Sarah McLachlan's Fans Aren't Shy About Hugging Her

Sarah McLachlan enjoys surfing.
Sarah McLachlan enjoys surfing.
Photos by Kharen Hill/Courtesy of ID-PR

Whenever the subject of the greatest Canadian singer-songwriters in history comes up, as it often does, Sarah McLachlan deserves a seat at the same table as Gordon Lightfoot, Leonard Cohen and Joni Mitchell. McLachlan's music is so beloved in her homeland that in 2010 she was asked to write the theme song for the Olympic Winter Games in her adopted hometown of Vanouver, B.C., delivering the typically inspirational "One Dream." She hasn't had much trouble connecting south of the border, either, selling an estimated 20 million albums in the U.S.

McLachlan's songs radiate a kind of snug intimacy, swimming in lush arrangements that swirl emotion and intrigue. Approachable but also a little aloof, that style clings to her best work, from 1994 breakthrough single "Possession" through last year's Shine On, her first album in four years and eighth overall. It's made her an essential artist to adult-contemporary radio since the '90s, and inspired an almost otherworldly level of devotion in many of her fans.

But we'll get to that. The Houston Press was lucky enough to speak with McLachlan, now 47, earlier this week after she had just returned from a quick tour Down Under.

"Oh, I love it there," she says. "It was so fun. I got to surf a bunch; it was great. We played some great shows, and ate a whole lot of food and had a good time. And slept a lot. I had no kids for two weeks. I could get up and go back to bed with a coffee if I chose to, uninterrupted."

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Houston Press: I was reading about this ballet that you had produced. What attracted you to the idea of a ballet based on your works? Sarah McLachlan: I had the opportunity to work with Jean Grand-Maitre at the opening ceremonies of the Olympics, and I fell in love with him and his personality and his teaching ability and his artistry. Then I went around the same time to see the ballet he had done for Joni Mitchell. "I'd love to do something like this to your music." I said, "Sure! Wouldn't that be fun?"

I mean, I love the opportunity to take my music and do something different with it. I've done a lot of dance remixes over the years too. I find it interesting when different artists have their take on it. It was kind of that simple. He was keen, and got it done and it was quite lovely.

What kind of input would you give him while the two of you were putting this together? We sat together for about five or six hours, and had a great long discussion about all the songs, both in concrete forms and in a lot of abstract stuff as well. He asked me how much input I wanted to have, and I said, "I have no idea about dance. No clue. The music is done. I did my work. You take it and you interpret it as you choose to." I wasn't disappointed. It was beautiful.

Were you surprised when you saw the finished product, or is it what you expected? I had no idea what to expect. I'm not a dance aficionado at all. I really don't know anything about dance, like I said. It was really inspiring, and emotional too. The pas de deux for "Hold On," there was a roomful of people and all the dancers were watching my reaction, I just started bawling (laughs). It was so beautiful. The dancers were so into it, and it was just so intense. Gorgeous...yeah. Burst into tears.

I read where you told one interviewer how watching it opened up your songs in a new way. How? For me as an artist, I work really hard to make my music and my songs the best they can be, and you put them out there in the world, and to be able to have a different relationship with them, in the sense of watching people move their bodies and creating a whole new story of emotion by doing so, I think is really really beautiful.

Any further plans to expand your music into one of the fine arts? You never know. I put one foot in front of the other. I got this tour I'm about to head out on tomorrow morning, and that's taking me to April. Once that's done I'll start thinking about what's next.

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I know it's probably not a canvas sack full of letters anymore, but what does your fan mail look like? It's not so much fan mail anymore. It's mostly Facebook and stuff like that. Or on my Web site, I'll ask people to write in and talk about what the song means to them. That in a way gets more direct, as far as specific questions asked and "what do you want to share about this song?"

It's very cool, because I get to hear a lot of stories about what the music means to them, and how it's affected their life. That's a very sweet validation for me as an artist, to know that something I have created has gone out into the world and made an impact.

Several reviews of this current tour of yours have likened it to being invited into your living room for an evening. Is that what you were going for? Yeah. It's kind of like one of those old salon shows, where you're basically on the same level as everybody. That's the sort of intimacy that I've always tried to create, because I don't believe that it's us and them. For me, when I'm making music and playing and singing for people, we're all in it together. So this is sort of a way of breaking down that fourth wall, and inviting people in in a more engaged way.

Like I'll get people to ask me questions, and invite people up onstage. It's fun, and interactive, and something nice to do for my fans that I think is a special thing.

Are you pretty entertained by some of the questions they'll ask you? Oh absolutely (laughs). It's a bit of controlled chaos, because I have no idea what's going to come. Hopefully they're fairly well-behaved, but there's been a couple of times where the women have jumped up and down like, "Oh my God! Oh my God!", like on a game show, where they freak out and keep hugging me.

Then there was this one guy who gave me a huge bear hug and lifted me right off the floor and didn't let go. I had my mike crushed between myself and him while the whole audience was watching. After a few awkward moments he was like, "Let me know when you want me to let you go," and I'm like, "You can let go now" (laughs). Meanwhile I see my security guy looking at me out of the corner of his eye, like, "Should I...?" and I'm like, "No, it's fine..."

Sarah McLachlan performs 8 p.m. Sunday, March 1 at Jones Hall, 6:15 Louisiana.

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