“You know, I like making people laugh almost better than making them cry,” Sarah McLachlan quips over the phone last week. The Canadian-born singer-songwriter has been tapping into her inner comedian while telling backstories to some of her most famous hits on her latest tour. Though she founded Lilith Fair in 1996, and over her two decade career has received numerous awards and accolades—including Best Female Vocalist of the Year, Songwriter of the Year, and Single of the Year (“Building a Mystery”)—once “Angel” became the theme song for ASPCA (American Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals) commercials in the mid 2000s, she inevitably became the voice of the “sad puppy song.”
“Honestly, for me, it’s been very positive and I’m very happy I did it,” McLachlan confirms. “Am I the brunt of a bunch of jokes because of it? Yeah. But I don’t give a shit. . . . It raised a whole lot of money and saved a lot of animals’ lives. So I have no regrets.”
McLachlan’s mini three-week tour will bring her to CFCC’s Wilson Center on Saturday, February 16, for an intimate, stripped-down performance of fan favorites, including songs from “Fumbling Towards Ecstasy” (1993) and “Surfacing” (1997). The show will be McLachlan on piano and guitar—exactly where the songs began. Her performance will be the antithesis of the bells and whistles of modern music production. “It’s just bringing [songs] back to their original pure space,” she notes. “This is how I wrote them.”
The process of writing the songs is something to be celebrated, too. It can be a lonely and isolating undertaking for an artist to face her struggles or trauma—or from wherever the song was inspired. McLachlan finds the joy in approaching them now on the other side.
“It’s the tough stuff that defines us,” she confirms. “That’s where the songs come from: leaning into the hard stuff. For me, it’s finding a way through it and being able to sing from that perspective. It’s joyful and it’s such a freedom.”
McLachlan also has a new tune, “Wilderness,” she’ll debut to her Wilmington audience. Though, it’s not finished yet. “I figure what’s the best way, you know, to force myself to finish the damn thing?” she asks with a laugh. “Also, the weaknesses for me in a song become glaringly obvious when I perform it live, and it pushes me to make it better.”
Songwriting always has been a slow process for the artist. While “Wilderness” is theoretically a part of a larger project—McLachlan has about 15 songs in various states at the moment—she’s in no rush to complete it. Outside of releasing “Wonderland” in 2016, the last decade has been full of family, including raising her two daughters, and philanthropy—a different labor of love altogether.
McLachlan opened the Sarah McLachlan School of Music in 2011 to provide free music education for at-risk youth in British Columbia. On average about 49 percent of BC kids who graduate from high school go on to postsecondary school or college, whereas 78 percent of graduates from McLachlan’s school go on to postsecondary. Those numbers, according to the musician, speak volumes to what a well-rounded music program does for kids in the academic world.
“It’s been proven kids who have music education for a minimum of two years, do better in academics,” she says. “So if we’re teaching our children how to be better human beings, who are going to be ruling the world . . . they need to have all the tools they can get. Music opens up our emotional world; it allows us to think creatively and differently, and music gives us a community.”
It was an important outlet for McLachlan as a kid, too; her Canadian schools had robust music programs. Her parents, too, paid for private lessons and were supportive of her passion.
“It was the one thing I was good at,” she tells. “And it gave me a sense of my own worth, particularly as an adolescent. I got picked on a ton; I got bullied and beaten up. I didn’t have any friends, and music was the one thing I could always escape to. . . . I want to make sure other kids have the same opportunity.”
Almost 1,000 kids are enrolled in McLachlan’s music program for free each year. The goal is for everyone to have an outlet and engage in a source of confidence to last a lifetime.
“Having music in their lives gives them a chance to be open and vulnerable, have fun and make music together and, you know, feel a little less weird,” she continues. “For me, being in a band, playing with other musicians, singing together, it’s one of the most beautiful, joyful things we have. It connects us, it connects us to each other, to our emotional world. And we just really need that.”