also between the mother and the little girl. And there's quite a bit of alienation from the father, who's been behind the scenes the whole time anyway.

How much input do you have as a songwriter as to how your songs are interpreted in a video?

A lot. I'm very lucky in that the record company I'm signed to has given me a 100% creative control, pretty much from the start. It's been amazing. I've directed a couple of the videos, and the ones I didn't direct have been my concept, because I simply don't know the language of film. I've entrusted my vision to other people, and have been quite well represented. I'm actually working with one of my best friends on this film for "Good Enough." Her name is Kharen Hill, and she's done most of my photos in the past six years. She's amazing. We talked a lot about what the song meant, and we got this whole narrative thing going. It's going to look really beautiful, and it's the first one that's going to be literal.

Love is usually something that's idealized in pop songs or expressed in a co-dependent, I'll die without you sort of way. What do you try to do with the concept of love in your songs?

In the past, I thought it was really a great thing, but it turned out to be really bad, so what does that mean? I tend to try to analyze the mistakes, or what went wrong. Why did this not work? Usually I turn to myself and ask what's wrong with me, or where did I go wrong? Then I turn to them and ask where did you go wrong? So I guess I'm trying to show that hopefully—it depends on the song—it's not any one person's fault. It's like there's two people involved. I'm focusing more on the emotion of what people go through when love does go away, or when people break up. The anger, the frustration of why did it go wrong. I tried so hard, or maybe I tried too hard (laughs). It depends. On this record, on "Plenty," I decided I was in love with somebody. The problem was that I had projected the image of the perfect man on to them. And they sort of played up to it as well. Then it sort of crumbled fairly quickly, and there was a frightened little boy behind that facade. It was wild for me, because it was the first time I'd really deceived myself in such a grand manner. I wanted to believe it, so I forced myself to believe.

Are songs an act of discovery for you?

Yeah, and sometimes long after the fact. Going back to "Good Enough," one of the things I was focusing on was don't tell me why he's never been good to you, don't tell me why nothing's good enough. For a couple years, every time I'd see my mom, I'd say, you know, you deserve more, you deserve to be happier than you are. Why are you putting up with this? Basically telling her that the only thing she knew sucked. So she never wanted to see me, and I wondered why. I couldn't understand it, then I wrote that song. Around the same time, I tried reverse psychology and didn't hassle her anymore and just accepted that she had accepted. Then she opened up. She completely changed and she started saying, I'm not going to accept this anymore, I'm changing this and this and this. It was fantastic, because I wasn't beating it into her, she was doing it on her own. That song taught me that. I have a lot of emotional attachment to that song.

Is it difficult for you to keep emotional connection with your songs over the course of a tour?

It does fluctuate, but I've found that with these new songs on Fumbling, it's been really easy to keep the connection. I don't know if that's because they're fresh and new or if it's because they're the strongest songs that I have yet. The good thing is that usually I can remember the places that they came from when I sing. I don't remember what they're about so much as the place that they came from, the mood that I was in, the strong, quiet place that I was in when I was writing it. And that gives me a lot of happiness. Sometimes I'm going through emotions, singing the songs and not even listening to the words, but having some weird memory of sitting under a tree and feeling happy (laughs). Other times I'm thinking about my laundry list. The weirdest things go through my head when I'm singing. I'll think about what I said five minutes before, like man, that was stupid (laughs). But I'll still be singing.

I don't think I've ever heard anyone talk about what goes through their minds when they're singing their songs.

(laughs) All sorts of crazy stuff. Just life, like oh man, The Canucks lost, what a drag, and you'll be singing very well and emoting, but little flashes will come in of other things. Then all of a sudden I'll find myself at the end of verse. How did I get there? Wow, I guess I got through it, but I was someplace else. That happens fairly often in certain songs.

Sir Laurence Olivier once said that when he was acting Hamlet on stage and bringing the audience to tears, he was sometimes wondering if his shirts would be ready at the cleaners the next day.

(laughs). It makes sense. You do something like that every night. One night—and I never ever watch TV—but I've become involved in hockey, and it's really fun. So I was watching a game before a show and when I got out there on stage, the TV had sucked all my memory away. Before every line of every verse and chorus, I was terrified right up until it came out that it wasn't coming out, that I'd forgotten it. It just freaked me out. Not too many people noticed it in the audience because I'd hit most of the lines. But I asked an actress friend of mine and she said that it'd happened to her before. You've just got to trust that it's there. You're just blocking it because of your fear. You've got to get rid of that fear, so think about that laundry list, think about mowing the lawn, and it'll be there.

What would you like to accomplish as a songwriter?

I'd like to keep trying to be able to work through things. Songwriting is such therapy for me. It's given me so much, as far as learning about myself. I'd like to be able to keep doing that and that's it. That's everything to me, just being able to work through things. I guess an offshoot of that is other people listening to it and being able to get something for themselves.

Do you have the sense that what you're doing will last?

Yes, it certainly will last for me. I'd like to think I'll keep writing and getting better and better. I hope (laughs). I'm really proud of what I've done so far, and that pride hasn't diminished in any way.

What advice would you give to someone looking to make music their career?

I'd tell them to go read Letters to a Young Poet by Rainer Maria Rilke, because his advice is better than any advice I could ever give.


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