One day, not too long ago, Sarah McLachlan gave an advance copy of her new album Shine On to a friend who was about to set out on a road trip. “She said she listened to it non-stop throughout the entire six-hour drive and both bawled her eyes out and laughed,” McLachlan says. “That seemed like the perfect reaction to me. I want to make people feel, because I write from such an emotional point of view. And that’s what music does for me. It brings me closer to my feelings and puts everything on the surface. Anything that’s been pushed down, a good song will bring up and force you to feel.”
Largely produced by McLachlan’s longtime collaborator Pierre Marchand, Shine On is McLachlan’s first album since 2010’s Laws of Illusion and it finds the Grammy Award-winning Canadian singer-songwriter and musician in a ruminative, yet hopeful place. Unlike its predecessor, which dissected the dissolution of her marriage, Shine On eases up on the heartbreak and lets McLachlan — who has been somewhat defined by such signature ethereal ballads as “Building A Mystery,” “Adia,” “Angel,” and “I Will Remember You” — show an earthier side, especially on the up-tempo first single “In Her Shoes,” and the atmospheric rockers “Flesh and Blood” and “Love Beside Me,” the latter two of which were produced by Bob Rock (Metallica, Ron Sexsmith).
“I needed to challenge myself a bit,” she says. “I needed to step outside my comfort zone. For that reason, I made an effort to write with people I hadn’t written with before and to try different producers, like Bob, just to take some of the songs in a different direction. He brought a lot of raw energy. He put an electric guitar in my hands and said, ‘Go.’”
It was actually Marchand, whom McLachlan has worked with since her 1991 album Solace, who encouraged McLachlan not to play it safe and work with other collaborators. “So I did that, but I also know the magic that Pierre can bring, and I knew some of the songs would require nothing less than having him work on them,” she says. “He will take a song to a certain place that I never would have imagined it going. I knew he would have the right energy to bring to a lot of the quieter songs in particular.”
In addition to shaking up the album’s sonics, McLachlan felt the need to change things up on the lyrical front. “I had a couple of writing jaunts that led to a batch of songs that were about breaking up with someone and telling that old story that I felt I’d flogged to death on Laws of Illusion,” she says. “I wanted to tell a new story. I was feeling way more hopeful, way more positive and light and open, and I wanted to mirror that.” As a result, McLachlan feels that Shine On is her most lyrically accessible work to date. “I wasn’t trying to veil the sentiments or cloak them in a sort of a parallel universe like I often do,” she says. “I was just simply telling a story about something that had happened. This record is definitely more direct.”
One example of that transparency is “Song For My Father,” which she wrote about her relationship with her dad, who passed away in December 2010. “He was my rock,” she says. “I knew that no matter what I did or said he would be there for me. In hindsight, I’ve realized that we don’t really have many people in our lives who are absolutely there for you no matter what.” “Surrender Uncertainty” also addresses her father’s death, telling the story of how after she and her family scattered his ashes in the ocean, McLachlan went out to swim among them.
“It was foggy and freezing cold,” she recalls, “but I just kept walking out and thinking about him. Everything was obscured. There was no sky, no ocean — just this beautiful soothing gray. It was a really heavy moment, letting him go and then thinking, ‘What the f**k do I do now?’ With his passing, I had to come to terms with the fact that I’m an orphan now (McLachlan’s mother died in 2001). I’m the oldest generation, and that hit me profoundly. I’m raising two daughters and have become acutely aware of the fact that time runs out. I want to be able to get every single ounce of good, juicy stuff out of this world. I don’t want to live a half life. That was the premise of the album’s title. We all endure suffering. I don’t want to survive. I want to shine.”
McLachlan’s strength and positive attitude come through on several other songs on Shine On, including “Flesh and Blood” (“Yeah, that’s about sex and passion being ignited again after a long, dry spell,” she says with a laugh), “Monsters,” where she comes to terms with the disillusionment she felt when separating from her husband, splitting with her long-time management company, and her father’s death all occurred around the same time. “I kind of go along in my own little bubble thinking that the world is good and if I see the best in everybody and do everything with integrity, I’ll receive the same back,” she says. “I’m always kind of surprised when it doesn’t happen. That sounds terribly naïve, but there were a number of big markers where I was forced to understand people’s limitations, and how that impacted me.”
Shine On also contains several female empowerment songs like “Beautiful Girl,” which she wrote with her guitar player Luke Doucet about parenting. “It’s the hardest job in the world,” she says. “We’re supposed to be the strong ones and guide them through and the song is an homage to that. My girls are awesome. I love them so much, yet they beat the shit out of me every day.” Then there’s “In Her Shoes,” which she wrote with Marchand and Doucet. “The line, ‘You turn the radio on, play your favorite song and cry,’ that reminded me of myself as a teenage girl lying in my bedroom, listening to [Genesis’] The Lamb Lies Down on Broadway on headphones and sobbing hysterically, like, ‘Why does nobody love me?’” she says. “I had no friends in junior high or high school. I didn’t fit in with all the preppy, Izod-wearing kids. I sure tried, but it just didn’t work and I was really isolated. I remember getting beaten up all the time and it brought all those feelings up. And then Malala Yousafzai got shot in the head by the Taliban and she became the perfect heroine for the song. Then I was able to finish it.”
The through-line on Shine On, which will be released by McLachlan’s new label Verve Music Group, is her breathily intimate voice (which The New York Times once called “pop’s voice of compassion and consolation”) and unparalleled ability to mine her personal life for finely tuned lyrics that have led to an enduring career as one of the most beloved artists of the past two decades. In addition to her musical achievements, which include selling 40 million albums worldwide, winning three Grammy Awards and eight Juno Awards, and founding the Lilith Fair tour, which showcased female musicians and raised over seven million dollars for local and national charities, McLachlan is also the founder of the non-profit organization the Sarah McLachlan School of Music, which provides free afterschool music education for at-risk and underserved kids who otherwise would have no access to music programming.
In June, McLachlan will hit the road for the U.S. leg of her “Shine On Tour,” which visits 29 cities across 19 states. “I love playing live and I’m very excited to get these songs into the hands of some great musicians and let them breathe fire into them, especially some of the more aggressive ones on the new album,” she says. “I love making records, and going through the process of discovery, but I like playing live even better, because you’ve got the song, you know it’s great, and you get to take it someplace else. You get to experiment and be in the moment with it. That’s everything to me.”