Sarah McLachlan couldn’t have been in a much different place when she wrote most of the songs on her new album, ‘Shine On,” than where she found herself in writing her previous CD, “Laws Of Illusion.”
That 2010 album came in the aftermath of her divorce from her husband, Ashwin Sood, which left McLachlan moving into her 40s as a newly single mother of two daughters, ages seven and 12. When McLachlan, 46, got to work on “Shine On,” she had yet to fully move on, and it showed in her lyrics.
“When I started writing this record, over three years ago, I started writing some of the same songs over again, lyrically,” she said. “And I couldn’t finish them. It was just like I don’t want to keep saying this. I’m done with telling this story. I want to do something else, but I was quite stuck.”
What changed was meeting former NHL hockey player Geoff Courtnall and realizing there was a spark between each other.
“I was alone, obviously for over three years, and then I met my, I don’t know what the hell you call it, boyfriend, partner — this guy I’m dating — and all of a sudden, everything sort of opened up for me in a whole new way,” McLachlan said. “It sounds really corny, but I had a great life (before that). I had my dear friends, my kids, my family, my job, my free music school, I had a big life. I thought hey, I’m happy. This is awesome. And it’s like how am I ever going to meet anybody? I never leave the house, which was pretty much true.”
It turned out she didn’t have to leave the house to find new love.
Courtnall showed up at McLachlan’s house when she was holding a fundraiser for the Sarah McLachlan School of Music in Vancouver, a free music school she opened in 2011 to provide music lessons to at-risk kids. And as the relationship began to happen, McLachlan’s emotional space as a songwriter changed with it.
“The possibility of falling in love again, it just seemed such a foreign concept to me,” she said. “So when it happened, it sort of, it informed everything. It shone light into everything…So it became like (the song) ‘Brink of Destruction,’ for instance, became about the possibility of it. And ‘Flesh and Blood,’ it’s pretty obvious what that’s about. So it was nice to be able to embrace a new story.”
Courtnall, at least on paper, might not seem like the most likely person to click with McLachlan, who is known for her sensitive, intelligent and emotionally rich songwriting.
The guy, after all, is a former hockey player who enjoyed a 16-year NHL career and won a Stanley Cup with the Edmonton Oilers in the 1987-88 season. Hockey players are famous for being tough, playing through pain in a sport that’s full of hard contact and more than the occasional fight. But McLachlan said that’s not who Courtnall is.
“He’s quite genteel,” she said. “And I mean, he was an enforcer early on in his career. I’m so thankful, I mean, I couldn’t have imagined being with him then because I can’t even watch someone getting punched in the face.
“But Geoff is very, he’s 51 years old,” McLachlan said. “He’s gone through a ton of stuff, and to his credit, has really come out the other side. He’s worked really hard and has really come into his own as a spiritual human being. That’s part of why I respect him so much because he struggled. He had such a hard time. He drank too much. And he quit drinking about four years ago. He had a really tough time, and he came through it. He’s such a strong guy. He’s got such a strong sense of himself. And he’s really kind. Like he deeply cares about people.”
And as different as being a singer/songwriter and a hockey player might seem to be, both McLachlan and Courtnall know what it’s like to live a public life. Plus, McLachlan sees another parallel in their careers.
“ I joke, it’s like 20 years in a tour bus, 20 years in a locker room, it’s about the same mentality, frankly,” she chuckled. “I know you wouldn’t think that about me necessarily, but the raunchier the joke, the better.”
Although much of “Shine On” reflects the positive turn in McLachlan’s love life, a few songs (“Broken Heart” and most obviously “Song For My Father”) touch on her adoptive father, Jack, who passed away in 2010. He had been a hugely steadying force in McLachlan’s life.
“I rarely needed him. I rarely played that card. But the point was if I ever needed it, he would be there in a second,” she said. “And that unconditional love is something that is rarely felt anymore. Really, I figure most love is conditional.
“The difference between my mom and dad is that my mom’s love was incredibly conditional. She was tough,” McLachlan said. “I love my mother dearly, but she was a tough woman. It was definitely conditional. But not with my dad, he was just solid.”
Musically, the album will sound familiar to fans who have followed McLachlan since she came onto the American music scene with her 1991 album, “Solace.” It was her next album, 1993’s “Fumbling Towards Ecstasy,” that introduced her to the masses with hit singles like “Possession” and “Good Enough.” She hit a new peak with 1997’s “Surfacing,” which included the hits “Building a Mystery” and “Angel” and enabled her to launch her groundbreaking, all-female festival tour, Lilith Fair.
Like those albums and those that have followed (2004’s “Afterglow,” 2006’s “Wintersong” and “Laws Of Illusion”), “Shine On” has its share of first-rate ballads (“Monsters,” “Broken Heart” and “Surrender And Certainty”) with pretty, well-developed melodies, but there’s also a little bit more edge to a few songs. “In Your Shoes” uses an assertive beat and full-bodied instrumentation to give it some heft. “Flesh And Blood” has an anthemic quality that would fit on a Coldplay album and “Love Beside Me” brings some edgy guitar into its expansive mid-tempo sound.
“Certainly I was hoping to have an album that had a little more directness and, maybe aggressiveness isn’t the right word, but just more of kind of a raw feeling to it,” said McLachlan, who in addition to using long-time producer Pierre Marchand, had Bob Rock (Aerosmith, Bon Jovi) produce a couple of tracks. “I think I touched on that. You know, I’m not PJ Harvey. I’m not going to go that route. It’s not me. But I like to make an effort to sort of push my own envelope a little.”
McLachlan said she plans to play nearly all of “Shine On” during her shows this summer. But, because it’s an “evening-with” performance that will feature upward of 30 songs, there will also be time for hits and fan favorites. She has special plans for the staging this time out.
“We’re sort of tentatively calling it the ‘living-room experience’ because I hate to leave my house,” McLachlan said. “So I basically am going to take my house with me and I’m going to have it onstage, and I’m going to invite people from the audience up to hang out onstage with me while I’m performing.”