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SARAH McLACHLAN

Sarah McLachlan started her set with a simple comment: “What a glorious day.” It was a statement as honest as her music. A boomerang moon hung above the Shoreline Amphitheatre in Mountain View, California, stars dotted the clear, black sky and the crisp air carried the smell of autumn with it. Dressed in a black tank top and jeans, McLachlan began her acoustic set by strumming the familiar chords to “Building a Mystery” on her guitar. She shook the wavy brunette locks out of her eyes, gave the crowd a sweet smile and then began singing the first few bars. The words clearly took people places. Many simply sat up straighter, lovers held each other tighter and teenage friends swayed in unison. Her sensual and captivating voice sent tears rolling down many a cheek.

McLachlan’s folksy elegance and sweet charm was a welcome addition to the Bridge School line-up (an annual concert that benefits children with severe speech and physical disabilities) that included Neil Young, Jack Johnson, Norah Jones and others. While all the performances were special in their own right, it was McLachlan’s voice that stole the show. It fluctuated from powerful to gentle, loving to longing, hopeful to painful in beautiful transitions between registers and tone. She’s a virtuoso of complex chord changes and spirited social commentary – a mix that’s made her messages as mesmerizing as her music.

Fans starving for new material got a treat from Sarah in the summer of ’08. She turned 40 in January, and in recognition of her two decades in the music biz, she released a greatest hits compilation entitled Closer: The Best of Sarah McLachlan. It includes two new tracks, and she graced the audience with gripping renditions of both. “U Want Me 2” began with sad strokes on the piano and is about “that really confusing place at the end of a relationship when you’re not really sure what’s happening,” McLachlan said. “‘Don’t Give Up on Us’ is a little more hopeful,” she continued. “It’s basically speaking to someone who is lost to you and you are trying to get them back, saying, ‘Hey, I’m here for you. I want to be able to help you. You have to let me.'” Both are musical gems, but put in context, these deep ballads have a haunting relevance to this chapter in Sarah’s life. After eleven years of marriage to her drummer, Ashwin Sood, and two children, daughters India (6) and Taja (1), the couple separated. Her only public comment about the split has been that the situation is “pretty gross.”

McLachlan is known for tackling tough subject matter and creating dramatic scores from them. Lost souls gravitate toward Sarah’s music because her poetic depth and poignant delivery helps them cope. McLachlan has struggled with depression, and the songwriting process has always served as a sort of self-therapy. For many of her albums, she used to lock herself in a cabin in the woods for months giving the music time to seep out. In “Ben’s Song,” Sarah’s heart breaks as she watches the “life blood drain away” from a young boy who died way too young from cancer – a boy she used to babysit. The extremely raw “Hold On” is based on the real-life story of a woman who discovered her fiancé was HIV positive. They got married, he got progressively sicker and she took care of him right until the end. Their struggle to hold on struck home with McLachlan who felt the grieving widow channeled the song through her. She wrote “Building a Mystery” with her longtime producer Pierre Marchand about the masks we all wear at different points in our lives to hide insecurities. The song equates those façades to life’s ugliness and suggests that true attractiveness comes from embracing reality – no matter its flaws. “Possession” is one of McLachlan’s most chilling songs. It was her attempt to cope with the pressures of fame and an obsessive fan that sent her hundreds of threatening letters. Sarah tried to get into the man’s mind, writing the song from the stalker’s point of view. He was so intent on being with her that he ultimately took his own life when that didn’t happen.

During a performance on VH1’s “Storytellers,” she described the genesis behind her biggest hit, the Grammy Award winning “Angel” – a song that took her just three hours to write. She was reading a Rolling Stone article about heroin and the streak of death the drug has injected into the music industry. The piece told of the struggles and eventual OD of keyboardist Jonathan Melvoin from Smashing Pumpkins. “Something about it, other than the obvious, affected me very deeply,” McLachlan said. “I sort of empathize greatly with the place that musicians get to where they’re on the road so long – it can be a very lonely place. You see so many hotel rooms, and everything starts to become very much 9the same, yet there’s nothing constant. We have tons of different methods of escapism when things become too much to bear – some people read a good book, some people take a bath, some people shoot smack. It’s such a terrible, terrible waste of a life. I wrote the song thinking about him and the situation, yet I realized very quickly it was ME in the song. I’ve been in that position where I’ve been incredibly lonely and messed up and just give me some distraction, give me anything to take me out of the place I’m in now.”

Before the world tour of dark, cold hotel rooms, Sarah Ann McLachlan spent her days in Halifax, Nova Scotia. She was born to a 20-year old art student in 1968 who simply couldn’t afford a baby, so she gave her daughter up for adoption. The McLachlans already had two adopted boys and Sarah became the final addition to the immediate family. At an early age, it became clear this child was born with a special gift. She began singing at age four and desperately wanted to be Joan Baez. But Sarah was too young to play guitar, so her mom bought her a ukulele and set her up with lessons from a music teacher down the street.

For a girl with crooked teeth and curly hair who felt like she didn’t fit in at school, music became her backbone. In her early teens, Sarah listened to Cat Stevens, Simon & Garfunkel and Joni Mitchell in her bedroom and took classical piano, guitar and voice lessons. At the age of 16, she fell in love with Kate Bush’s voice and had a musical epiphany after listening to Peter Gabriel. “When I heard his music it really shocked me because it was so beautiful, so poignant and so honest,” McLachlan said. “It hit such a strong chord and really inspired me to find my own voice and write from that point of view.”

In her high school yearbook, Sarah was voted “most likely to be a rock star,” and that prediction couldn’t have been more accurate. During Sarah’s first live performance with her first band, October Game, Nettwerk Productions offered her a record contract. She was just 17, so her parents wouldn’t let her sign. Instead, she enrolled at the Nova Scotia School of Art and Design. She admits she felt pushed into academics but recounts, “I loved music and art equally. I went to the art college by default and I did really, really enjoy it. Who knows, I might be a jewelry designer right now if it weren’t for being handed the golden egg at 19.” That’s when Nettwerk came back with a five-record deal that she simply couldn’t refuse.

It was an investment that more than paid off for the record company (including Arista who signed her in the U.S. in 1988), as every one of McLachlan’s fifteen albums have now gone gold, platinum or multi-platinum. Fumbling Towards Ecstasy was her third release and the disc that launched her from a few college dorm room stereos to major radio airplay. Critics praised her music from the start, but those words didn’t pave her path to success. “Gosh, I remember being $400,000 in debt, halfway through that record thinking, ‘OK, the record company is going to send me home, because I’m just costing them so much money,’ and then finally, you know it sort of went over that hump.” Getting over it meant grueling work. McLachlan toured for 22 months on the Fumbling Towards Ecstasy Tour, and somehow along the way managed to write Surfacing, the ten-time platinum album in 1997, which spawned her first two Grammys.

The labor earned her a loyal fan base, and ever since, McLachlan’s been intent on giving back. While on the road, she became frustrated that concert promoters and radio stations wouldn’t book two female musicians for a headlining gig. So as Surfacing rose up the charts, Sarah chose to do things her own way, creating the very successful Lilith Fair Tour (based on the medieval Jewish legend that Lilith was Adam’s first wife who demanded equality, and when he refused to yield, she became a demon who attacked men). The all-girl tour was much more liberating and far less violent than its namesake. It featured acts like Jewel, Paula Cole, Sheryl Crow, Lisa Loeb, and put several unknown musicians on the map grossing $16 million in 1997 – the most profitable touring festival of the year. “Lilith Fair was fantastic on so many levels,” McLachlan said. “First and foremost, it was the opportunity to play with so many amazing women and to hear them play and to just be part of this revolving traveling circus that seemed to take on a life of its own.” During Lilith Fair’s final year in 1999, McLachlan recorded her four-time platinum live album Mirroball. The track “I Will Remember You,” earned Sarah her third Grammy for Best Female Pop Vocal. Over its three-year history, Lilith Fair gave more than $3 million from concert ticket sales to local women’s shelters and rape crisis centers in Canada and the U.S.

McLachlan and her song “Angel” appear in a powerful public service campaign by the Humane Society aimed at awareness and fundraising for animal cruelty and neglect. It was also used as a comfort and healing song following the September 11th attacks on the World Trade Center in New York. In 2003, she founded the Sarah McLachlan Music Outreach Program to provide free music education classes to Vancouver’s inner city kids whose school music programs have been reduced or abolished by budget cuts. Six schools and 200 children are involved in the program right now learning guitar, piano and percussion. There’s a junior and senior choir, a song writing workshop and enough Apple computers to keep all the kids happy on Garage Band. “I’ve received so many incredible opportunities and gifts in my career,” she said, “and this just seemed like a really natural thing for me to do. Up until now, I’ve for the most part, funded it myself; we’re starting to look at outside donors to possibly grow the program.”

Her 2004 socially charged video for “World on Fire,” off the double-platinum album Afterglow, also earned her a Grammy nomination. She took the $150,000 budget (a common expense paid by record companies to make a video for artists of McLachlan’s caliber) and spent just 15 bucks on the project – the price of a Sony mini DV tape. The video features needy children, conditions in third world countries and crunches the numbers on where all the money for “World on Fire” went. For example, instead of the $22,500 normally spent on a production company the cash went to fund a 12 room clinic in Kibera, the $5,000 cost of hair and makeup for one day’s shoot went to one year of schooling for 145 girls in Afghanistan and the $500 for sound playback went to all the nuts and bolts needed to hold 50 homes together in Bangladesh. In all, the money benefited eleven charities around the world prompting Jon Pareles to write in the New York Times, the video is “a modestly brilliant gesture… the contrast between show-business splurges and practical aid is startling.”

In addition to her charitable contributions, McLachlan’s music has pulled so many people from their own torturous reverie. Her voice has served as an angel digging so many out of the despair caused by loss, addiction or depression. For others, the songs have taken on a much different purpose because, not lost in the shuffle of their significance, is their ability to stir up romance. Countless numbers of college couples have made out to Sarah songs likely oblivious to their roots to drugs, AIDS and stalkers. In putting her greatest hits CD together, McLachlan was aware it would take many different people on many different journeys. “I think that is what music is for a lot of people; it just conjures up all these memories. And I just hope the fans will listen to it, and it reminds them of other times in their lives and that song brings them to those other places – hopefully good, maybe some bad, but you know, even bad times you look back and you think, ‘Oh, I’m through that now, I feel much better.’ And you know there is a success there.” Sarah wrapped up her hour-long set in Mountain View (one of her only shows of the year) with a paralyzing version of “Angel.” Hope danced off the keys of her piano and her voice lifted us all up as she sang, “You’re in the arms of an Angel; may you find some comfort here.”

Written by: Ben Bamsey

Photography by: Jennifer Tzar & Kharen Hill

www.sarahmclachlan.com

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