Sarah McLachlan is like a lot of women you might know: in her early 40s, going through a divorce, still in a bit of shock at finding herself raising two children as a single mother.
Except, well, she's Sarah McLachlan, who's sold more than 40 million albums worldwide. So she can sing about it. And boy does she ever on her album Laws of Illusion, out next week. If ever there was a McLachlan break-up album – and it can be argued there've been a few – this is the quintessential one.
"I'm not the girl I was, but what have I become?" she sings on Awakenings, the opening track, which serves as a sort of emotional overture for a recording that deals with the breakdown of her marriage, the desperate attempts to save it, the pain of moving on, and the glory of that too.
"Change and growth is so painful," McLachlan said during a recent interview. "But it's so necessary for us to evolve."
Two years ago, McLachlan split with her husband of 11 years, drummer Ashwin Sood. The couple has two daughters, India, now 8, and Taja, about to turn 3.
"For me, it's a very personal process," McLachlan says about the writing these songs. "I want and need to be as honest and as present as I can and put the material out there as frankly as I can. It's for me. It feels good. It's cathartic and it's a way to sort stuff out."
McLachlan is speaking in a Vancouver studio, where she's been rehearsing with her band for the upcoming Lilith tour. She's dressed in cargo pants, a shimmery camisole and silver sandals. Her hair's up and pinned off to the side. She laughs – a lot. She says she's happy, very. She looks it.
It's been seven years since McLachlan, now 42, last put out a studio album of new original material, making this week's release a highly anticipated event. The singer, who grew up in Halifax and lives in West Vancouver, has become a recording phenomenon since her first album, Touch, was released in 1988. Among her mega-hits are I Will Remember You, Building a Mystery and Angel. She's won Grammy Awards, Juno Awards, founded the all-women-artist Lilith Fair touring music festival (about to go back on the road simply as Lilith later this month) and has parlayed her considerable fame and wealth into philanthropic endeavours, including raising money through the Lilith tours and founding her own Sarah McLachlan Foundation, which funds a Vancouver music program for inner-city youth.
Things were all going so well, or so she thought, when she experienced the breakdown of her marriage.
"I thought I was this person, and part of that is the artifice of the fantasy that we build up to hold up the perceived reality," she explains, having clearly given it a lot of thought. "It's all kind of a big illusion: the white picket fence and the perfect marriage and the kids. Check that box off, check that box off, and move forward. And then it all falls apart underneath you, and you're left to pick up the pieces and sort out, 'Well, who am I then?' Because I thought that's what I was and who I was, and I'm not all that. Or that's not my life any more and how do I move forward from there?"
With this in mind, she was thinking of calling the album Loss and Illusion, touching on its two main themes. She suggested the title to her long-time songwriting collaborator and producer, Pierre Marchand, who's based in Montreal. He misunderstood her. Laws of Illusion, he asked? Sold.
"I like the idea that we build up these walls or rules or laws to maintain our reality, and when they fall away, you're left with a whole bunch of illusions," says McLachlan. "Smoke and mirrors."
McLachlan has been working with Marchand for more than 20 years, since they first holed up for a week together in Vancouver to write Into the Fire for her second album, Solace. Their collaborations – including Adia, World on Fire and Fumbling Towards Ecstasy – have been wildly successful.
"She's super-sweet, creative and fun," says Marchand, whom McLachlan considers to be her muse. "She's very inspiring"
The two are also great friends who did a lot of soul-searching together during the creation of Laws of Illusion; Marchand had been through a split about a year-and-a-half before McLachlan. "We do have a parallel drama in our lives," he says.
For Laws of Illusion, they tried something they hadn't done with new material before: recording the tracks "live" (the singer and band performed together in the studio rather than recording isolated tracks) in his Montreal studio, laying down six songs in less than five days. The result was fast and fresh. "It was great to be done the week, and half the record's done," says Marchand, who describes the atmosphere during the sessions as "a relaxed panicked state."
The result is a 12-track album, including two songs that were on her 2008 greatest hits release. Both deal with marital dissolution, as do many of the other songs on the album, including Changes ("I can't believe that you're walking away from this") and Forgiveness ("You don't know much about heaven, boy, if you have to hide to feel").
"It's very pedestrian," says McLachlan about the events that inspired the songs. "There's nothing particularly unique about my experiences except that they're my experiences. Two of my best friends are going through the same thing right now, so there's lots of good juicy emotional fodder to pull from."
Indeed, when she talks about recognizing her own patterns and making the same mistakes over and over again in relationships, or juggling a demanding job and motherhood in an effort to find that elusive work-life balance, it feels less like an interview with a superstar than a conversation with a girlfriend. Sure, she's a gazillionaire, but tell that to her broken heart.
The album's first single, Loving You Is Easy, was inspired by what was clearly a giddy recent experience: Finding new love, post-separation. (The man was widely rumoured to be Brett Wilson from the television show Dragons' Den; when asked about him, McLachlan smiles and says only "hmmm.") They're not together any more. McLachlan is single and she's fine with that.
"I can't imagine being anything else right now," she laughs. "I'm too busy. I have a full life: I have two amazing kids, I have great friends, great family. And right now, that's plenty for me to manage. A new relationship just seems like way too much work." She pauses. "Right now."
Laws of Illusion will be released on Tuesday.