Sarah McLachlan | The Canadian Encyclopedia


Sarah McLachlan

Sarah Ann McLachlan. Singer, songwriter, guitarist, pianist, b Halifax, NS, 28 Jan 1968. The daughter of Judy James, McLachlan was raised by her adoptive parents Jack, an American-born marine biologist, and Dorice McLachlan; the family also included two older adopted brothers, Stewart and Ian.

Sarah McLachlan

Sarah Ann McLachlan. Singer, songwriter, guitarist, pianist, b Halifax, NS, 28 Jan 1968. The daughter of Judy James, McLachlan was raised by her adoptive parents Jack, an American-born marine biologist, and Dorice McLachlan; the family also included two older adopted brothers, Stewart and Ian. Starting with ukulele at age four, she played music throughout her youth while rigorously studying classical guitar (12 years of lessons), piano (six years), voice (five years) and opera (three years) at the Nova Scotia Conservatory of Music. She won a local Kiwanis Music Festival contest (see Kiwanis Festivals) by singing Sir Arthur Sullivan's 1861 music theatre piece "Where The Bee Sucks, There Lurk I." Following an early passion for Joan Baez, her teenage influences included Kate Bush, Peter Gabriel, Cat Stevens, Simon and Garfunkel, and the British group Talk Talk. Her first stage experience was at 17 with the Halifax band October Game. Following high school, she spent a year studying jewellery design at the Nova Scotia College of Art and Design.

Nettwerk Records co-founder and talent scout Mark Jowett first approached McLachlan after his band Moev had performed on the same bill as October Game in 1985. Two years later Nettwerk offered her a record contract. Moving to Vancouver, the label's hometown, she recorded her debut album, Touch, with producer Greg Reely following a preparatory stint with musician Daryl Neudorf (who, in the late 1990s, mounted an unsuccessful legal suit against Nettwerk and McLachlan in regard to his songwriting contributions). McLachlan's powerful soprano voice was frequently compared to Tori Amos and Sinéad O'Connor, and her music often described as "ethereal"; Interview magazine suggested that "should a Botticelli angel float into song, she'd sound like Sarah McLachlan." Los Angeles Times critic Richard Cromelin highlighted the album's "densely textured art-folk arrangements and abstract but intensely confessional lyrics." The singles "Vox" and "Steaming" earned modest airplay and the album went on to gold-level sales (50,000 units) in Canada. New York-based Arista Records signed McLachlan in 1989 to release her albums in America.

Trained as a musician but relatively new to the art of songwriting, McLachlan spent a difficult year crafting new material with Montreal-based producer Pierre Marchand. A protégé of Daniel Lanois and former keyboard player with the singer Luba, Marchand helmed a series of recording sessions at Le Studio north of Montreal, then Vancouver and finally New Orleans. The resultant Solace (1991) was a downbeat, introspective set of richly melodic songs dealing with such subject matter as spiritual rebirth ("Into the Fire") and vivisection ("Shelter") and oceanic consciousness ("Drawn to the Rhythm"). The glowing reviews continued, with Rolling Stone praising her "astonishing strength and clarity" as a performer. She earned her first of 19 Juno Award nominations in 1991 as female vocalist of the year. (By 2005 she had won nine Junos, including four during her Lilith Fair heyday in 1998.)

Steady touring, a trademark of her manager Terry McBride's approach to career development, continued to build a remarkably fervent grassroots fan base across North America. These fans came to call themselves "Fumblers" after McLachlan's third album, Fumbling Towards Ecstasy (1993), produced by Marchand in his own Wild Sky studio in Quebec's Laurentian Mountains. The dark mood of Solace continued on the album's lead single, "Possession," which was written from the perspective of an obsessive fan, and "Hold On," inspired by the award-winning AIDS documentary A Promise Kept (directed by Lawrence Zack and R. Alan Gough). The disc also included "Ice Cream," a rare emotionally upbeat number that went on to become an enduring concert favorite.

Without significant airplay and based largely on the support of her concert audience, Fumbling Towards Ecstasy sold over 2.5 million copies in North America circa 1993-96. Nettwerk kept her profile high with a breakneck concert schedule; her touring band included drummer Ashwin Sood, keyboardist David Kershaw, bass guitarist Brian Minato and guitarist Luke Doucet (later of the group Veal). She contributed the single "I Will Remember You" to the soundtrack for the film The Brothers McMullen (1995) and released two other album packages: the live-in-the-studio The Freedom Sessions, among the first CD releases to include bonus multimedia material; and the self-explanatory Rarities, B-Sides & Other Stuff, which included the single "Full of Grace." She also appeared on a variety of benefit album projects, including No Alternative (AIDS research) and Lit from Within (in aid of Canadian rape crisis centres).

Arista Records reactivated "Possession" as a radio single in early 1997, and the surge of airplay in the US set the stage for McLachlan's rapid evolution into a household name. Surfacing, her fourth studio album, was released in June and included her first bona fide hit single, "Building A Mystery," along with the subsequent hits "Surrender" and "Adia." The album stayed on the US Billboard charts for over two years and sold 9 million copies worldwide.

The key factor in Surfacing's success was the first, full-scale Lilith Fair festival tour, which rolled through 35 cities and was masterminded by McLachlan, McBride, Nettwerk's Dan Fraser and New York talent agent Marty Diamond. Designed as an all-female counterpart to such testosterone-heavy rock tours as H.O.R.D.E. and Lollapalooza, Lilith Fair featured McLachlan as headliner at all shows along with a rotating cast of support acts - Tracy Chapman, Suzanne Vega, Sheryl Crow, Emmylou Harris, Fiona Apple, the Indigo Girls and Shawn Colvin among them in the first year. The gambit thrust her into the media spotlight and onto the covers of Entertainment Weekly, Time (the Canadian edition; the US version featured a photo of another Lilith participant, Jewel) and countless music magazines. While McLachlan shunned the idea, the tour gave her a reputation as music's leading feminist - not least because the tour was named after Lilith, who in Jewish extrabiblical lore was Adam's original wife; refusing to bow to his will, she was rejected in favor of the more pliable Eve.

Lilith Fair became the most successful North American concert tour of 1997 according to the US concert-industry magazine Pollstar. Encore tours the following two summers introduced such high-profile names as the Dixie Chicks, Queen Latifah, the Pretenders, Erykah Badu, Cowboy Junkies, Angelique Kidjo, Beth Orton, Dido, Liz Phair, Wynonna Judd, Bonnie Raitt and Stevie Nicks to Lilith stages. An era came to an end on 31 Aug 1999 at a rainy Commonwealth Stadium in Edmonton. All told, more than 2 million people attended the 139 Lilith dates and the festival's tour buses covered 12,327 miles of asphalt. As executive producer, McLachlan donated $1 from each ticket sale to women's shelters along the concert trail; combined with donations by tour sponsors to the Breast Cancer Fund, Amnesty International, Planned Parenthood and the HIV/AIDS awareness organization LIFEbeat, Lilith generated $7 million for non-profit organizations. In 1998, she received the Elizabeth Cady Stanton Visionary Award for advancing the careers of women in music and was named woman of the year by Chatelaine magazine.

The live album Mirrorball and a sister DVD release (filmed at the Rose Garden Arena in Portland, Oregon) were released in 1999 and showcased her Lilith-era touring band: Sood, Minato, Vince Jones (keyboards), Sean Ashby (guitars), David Sinclair (guitars) and Camille Henderson (vocals). Mirrorball generated three Grammy Award nominations in 2000, winning Female Pop Vocal Performance for "I Will Remember You." No stranger by then to the Los Angeles awards ceremonies, McLachlan had won two Grammys in 1998 (for "Building a Mystery" and the plaintive piano instrumental "Last Dance") and would subsequently be nominated in 2001 for her Toy Story 2 soundtrack contribution "When She Loved Me" (written by Randy Newman) and a duet with Sheryl Crow ("The Difficult Kind" from Crow's album Live From Central Park).

McLachlan married Ash Sood in February 1997; their child India Ann Sushil Sood was born 6 April 2002. She focused on family and philanthropic concerns during a three-year break from the business following Lilith Fair, notably founding the Sarah McLachlan Music Outreach program to provide free music lessons to inner city children whose school programs had been affected by budget cuts. She also performed at a variety of high-profile benefit concerts, including a 10 Oct 2002 show in Vancouver with Jann Arden, Bryan Adams and the Barenaked Ladies in aid of the BC Cancer Research Centre. McLachlan has received the Order of Canada (2000) and the Order of British Columbia (2001).

During her hiatus she remained on the charts with Sarah McLachlan Remixed (2001), which featured extended club versions of her songs by such notable remixers as William Orbit, BT and DJ Tiesto (whose remake of "Silence," which she sang with the Vancouver electronic duo Delerium, reached #6 on the Billboard dance chart and served as her breakthrough single in Britain). A version of Paul McCartney's Beatles-era classic "Blackbird" was the lead cut on the soundtrack for the Sean Penn film I Am Sam. "Don't Let Go," a duet with Bryan Adams, was featured in the 2002 animated film Spirit: Stallion of the Cimarron.

Her career sales stood at 22 million units when she released Afterglow, her fourth album with Marchand and first studio release in six years, in Nov 2003. It debuted at #1 in Canada and near the top of the US charts, though critical response was muted. (Entertainment Weekly called the album "comely but slight.") McLachlan made a significant statement with her barebones video for "World On Fire," donating the lion's share of its original $150,000 budget to third-world relief organizations. The five-song Live Acoustic EP was released in May 2004; the same songs were originally available exclusively in the US through the iTunes music store, where they were downloaded over 100,000 times in total and helped establish Apple Computer's online service as a legitimate music retailer. The concert recording Afterglow Live was released in Nov 2004. She re-recorded "World on Fire" with Robbie Robertson in early 2005 as the theme song for US cable channel TNT's historical series Into the West. In 2011 McLachlan was nominated for three Juno awards, including pop album of the year for Laws of illusion (2010), songwriter of the year, and artist of the year. In 2012 she was awarded a star on Canada's Walk of Fame.

See The Canadian Encyclopedia


Touch. 1988. Nettwerk 30024

Solace. 1991. Nettwerk 30055

Fumbling Towards Ecstasy. 1993. Nettwerk 30081

The Freedom Sessions. 1994. Nettwerk 36321

Rarities, B-Sides And Other Stuff. 1996. Nettwerk 30105

Surfacing. 1997. Nettwerk 30116

Mirrorball. 1999. Nettwerk 30140

Sarah McLachlan Remixed. 2001. Nettwerk

Afterglow. 2003. Nettwerk 30332

Afterglow Live. 2004. Nettwerk

Further Reading

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