Looking back, it seems like Linda Ronstadt was the first artist associated with the singer-songwriter movement to get in front of an orchestra, and she certainly had the pipes to carry it off. Since then, it’s become something of an industry rite of passage for singers and songwriters to adapt their voices to fronting orchestras and string ensembles. Naturally, the results vary. When Joni Mitchell did it, she spoke about the great power of having that ‘big band’ behind her, and it gave her a chance to show off a sexy, elder husk that’d developed in her alto.
For Sarah McLachlan, it’s a means of turning a difficult experience (singing with an orchestra at the Vatican in 1994) into something positive.
“I swore I’d never do it again,” she said over the phone from British Columbia on the eve of launching a summer tour that unites her with local orchestras from Buffalo (Artpark, July 31) and Rochester (CMAC, August 6) among others. “But a number of years ago I got asked to play with the Denver Symphony at Red Rocks and I thought ‘I have to get over this.’ It turned out to be one of the most amazing experiences of my life. Feeling the power of the symphony behind me, I wanted more.”
And more she’s gotten: this summer’s run is not the first time she’s taken her catalog — now 30 years in the making — out for an orchestral spin. And between shows with larger orchestras, she’d done some pared down gigs with Vanessa Freebairn-Smith accompanying her on cello. But to choose appropriate material and rework it for this treatment, she needed help from celebrated arrangers Vince Mendoza and Sean McLoughlin.
“I’m not much of a scorer, so I looked to them for the right presentation,” she said. “That first show with the Denver Symphony we did an hour and ten minutes, so it provided a solid foundation and we’ve just built a repertoire from there. They’d suggest something, we’d get it scored and try it out. I think Sean will be coming out to conduct this summer and it’ll be wonderful to have someone that worked on the scoring actually present at the performances — huge advantage. A lot of my music has a cinematic undertone to it. It’s emotionally based and there’s a lot of play that can happen in putting it across. It requires someone I can trust who can bridge that gap.”
Indeed, McLachlan’s work has always been weighty. As a career songwriter, she amassed a sizable following with her personal brand of emotionally sincere pop. Her late-1990’s Lilith Fair festivals showcased some of the most striking female talent of their time and she became a symbol for feminine empowerment in the music industry. Entering the new millennium, her output of slowed as she began making time for motherhood and healing after the dissolution of her marriage. Artists in middle age often find new, more refined ways of articulating difficult emotions — it’s a natural progression.
But listeners can be unforgiving, particularly if they use the work of their favorite songwriters as a reflection of themselves (as so many of us do). Folks don’t like to be reminded that they’re getting older and artists often shoulder the brunt of criticism for not wearing emotion on their sleeves and delving as deeply into darkness quite like they did in their twenties. It’s a challenge to find a spot between personal and professional expectations — a place where you can create and maintain a level of vulnerability that feels appropriate as you get older.
McLachlan, now 51 and slowly working up songs for a new record, is unconcerned. She uses her own inner barometer to determine what feels right at this stage of her career. If it strikes a chord with an audience, that’s a bonus.
“We create what we create in our lives,” she said. “I just try to be as honest as possible. It’s incredibly selfish to write. I do it for me. Strangely, people have seemed to enjoy it. There’s always plenty of darkness and some — but not all — of the best songs come from that place, the struggle to move through it, figuring out how to survive it. For me, surviving it means writing it down, getting it out… and to some extent, reliving it every time I get to sing it. I don’t think we ever really get to a place where all the darkness is gone. Our amount of baggage grows as we move through life and art is one way that some of us manage it. Art gives us a voice to try and fully express it.”
These days, McLachlan is most motivated by her philanthropic efforts, including her hands-on commitment to the music schools that bear her name in Canada (The Sarah McLachlan School of Music has one branch in Vancouver and two in Edmonton). And while some poke fun at her well known ASPCA ads, those have raised a tidy sum of $30 million for the organization over the last 13 years.
Staying focused on giving seems to keep her right-sized.
“I’m nothing if not grateful for all these amazing opportunities and that gratitude plays into every decision I make,” she said. “However cliché, once I turned 50, I stopped sweating the small stuff. You start thinking about the endgame, you can begin to see the arc in your life and, for me, that means striving to enjoy every moment. I watched my parents pass, I’ve had friends pass, and it’s a reminder that you’re still here and you have the ability to do the best you can with what you have left. Doing things that bring me joy, that brings joy to my kids, working on the three schools… those things put good energy in my life.
“It’s a very different world than when I began my career,” she continued. “There’s so much noise now. We’re besieged by images and other distractions, and it would be very easy to think I haven’t been heard amidst it all. But fame was not anything I expected or sought out. It just happened. People who play into that big machine and work to stay in the limelight aren’t artists. That’s something else. The artists of the world never sought out the limelight like that. The fame and success machine of the music industry provided an amazing ride. It still feels amazing to me, I’ve had a long moment in the sun.”
Sarah McLachan performs with the Buffalo Philharmonic Orchestra at Artpark in Lewiston on Wednesday, July 31 (Tickets are here) and at CMAC in Canandaigua with the Rochester Philharmonic Orchestra on Tuesday, August 6, (Tickets are here).
Photo credit: Kharen Hill