Less than a month from the scheduled release date, Sarah McLachlan holds a copy of the finished master for her new album, Afterglow. McLachlan and her longtime producer Pierre Marchand signed off on the mixes the previous week, starting the media frenzy over McLachlan’s anticipated follow-up to her multi-platinum 1997 album, Surfacing.
About to answer a question, she catches sight of her 18-month-old daughter, India, returning from a brief day trip. Whatever career-driven, promotion-minded thoughts were floating through McLachlan’s mind a moment ago suddenly melt away in the presence of her daughter. “Hi, sweetheart! Hi, boo-bear,” McLachlan coos at her toddler. “Did you have a nice time at the pool?” She gives her a big kiss.
“I just needed a quick cuddle,” McLachlan says to me. “I might be a little distracted for a few moments, but bear with me.”
Given the demands of new motherhood, it’s amazing that McLachlan has much of an attention span at all. But she takes only a moment to recover from the (admittedly welcome) interruption, which demonstrates her determination to return to the world of pop music, a world from which she withdrew nearly three years ago.
Although Surfacing came out six years ago, McLachlan toured for three years in support of the album. She also did three successive summers of the revolutionary female-focused Lilith Fair, a traveling festival she conceived and spearheaded. Finally, in 1999, she allowed herself a break to enjoy a bit of normal life. After taking time off in 2000 and starting work on new songs, the next year was to be a time for McLachlan to recharge and regroup; instead it turned out to be a year filled with equal measures of joyful anticipation and sorrow.
In the summer of 2001, McLachlan and her husband, drummer Ashwin Sood, celebrated the news that they’d be welcoming a child into the world the following spring. This happy announcement was tempered by the reality that McLachlan’s mother had recently been diagnosed with cancer. There was little hope she would survive until the end of the year, let alone to the end of McLachlan’s pregnancy. McLachlan chose to stay by her mother’s side in her final months.
“I was so thankful for that time off because I got to spend a lot of time with my mother,” says McLachlan. “I took a couple of trips with her in the spring and continued to work. I went to every doctor’s appointment with her and every treatment. I had really bad morning sickness for four months, too; I was pretty much green the whole time. And it was wild because it was when my mother was going through her worst chemotherapy treatments, so she was green all the time, too. In a way it made mine easier to bear, because I was like, ‘This is nothing compared to what my mother’s going through. I’m going through this for something incredibly beautiful and positive, and she’s going through this because she wants to live.’ … It was really hard, but I’m so glad I was able to do that and be there with her for that. And for a lot of the good times as well.”
In December 2001, McLachlan’s mother lost her battle with cancer. Knowing she was only four months away from delivering her child, and perhaps as a method of dealing with her grief, McLachlan returned to the songs she’d begun the previous year.
“Before I had India, I tried to finish as much as I could,” says McLachlan. “[The album] was about three-quarters done. Most of the songs, musically, were quite established. Lyrically, there was a lot to finish. A few were done, but on a lot of them, the focus had yet to be found.”
This focus remained elusive as she continued to work on songs but found them increasingly difficult to complete. With India’s arrival six months after her mother’s death, McLachlan’s work once again halted, and she immersed herself in motherhood. As the demands on her time and attention grew, and as her love of being a mother expanded exponentially, McLachlan began to feel distanced from her music. “Two months after India was born, I tried to force myself to go back to work just to get it done,” McLachlan remembers. “I thought, ‘I have to get this done; it’s just taking too long.’ It was the wrong reason to try and finish it. You don’t finish something because you need to get it done. You finish something because you have something to say. And I didn’t have anything to say. I had no creative juice at all and I was trying to force myself into it. It didn’t work, and I started pushing myself down and down and resenting everything and not liking any of the music I was doing and thinking it was all crap. Which seems to be what I do every time, but this time was particularly bad.”
A trip to Los Angeles earlier this year to continue work proved fruitless; McLachlan hated being away from India for long periods of time. Distraught over the creative impasse, and the lack of fun and spontaneity in the process, she went to her manager. He gave her some advice: Take a break and let it go for awhile. It turned out to be exactly the guidance she needed. “It was the best thing I could have done,” says McLachlan with clear relief. “I walked away from [the album] for about two months and didn’t think about it. I came back to it and listened to all the tracks we had—I think we had about nine done at that point—and I thought, ‘This is actually pretty good. I can see that this might not be an unsurpassable mountain anymore. I think we can actually make a record out of this.’ I had just pushed myself too hard and too early from being a mother. I wanted to just be that for a little longer. And you can’t force creativity.”
With self-imposed artistic pressures subsiding, solutions to old songs and inspiration for new ones bubbled to the surface. “In May it was like, ‘Okay, we’re gonna finish this record.’ It was just nose to the grindstone at that point. India was over a year old; she’s a sturdy little thing, and she was fine with being away from me for a few hours a day. And we ended up doing most of it in my studio in my house, which was great because I was close to her.”
After getting beyond the creative obstacle, the next hurdle was meshing McLachlan’s schedule with that of producer Marchand.
“It was just fits and spurts,” McLachlan says. “I’d find time to work for a month with Pierre where he’d come out. And I went out to Montreal for a month, and we’d just find chunks of time where we could work together. I’d work on my own, and he’d take the songs away and work with some musicians in Montreal when I wasn’t there.”
While most of the music for the album was written during her mother’s illness, McLachlan still felt unable to access the emotions and turmoil of the previous few months to use as lyrics for her new songs. “I wasn’t really ready to address it,” says McLachlan. “I feel like I need a number of years away from things or some time and space to be a little more objective before I can write about things.”
McLachlan did, however, manage to put a fraction of the intensity of her recent experiences into Afterglow. “I began one song actually writing about India and finished writing it about my husband, which was ‘Push,’” she says. “I wrote the beginning of the first verse singing about her but I could never finish it because it sounded too … ‘Oh God, here’s another sappy song about the baby.’ And it just never went anywhere but it ended up being about my husband and what a patient man he is.
“And ‘World on Fire,’ which Pierre and I wrote together—although honestly Pierre wrote most of the lyrics—was post-babies for both of us; he’d had a child with his gal two months before I did. That song was very much thinking about becoming a parent and what the world is, such a scary place that we’re bringing children into, and how you do what you can to make it better for them and just as human beings.”
For all of the external and internal forces that kept McLachlan from finishingAfterglow, quickly, the one thing she didn’t do was overthink the sound of the album and how it fit into her body of work.
“I never set myself up in that way. I never look at the last project or the project before and say, ‘I’m going to purposefully do this different.’ I just go and make the music that comes out. However, if something sounds very much like it did on the last record, then I’ll try and steer away from that and take it in a different direction. But typically, both myself and Pierre, working musically together, we believe in letting the song unfold and it’ll tell us what it needs.”
Although she senses a theme of transition running through Afterglow, McLachlan admits it’s something she discovers about her music after the fact. “When you do these things—interviews and bios—you sort of have to think, ‘Well, what is it about?’ I think about what they’re about in the moment that I’m writing them and while I’m working on them. But once I finish them and let them go, I don’t even really think about it again. Until I maybe sing it or listen to it, and then I get bits of ‘Oh, yeah, I remember what I was going through.’
“The title is about a transitional time. In between when the sun goes down, there’s a sort of a change in the light, which is very beautiful, but also it’s a dangerous time to drive, and shadows appear and things get a little murky. So it has more to do with what’s been happening in my life and the huge transitions in the past couple of years.”
Of course, McLachlan’s whole career has been about transitions: the transition from teenager to bandleader in the mid ’80s when she fronted October Game in her hometown of Halifax, Nova Scotia; the transition from college student to solo artist with her 1988 debut Touch; the transition from renowned Canadian singer-songwriter to acclaimed international superstar; the transition from the wildly successful Fumbling Toward Ecstasy to the eight-times platinum megahit, Surfacing. And as a result of that success, the transition to an artist who has a more overt social impact with her organization of Lilith Fair, and her founding of the Sarah McLachlan Music Outreach Program, which provides free musical education to inner-city children. And with the birth of India, McLachlan has made the transformative transition from daughterhood to motherhood—something obvious after a 30-second interaction with her daughter. It’s clear when she expresses no expectations forAfterglow’s success in a vastly changed musical marketplace. If commercial success ever mattered to her, the enormity of motherhood—her intense, visible love for India—has overshadowed it.
“It’s made [the work] more difficult in some ways, because I have less time to focus on it,” says McLachlan of India’s effect on her craft. “But I think, by far, [motherhood] has made me a better human being, so that will hopefully seep into the art at some point.”
It may be the best transition yet for Sarah McLachlan.