PHOTOGRAPHY BY KHAREN HILL
STORY BY MICHAEL RAVER
The Canadian Songbird Unveils New Video To Benefit The Music School Bearing Her Name
With one of the most beautiful voices in pop music and over 30 million albums sold, singer/songwriter Sarah McLachlan has much to be thankful for. Radiant at 50 (yes, you read that right), she has a wicked sense of humor and a zen-like gratitude for her cred as a musician and the success it’s brought. Sure, she is also regarded by many as that gentle spokesperson for those heartbreaking ASPCA commercials, but McLachlan has no regrets about doing them.
“Those ads worked like a hot damn,” she says on a call from a car driving through Vancouver. “They generated over $30 million for the ASPCA. But yeah…I can’t watch them.”
She also co-founded and headlined Lilith Fair, the massively successful all-female summer music festival, alongside artists like Sheryl Crow, Jewel, Christina Aguilera, Nelly Furtado, Shawn Colvin, The Indigo Girls, Dido and Tracy Chapman. The list is staggering. But when the dust settled on that chapter, McLachlan was drawn to do something to give back for all that she’d gained. In 2002, she opened The Sarah McLachlan School of Music, an after-school arts program providing free, high-quality music education to underserved parts of Vancouver, Edmonton, and Surrey. As a means of fundraising for all three facilities, the Canadian songstress has released a new music video of her 1997 classic, “Angel,” featuring the SMSM senior choir.
Imagista: You’ve released videos featuring the school’s students around the holidays before. What drew you to record ‘Angel’ with them this year?
Sarah McLachlan: We’d had a couple performances with the senior choir where we’d done “Angel” and “I Will Remember You.” We’re always trying to figure out how to put content together, not only to showcase the school and the work we’re doing, but also to give the students different kinds of opportunities other than just the ones that are performance-based. It was fun to get in the studio with them and record that song. “Angel” made perfect sense.
Imagista: That song had a huge presence when it was first released and then had a big resurgence from the ASPCA ad. How do you feel about people identifying that tune with sad puppies?
Sarah McLachlan: I don’t give it much thought, quite frankly. It’s more about the feeling of giving and being part of something bigger than yourself. Even though that’s not what the song is about, it’s kind of what it’s come to embody for me. It’s a song that people attach to for so many different reasons, but most importantly because it makes them feel something. It’s beautiful validation as an artist that something I’ve created has touched people in a positive way like that. The same feeling exists around the school for me. Not only living my purpose but doing something of purpose that’s meaningful to others. The school is such a beautiful extension of that.
Imagista: How did the school come to be?
Sarah McLachlan: After I’d done Lilith Fair for three years, we made quite a bit of money and I put it into a foundation. We’d given over seven million dollars to various women’s charities over the years of running that. I loved the lasting impact that we could have and I wanted to continue that. Around that time, public schools systems were shutting down music programs. For me, I had a vibrant music program in school growing up. I also had private lessons that my parents were nice enough to pay for. I grew up with a music education. It saved me. I don’t know if I’d have made it through school without that outlet. The idea that kids might not have that opportunity felt really awful to me. I started the school to give kids that opportunity.
Imagista: How do students qualify for admission?
Sarah McLachlan: It’s a first come, first serve. They apply online and they have to have letters of recommendation from teachers, counselors, principals or whatever. We don’t ask for financial records, but it’s a completely free program. It comes down to socio-economics, quite often. The kids in the school face a lot barriers. It’s just about who needs the program most and who’s going to benefit most. We rely on those letters of recommendation.
Imagista: How often do you assume the teacher role?
Sarah McLachlan: Almost never. I’m not a teacher. (Laughs) The very idea of it terrifies me! That being said, I’m in the school a lot. Yesterday, I was there painting the donor wall because we have a lot more names to add to the mural. We’ve did a couple of performances with them where I came in to practice with the choir. I don’t teach, but there are always opportunities to mentor. If there’s a kid having a hard time hitting a note, I can say “I have a couple of tricks for that.” But I let the teachers do the teaching. I’m more of the fundraiser. (Laughs)
Imagista: Your song ‘The Long Goodbye’ (released last year) was your first piece of new material in a while. Do you have an album on the way?
Sarah McLachlan: It is coming. I’m slowly amassing. There will be another record at some point.
Imagista: Are you planning on working with (producer) Pierre Marchand again?
Sarah McLachlan: I don’t see how I could not do something with him. I always hope as a musician to push myself and try new things. I just love what he does so I’m sure we’ll be working together in some capacity. We’ve already written a song together.
Imagista: Would you ever revisit an older song?
Sarah McLachlan: I recently discovered a couple of old tracks that I found on some site that I didn’t even remember. Usually those end up staying there but there might be something I’d pull from, usually not lyrically but maybe musically.
Imagista: You have a home studio.
Sarah McLachlan: I do most of the records there. It’s simplified the work and I don’t have a long commute! It’s always there. I don’t have to book time and I would say the more help I can get in the time-management department are good. I have two kids, the three schools, the full-time job of fundraising for the schools. When I know a lot of things are coming up I try and compartmentalize, but navigating all that is mostly intuitive.
Imagista: Is there an older song you wish had been a single?
Sarah McLachlan: Not really. ‘Single’ used to mean ‘something to get played on the radio,’ which had a limited or narrow window. It had to be a certain thing and sound a certain way. I’ve never really written singles. I’ve just gotten lucky that some songs worked as singles. People said ‘Building A Mystery’ would be a radio hit and I thought, “Are you kidding me?” And it was.
Imagista: Looking toward the end of the year and to 2019, what is your hope for the school and students there
Sarah McLachlan: I hope it inspires people to see the work we’re doing, whether thats monetarily or supporting us in other ways. We’re lucky and blessed in Canada in a lot of ways. It’s all about showcasing the kids and showing them shinning. I’ve taken them on stage at arenas and I love having that opportunity. I’ve said, “Yeah, it’s going to be great when there’s fourteen thousand people screaming for you!” I hope that it helps them discover who they are. Some kids have graduated to get full scholarships to post-secondary schools. We’ve had kids get full scholarships to The Berkeley School of Music. If we can reach one kid and help them out of a tough situation and make better choices, that’s a huge win. We’ve changed the trajectory of their lives.
For more about Sarah McLachlan and to check tour dates visit www.sarahmclachlan.com
For more information about The Sarah McLachlan School of Music and to donate: https://www.sarahschoolofmusic.com/donate-1-1 and watch https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ic1ygFPtcDM