Sure, she lives a charmed life, but boy, things got rocky for a time there for Sarah McLachlan. In the space of a few short years: a divorce, the death of her father and a split from her long-time manager.
"All the male anchors. Every one of them. All at the same time," she tells me in an interview at her West Vancouver home. "So it was interesting – the next couple of years of just sorting through that: Who am I now? And where am I at? And what am I going to do with this?"
She's Sarah McLachlan, so what she did was write an album. Shine On, out May 6, deals with death, heartbreak and loss – and surrendering to new love.
During a candid sit-down in her house – all windows and wood, with a grand piano nearby, and a little toy one under it – McLachlan talked about midlife crises, parenting challenges, her own parents' bad marriage and the debacle that was the Lilith Fair revival in 2010. Dressed in camo-pants and a tank top, she was nursing a painful leg – a tennis injury suffered in Hawaii the previous weekend with her boyfriend, former NHL star Geoff Courtnall. (See charmed life, above.) Even in pain and about to head to an MRI, she appeared genuinely happy and relaxed – in contrast, I suggested, to how she seemed when Laws of Illusion came out four years ago.
Yes, she agreed. "I'm a whole lot happier and I'm a whole lot wholer, too." She cites the title of a Michael Ondaatje novel to illustrate how she's feeling: Coming Through Slaughter.
"We get to our 40s and it's inevitable: You can't help but experience loss and suffering. … The recognition of the process of life is very much in this record," says McLachlan, 46. "It's what we do with it. That's where we really find out who we are – when we have to push up against something that's really hard."
The album, dedicated in part to her father, opens with a euphoric female-empowerment anthem, In Your Shoes. "You are stronger than their hate," she bellows. She began writing the song about bullying – McLachlan was ostracized as a kid – but it transformed into an ode to Malala Yousafzai, the teenaged Pakistani girls' education activist who survived a Taliban assassination attempt in 2012. Listening to the lyrics, though, it's hard not to think of McLachlan's own recent history: "Time for you to walk out, walk in your own shoes. Lay down your footprints wherever you choose. Leave it all behind and move on; you are your own woman."
McLachlan and drummer Ashwin Sood split in 2008. They have two daughters, now 12 and almost 7. They share the parenting and are still in each other's lives. He even plays on a few tracks on this record.
"He's a really good drummer and there's such an ease. … We might not be compatible as husband and wife, but we're compatible for so many other things."
McLachlan's own parents had an unhappy union. "They were married 52 years, I think hated each other for 40," she says. After her mother died, her father remarried – a very happy marriage that lasted eight years, until his death in 2010.
McLachlan found a muse in the grief. "How I wish you were here to see me trying to live up to my name," she sings in Broken Heart.
Careerwise, 2010 was also difficult. McLachlan revived her seminal 1990s all-female Lilith Fair concert tour, but it flopped.
"It was a colossal failure on a lot of levels," says McLachlan, who partnered with then-manager Terry McBride in the endeavour.
"We didn't do our due diligence," she says. "We didn't look at how the market had changed. … And now that I look back on it, it was a complete money grab to go back and think that we could just pull this out and do it again and have it be a success."
The failure led, ultimately, to her split with McBride and his Nettwerk label. Shine On is the first of a two-record deal with Universal's Verve Music Group (out on Universal in Canada).
The album is also dedicated to McLachlan's daughters – who gave her a reason to keep going through that terrible period. "They were what got me up out of bed every day. It's like, smarten up, go ahead and feel sorry for yourself, but suck it up.… They need you to be strong and stoic."
Shine On's third dedication is to Courtnall. "Twenty years in a locker room and 20 years in a tour bus – we have so many parallel universes that our paths have gone down," she says. "And it's great to meet him at this point … in our lives after being divorced, going through that hardship."
She is pushing herself to try new things: public speaking, a guest appearance on the TV series Portlandia – both terrifying for the woman who seems so at ease bantering from the concert stage. Despite multiple Grammy and Juno Awards and millions in record sales, McLachlan harbours deep self-doubt.
"I think that's what propels me forward – is getting over those insecurities and not thinking I'm all that and a bag of chips," she says. "I think that I suck half the time. And I think that the struggle of not having to suck is what constantly propels me to be better. I have a healthy dose of self-loathing."