Afterglow At The Crossroads: Sarah McLachlan

Afterglow At The Crossroads: Sarah McLachlan
originally appeared in Hyperactive Music Magazine, Number 5, July/Aug 2005

Sarah McLachlan writes from the crossroads of the universal and the personal, the general and the particular. Her songs spin off into both directions, but her fans always find a place to get on board. But in such accessible terrain, spotting landmarks can be a tricky business. The lay of the land can be deceiving.

Take the much-talked-about events preceding the release of 2004’s Afterglow, Sarah’s first studio album in six years. During her professional hiatus, Sarah settled into a quiet married life, only to lose her mother to cancer a few months before birthing her first child, her daughter India. Such emotional suckerpunches would have most of us reaching for an outlet, any outlet, and fans expected the same of their beloved Canadian songstress.

While the songs on Afterglow may be about transitions like birth and death, their roots run deep to the coinciding real-life events. “Most of the stuff I’m dealing with is eight, nine, ten years old… What can I say, I’m slow to process,” McLachlan explained. “I feel like I need a number of years away from things or some time and space to be a little more objective before I can write about things.”

So don’t expect to find any saccharine odes to the joys of motherhood or mournful elegies to a lost parent on this record. Instead, look for the sort of material we’ve come to expect from this skilled artist: carefully crafted songs about trials, redemption, everyday seductions, and those deliciously bad choices we just can’t help but make. While McLachlan’s signature sound hasn’t changed significantly in the years since her last release, fans don’t seem to mind—the album and its later companion CD/DVD compilation, 2005’s Afterglow Live, have surged into triple-platinum territory.

But there are hints that the artist is venturing into new territory. McLachlan notes traces of a more true rock-n-roll sound on this disc: of the grinding electric guitar in “Stupid” she says enthusiastically, “I’m really happy with that one… It’s fun to play and fun to sing.” And the title itself evokes thoughts of change and new discoveries: “[Afterglow] is a very transitional moment… the turning over of the rock, what’s underneath, the murky, shadowy uncertainty where everything looks very different,” described McLachlan. “In between when the sun goes down, there’s a sort of a change in the light, which is very beautiful, but also it’s a dangerous time to drive, and shadows appear and things get a little murky… The first thing that comes to mind is this beautiful warm light, but what I think of is the light after a nuclear holocaust.”

That entrancing juxtaposition of beauty and danger has been a thread running through McLachlan’s entire body of work. “What I tend to gravitate toward musically and lyrically is the hard stuff—the stuff that involves work, emotional work. It’s my therapy,” she affirmed. “I wish I could write happy-happy songs; I just don’t seem to be hardwired for that.”

Even the most “happy-happy” of songs on this album she described as “the most self-deprecating love song I’ve ever written.” Written for her husband, drummer Ashwin Sood, “Push” catalogues the sorts of things that make any partnership work: “Even when I have to push just to see how far you’ll go / You won’t stoop down to battle but you never turn to go.” The fine line between plain honesty and self-deprecation may blur at times, but McLachlan walks that territory without missing a step.

Even though the subject matter doesn’t appear in the songs, the recent birth of India did impact this record. Having a child, as McLachlan put it, “devastated” her songwriting process. Unable to work in isolation as she used to do, McLachlan explained, “My focus was just continually being drawn back to [India]… I wondered if it would ever come back.” Unwilling to give up the process, “I think I forced it for a long time, [and] it nearly killed me,” she divulged. “I really did push myself, and it didn’t do me any good.”

For a songwriter whose process has always been fairly organic, forcing herself to work on the album didn’t sit well. “It was the wrong reason to try and finish it,” she clarified, “You don’t finish something because you need to get it done. You finish something because you have something to say. And I didn’t have anything to say. [Taking a break] was the best thing I could have done.”

And so she walked away from the studio. For a couple of months, McLachlan lived her life, focused on being a new mother, and didn’t think about her music. “I just let it all go,” she said, “[and when] I came back to it and listened to all the tracks we had, I thought, ‘This is actually pretty good’… I’d just needed to take that break and stop putting so much pressure on myself.” McLachlan sings about the restorative powers of letting go, and the trust it takes to do it, in her song, “Perfect Girl”: “Don’t worry you will find the answer if you let it go / give yourself some time to falter / But don’t forgo knowing that you’re loved no matter what / And everything will come around in time.” For a self-described “Type-A personality,” it’s a valuable lesson to learn.

There are a few things, though, that this artist isn’t going to let go of anytime soon. Known for her charity and activism on behalf of numerous causes, McLachlan continues to make a difference. And being a mother makes it perhaps even more important for her to do what she can to improve the world. Her inspiration for the song “World On Fire” came from her daughter: “That song was very much thinking about becoming a parent and what the world is, such a scary place that we’re bringing children into, and how you do what you can to make it better for them and just as human beings.”

That sentiment carries into the video for “World On Fire,” in which Sarah and director Sophie Muller highlight the charitable potential being gobbled up by the flashy special effects and sparkly bling currently saturating MTV and VH1. With director and crew working for free, the $150,000 that would have been spent on production costs (not an unusual price tag for a music video) was donated to charities around the globe, including CARE USA, Engineers Without Borders, and Heifer International. When asked about her commitment to global philanthropy, McLachlan explained that she does it “because I can and because I feel an influence to do so. I feel incredibly lucky and blessed that I get to do what I love and make a fantastic living at it and make more money than I ever imagined I ever would or ever desired to. And it feels like the right thing to do… it feels like it’s my way of thanking the universe for everything I’ve been given.”

“Lucky” is a word that recurs in McLachlan’s vocabulary. She says repeatedly that she feels lucky to be making music for a living, lucky to be able to help so many people around the world, lucky to be an inspiration to a generation of young female musicians. But in talking to her, it’s clear that she doesn’t believe that her good fortune simply fell out of the sky. Her formative years set the stage for her later successes, and it was her mission to communicate this to her mother during her mother’s final days. She did it not by writing a song in tribute, but by simply being herself: “It’s my everyday actions… a day-to-day endeavor of simply being who I was and trying to be compassionate and show her that she had done a good job by my actions,” McLachlan explained. “And I also told her I felt like she’d done a really good job because I said, ‘Look, I’m not fucked up—well, I’m as fucked up as the next person, but I’m not really fucked up—I think I have really good values and I think you’ve done a really good job.’ I told her that plenty of times. I think she heard it.”

It’s this kind of honesty that has earned McLachlan her place in the platinum-lined upper echelon of the music business. She writes songs about intensely personal experiences without embellishment or artifice, and without flinching. “I rarely edit myself,” she asserted, “I have no problem putting myself out there in a way that I’m comfortable with.” While being laid emotionally bare in the CD players of so many strangers might make even the most stalwart among us blush, McLachlan has a different take: “In a way, it’s really flattering, and it’s exactly what I hope from music… it’s an amazing thing to reach out and be able to affect people on a strong emotional level who you don’t even know, and to be able to give them something; it’s just a powerful feeling. It’s what I appreciate about music so much and why I love music, so to know that one or two of my songs have given comfort to people for whatever reason, it’s a great feeling.”

As foil to her decidedly down-to-earth nature is the transcendent quality of McLachlan’s voice. A smooth, resonant alto that purls around itself, her voice is an ideal vehicle for such intimate songs. To see McLachlan live is to be transfixed. While the current climate of popular music calls for skimpy outfits and sexy dance moves to perk up otherwise bland numbers, McLachlan live puts such posturing to shame. Eyes closed, her full lips form alluring sneers and snarls around the words as she sings. Her simple, honest delivery has more genuine sex appeal than a gaggle of short-skirted pop tartlets. Her voice veritably glows as it runs the length of her range; guttural growls and delicate falsettos send a shiver over the audience. Goosebumps appear. That the entire audience remains seated until the encore is not disinterest: these folks are riveted by the intelligent, ethereal beauty of the music.

The artist herself could relate. McLachlan talks about music the same way some might talk about winning the lottery: “Music is such an amazing gift, and it can give so much to people. It’s given so much to me.” She counts herself a member of a musical tribe, with a fellowship spanning borders. “The Arts, away from commerce, is the same everywhere,” she declared. “I think artists are typically very supportive of each other.” And as an established member of the family, McLachlan watches out for the young ones: “I think about Avril [Lavigne] at 18 years old having this huge international success and I’m like, ‘Man, how do you get your head around that at 18?’ I worry; I’m like an old mother hen with all these young gals out there who are just getting thrust into that spotlight, and it’s a lot to deal with. You’ve got to have a really strong sense of self, and the grounding of others around you.”

After the highs and the lows, the professional successes and the personal milestones, Sarah McLachlan is standing on solid ground. “I’m very much a normal person with an extraordinary job,” she maintained. While her albums sell tens of millions and stadiums pack just to hear her voice, she stays focused on more personal work. Paraphrasing Rilke, she asserted, “It’s just basically that you’d better work on… becom[ing] happy with yourself and at peace with yourself. And if you can achieve that, you and everyone else around you are going to benefit. And your art is going to benefit because it’s going to come from a true place.”

It’s a bit of a chicken-and-egg prospect, trying to suss out whether the truth or the art comes first for McLachlan, but there’s no question that we all benefit in the process. “It’s always like pulling teeth, getting words out of me. But it is still a very cathartic experience,” she said. “Writing is a way of being able to let things go a little bit, sorting through them and moving on.” Mapping out her personal struggles and triumphs in song, Sarah McLachlan crafts an intimate geography with a familiar skyline. Though the journey is hers, we ride along and find ourselves grateful for the trip. We couldn’t agree more when this sly Canadian said with a grin, “Thank God for music, eh?”