- 28 Jan 19
The Grammy Award-winning singer-songwriter turns 51 today. To celebrate, we’re looking back at her 1994 interview with Hot Press’s Patrick Brennan.
In this 1994 interview with Hot Press's Patrick Brennan, which took place shortly after the release of her Fumbling Towards Ecstasy album, Sarah McLachlan talks mother-daughter relationships, her travels in Cambodia and Thailand, and her response to an invitation to perform in the Vatican.
My first impression of the girl who opens the door to her Westbury Hotel suite is that she’s far too young to be Sarah McLachlan. It must be her younger sister. Or, my mind racing now, perhaps it’s her daughter. Thing is Sarah McLachlan is only twenty-six which kind of makes it impossible that the girl standing before me could be one of her siblings. These thoughts flash by in the milliseconds between first sight and the formality of introduction. And once the ice is broken, there isn’t really any doubt that the rather pre-Raphaelite looking woman in a long, close-fitting charcoal silk dress who offers me a choice of places to sit, is none other than the latest Canadian sensation whose current and third album Fumbling Towards Ecstasy has already gone gold in the United States, marking a new maturity and triumph for Sarah McLachlan’s artistic process.
“I’d say that I’ve grown up a lot,” begins Sarah. “Or at least I’ve come closer to knowing who I am. For me, my own musical search and personal search is very entwined. It’s kind of the same thing. I put a lot of things behind me in that time between Solace (her second LP) and Fumbling, especially in the making of Fumbling.
“Save for going to the studio I was by myself up in the woods in a cottage with my two cats pretty much for seven months while I was recording Fumbling. It made me get really strong because I had nobody to rely on anymore. I had nobody to turn to for distraction. So all this stuff came raging to the surface. I’d lived with my parents. I’d moved out with room-mates. I was on the road for a year and-a-half after that with fifteen people on a bus so I’d never been by myself for more than half-an-hour. Ever. All of sudden there was nobody around. And I wanted to do that. I know I needed to because I’m really easily distracted. Stupidly so. So I really needed to focus and to do that I needed to go away from everything familiar to me.”
Compared to the dark maturity of Fumbling Towards Ecstasy, Sarah McLachlan’s two previous albums, Touch and Solace, sound, albeit in a positive way, like the restrained primal scream of an angry young girl. Fumbling, on the other hand is genuinely the work of a woman with a new sense of control.
“I think there’s a lot more of playing the victim in the other two records,” Sarah observes. Solace was like the mourning of my lost innocence. There was a lot of wondering where did it go and floundering and wondering who am I, what am I doing here and how did it all this stuff get lost, when did it go? You know. And with Touch I was just so young and naive. I have nothing to write about. I have nothing to say. I’ve had no experience. So I just tried to look into my dreams and tried to recreate those in pretty words. And though there ended up being some threads of personal experience and relationships and stuff, it was more like bad poetry, lyrically. I’m still really proud of it. I love it for what it is. Although I can look back on it now and see it more objectively and see where it was coming from. Basically I was pretty lost and didn’t know who I was.”
“I’m definitely focusing about how I feel on this record though a lot of the things I talk about are subjects outside of myself. In a way I feel I’ve become way more objective about my own situation and I’ve been able to almost step outside of myself and come from a different perspective on it. You know, the material isn’t just coming from me but bigger things outside me. And that, I think, was a result of getting to be in situations where I was terribly small.
“I went to Thailand and Cambodia a couple of years ago to help make a documentary film for World Vision on Aids, prostitution and poverty. At first it was devastating. From that I felt I’m so lucky. I’m so blessed and all my huge problems seem so tiny. Which is sort of the way I feel when I’m in nature too. Either by the ocean or in the woods. It really puts everything into perspective for you. I think being in the woods for so long really helped do that. It’s very basic and the basic things are the really important things that get lost when you’re surrounded by concrete. The most basic thing of yourself, knowing yourself and being in touch with that.”
In its rural setting, the recording of Fumbling seemed to mimic the natural process of liberation.
“Winter and Spring was unbelievable there,” Sarah enthuses. “I was under six feet of snow all Winter. It was minus thirty out. Horrendously cold. I’d walk two miles up the mountain to the studio every day. Then Spring came and the river behind my house opened up. All the trees started budding. The snow was melting and it was like everything started to come alive. Everything all of a sudden was huge to me. The whole world just blew up like I’ve never seen it before. Everything became so amplified.”
Retreating to the countryside and getting back to nature is one thing but going to Cambodia would seem like an entirely different matter altogether. How did the events she witnessed there affect her songwriting?
“It was so in-my-face that I was completely overblown by the initial devastation and horror I felt. And that judgement of going, ‘These poor people’. Then, I thought, oh wait a minute. Just because I come from this middle-class upbringing and think that you need this and this to survive. These people outwardly seem really happy even though they don’t have much. But, they’ve got a really strong family. It seems really important to them. I guess because it is most of what they have. Which is something the West has also lost touch with.
“Contrary to any ideas of selflessness, though, I think it was a fairly selfish act for me go to Thailand and Cambodia. I thought it would be a great experience. I knew it would be difficult but it was really instinctual and I thought it would be a really, really good thing for me to do as I was feeling so jaded and so angry. As I say I’d just come off the road after touring for fourteen months and had a horrible time near the end. We all hated each other. I felt like I’d lost all the little bits of myself that I’d discovered along the way. On many levels I’d always wanted to go to Thailand and after the documentary was finished I and friend spent a month just touring around the island and saw the beautiful and not just the ugly side of it.
“And it was a way of helping. I’d recommend it to anyone. It made me feel so blessed. After all the bitching and complaining. It really opened up my eyes. “
While Sarah McLachlan’s time in the killing fields of Cambodia and the AIDS-infested sex trade of Thailand forms a significant part of the pre-history of the making of Fumbling Towards Ecstasy, it is in no way the whole story of the themes behind this thoughtfully crafted collection of multi-textured gems. The kind of mother/daughter relationship where the daughter suffocates from the over-attentiveness of a doting mum is another aspect to play a major role in the sub-text of a number of tunes.
“I’m really just coming to terms with that in the past couple of years, just how my mother and I related to each other – or didn’t,” she concedes. “As I got older our relationship really fell apart just because I wanted to be my own person. I pretty much fought against many ideals she tried to instil in me. Other than the good ones like be independent, don’t ever rely on anyone for your financial security or you’re completely lost, you’re stuck. Make you’re own way. She really instilled that in me and I’m happy for that because I am independent that way and I’m happy to be so.
“I was my mum’s best friend and that was very smothering. I really needed to get out from under that. I wasn’t ever allowed to go out. I wasn’t allowed to date. All of that was a threat to her that I would leave and not come back. And, of course, all that smothering did was make me want to leave and never come back. And I did eventually. I ran away. I left home when I was eighteen without telling them. I packed all my stuff in an hour and got the hell out. And it was awful. We didn’t speak for a year. It had to be an extreme break for me, though. And it’s taken us a long time to come back together and not resent each other.
“We were pretty nasty to each other in the last few years before I left. I’m not going to say she was the only one. I was pretty bad too. I fed it. Unknowingly or knowingly I don’t know. It’s hard to tell now where it lay but we were bad. But it’s really nice now to be treated almost like a friend and not just a daughter. And I can say anything to her now because she doesn’t have that power over me that she did. And she doesn’t have the judgement over me that she used to because the bottom line was I don’t think she had much faith in what she was telling me. She was preparing me for the world but she had been completely screwed over by the world. I don’t think she had much faith in it or me going out into it and making anything of myself. And I have. I’ve overcome that and she’s super proud of me for that. It’s also in a good way given her faith in herself.
Where, though, does Sarah’s confidence and self-belief come from?
“It’s a bizarre thing because I think it comes from this music thing. It’s one of the only things that I truly know myself to be good at and I’ve been really lucky that I’ve been able to pursue it, make a living and become successful at it. It’s really helped me but it’s also forced me to learn who I am. I got really scared because I had so many people telling me who I was, how I should be and how I should be acting that I could see how easily I could fall into becoming what they projected onto me and not who I really was. So I thought I really have to know who I am here or I’ll really get lost. Again it was self-preservation to go inside myself and figure out who I was so I wouldn’t get lost in all the bullshit because this industry is so full of it.
“There’s so much hype and people telling you ‘aw you’re so great, you’re so beautiful, you’re so wonderful’ and behind your back they’re sticking in knives and stabbing you. You just gotta know who you are, be really strong and not let all that stuff fuck with your head.”
Although Sarah McLachlan yearns a little for her Walden-like woodland retreat at the moment there is one other intriguing engagement coming up in the near future. I had been giving Sarah, who was reared agnostic and whose first visit this was to Ireland, a run-down of some of the more recent cases of the way in which the Catholic Church permeates every aspect of our society here in Ireland. Then, having agreed that the Catholic Church is a fairly hideous institution, she suddenly drops her bombshell.
“Actually, I’ve been invited to the Vatican to sing for the Pope at Christmas for this huge Christmas gala,” she grins. “All sorts of musicians will be there. I really want to do it because it’s fascinating to be inside that. The only thing that troubles me is that they say you have to go and meet the Pope. Only I don’t want to meet him; I want to smack him for all the stupid things he says!”
Now that would be a sight. Sarah McLachlan with his Holiness across her knee as she whacks him over his sizeable, ageing posterior!
No fumbling, just ecstasy!