Sarah McLachlan - Biography
By Marcus Kagler
As the antithesis to the wildly popular grunge aesthetic of the early-to-mid 90’s, Sarah McLachlan largely paved the way for the even more popular female driven adult alternative pop movement during the latter half of the decade. Her massively successful song formula built on streamlining moody, ambient and unconventional alt-rock continues to be emulated today and by the late 90’s, she was the poster child for a mainstream feminist movement that was more incorporative and non-threatening than militant, thus appealing to both men and women from multiple generations equally. Yet labeling McLachlan a feminist in the traditional sense is something of a misnomer. True, she does champion woman’s rights yet lyrically McLachlan largely focuses on big philosophical issues, particularly death and rebirth. When she does take a turn at mainstream subject matter like love songs they’re more imaginative and playfully bittersweet than your typical boy-meets-girl fare. After all this is the same woman whose signature song compares love to ice cream. Unlike her female musical artists from generations prior who championed a feminist movement largely based on sexual expression, McLachlan cultivated a feminism based on intellectualism, tolerance, and a spiritually Zen bent. The all female roster of the various Lilith Fair festivals, which McLachlan founded and curated, was more about celebrating women from multi-ethnic and cultural backgrounds, often featuring artists from diametrically opposing genres sharing the same stage, than it was about promoting a feminist political agenda. In essence, Sarah McLachlan proved women artists from across the musical spectrum, be they from hip hop or folk music, can be just as creative, relevant, and most of all lucrative as their male counterparts without resulting to sexual gimmickry. Although her popularity has waned in recent years with her releases fewer and further between, McLachlan will always retain a certain legitimacy in popular culture whether she is topping the charts or not.
Born in Halifax, Nova Scotia on January 28, 1968, Sarah Ann McLachlan studied classical piano, guitar, and took voice lessons as a child before entering the Nova Scotia School of Design as an art student. In her teens she fronted the alternative rock group October Game and was offered a solo recording contract with the Vancouver based Nettwerk label after the band’s very first live concert. At the behest of her parents McLachlan ultimately turned down the contract in favor of finishing school. Two years later, she took Nettwerk up on their offer and relocated to Vancouver to record her debut full length despite the fact that she had yet to write a single song. Only 19 years old at the time, Touch (1988 Nettwerk) took a lush synth based approach akin to Kate Bush and made a moderate impact in Canada on the strength of the single, “Vox”. After being certified gold in Canada, McLachlan signed an international distribution deal with the major label, Arista, an arrangement that significantly raised her profile in the U.S. and Europe. McLachlan’s trademark ambient beauty combined with sultry pop hooks and angelic vocal arrangements truly surfaced on her sophomore full length, Solace (1991 Arista) the first album recorded with long time producer and songwriting partner Pierre Marchand. Although the album only made a respectable splash within U.S. and European alternative scenes, the singles “Path of Thorns (Terms)” and “Into the Fire” enjoyed significant crossover mainstream success in Canada making McLachlan one of the country’s biggest breakout stars of the year.
After a 14 month international tour, McLachlan traveled to Cambodia and Thailand to take part in World Vision, a documentary designed to raise awareness about child prostitution and poverty. Upon returning to Canada, McLachlan entered a Montreal studio with producer Marchand for an arduous six month recording process for her third full length. Characterized by profound ambient beauty and McLachlan’s dire ruminations on death and loss, Fumbling Toward Ecstasy (1993 Arista) is widely considered her breakthrough album yet contrary to popular belief it took the record nearly two years to register as an international mainstream success. The sensual dance number, “Possession” and the more intimate acoustic version (featured as a hidden track at the end of the album) became worldwide alternative hits that slowly crossed over into mainstream radio as did the subsequent single, “Hold On”, a powerful treatise on the death of a loved one. In 1995, she scored an international hit with “I Will Remember You” from the soundtrack to Edward Burn’s debut independent film The Brothers McMullen. The first volume of her rarities compilations, Rarities, B-Sides, and Other Stuff (Nettwerk) followed in 1996. By the end of the year McLachlan had made significant headway into the mainstream radio and although she still wasn’t quite a household name, she was primed and ready for international mega stardom if she could produce a worthy follow up album to secure it.
McLachlan more than delivered with Surfacing (1997 Arista), her most successful album to date. An instant hit, Surfacing sold a whopping 11 million copies worldwide, and spawned four massively successful singles with “Building a Mystery”, “Sweet Surrender”, “Adia”, and “Angel”, which would resurface four years later as a unifying anthem after the terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001. Capitalizing on her new status and success, McLachlan founded the Lilith Fair festival, a traveling music and arts event featuring an all female line up with McLachlan acting as headliner and curator. Named after the Jewish legend regarding Adam’s alleged first wife, Lilith, the first festival in the summer of 1997 featured such luminaries as Sheryl Crow, Jewel, Fiona Apple, and the iconic Emmylou Harris amongst others. In subsequent years the Lilith Fair would diversify by incorporating a strong hip hop, R&B, and country music presence featuring Missy Elliott, Queen Latifah, The Dixie Chicks, Martina McBride, Mya, and Me’ Shell Ndegeocello. McLachlan curated and headlined the festival for three successful years but by the end of 1999 the full time job of running the traveling concert had begun to cut into her songwriting and McLachlan subsequently closed down the Lilith Fair for good. In its three year run the Lilith Fair raised over $7 million for various charities and entertained an estimated 2 million concert goers, making it one of the most successful festivals of the 90’s and the most successful all female music festival in history.
McLachlan embarked on her first (of many) prolonged hiatus at the dawn of the new millennium, only releasing the live album, Mirrorball (Arista) in the summer 1999 and making just a handful of one-off live performances in subsequent years. While recording her long overdue follow up to Surfacing she and her husband/drummer Ashwin Sood welcomed a daughter, India Ann Sushil Sood, in the spring of 2002. After a six year lull between original albums, Afterglow (Arista) was finally released in 2003. Despite a mixed critical reception, with many citing a lack of songwriting progression, Afterglow sold over 4 million copies worldwide and spawned three more hit singles with “Fallen”, “Stupid”, and “Into the Fire”. Sarah McLachlan has remained relatively quiet since completing her international tour in 2005 only making a handful of one off live performances for the likes of Live 8 and One World: The Concert for Tsunami Relief. The remix album, Bloom (Arista) appeared in 2005 with Mirrorball: The Complete Concert (Arista/Legacy) an expanded edition of the original live album following in 2006. The holiday album, Wintersong (2006 Arista) featured one new original song with the title track but largely stuck to renditions of holiday standards. In the summer of 2007, McLachlan and her husband welcomed their second daughter, Taja Summer Sood, with a second b-sides compilation tilted Rarities, B-Sides, and Other Stuff Vol. 2 (Arista) following in the spring of 2008. McLachlan released her anticipated 7th album, Laws of Illusion (Arista), in June 2010.