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Sarah McLachlan Says Music Saved Her

Singer reminisces about career, talks new tour, keeping fit and why she’s funding music education

spinner image Sarah McLachlan against blue ombre background
Kevin Mazur/Getty Images

Canadian singer-songwriter Sarah McLachlan, 56, captivated fans with songs such as “Possession,” “Adia” and “Building a Mystery,” then made an indelible mark on the music industry when she launched the all-female Lilith Fair festival in 1997. This year, to commemorate the 30th anniversary of her Fumbling Towards Ecstasy album, she’s performing in 30 North American cities, starting with Vancouver on May 23. She’s also working on a new album, which she hopes to release next May. McLachlan tells AARP how she got her career start, how she keeps fit in her 50s and why she’s funding schools to educate the next generation of musicians.

This interview has been edited for length and clarity.

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When did you realize you wanted to be a musician?

I have early memories of myself singing. My mom was really into American folk music, and I started learning a lot of the songs that she was listening to. I remember being 4 years old and begging for a ukulele, because I wanted to be Joan Baez. That being said, my parents were very encouraging of music as a hobby, not as a profession.

So how did it become your profession?

When I was 16, I heard Peter Gabriel for the first time, and his music blew my mind. I thought, I want to make music that makes people feel the way he makes me feel. Around the same time, I was in a band, and we played a few gigs. The very first gig I ever played, at 16 years old — when I saw people dancing and singing along and smiling to the music, I was like, This is the best drug in the world. This is what I want to do. I guess I was pretty darn lucky when a couple of years later, I got offered a record contract based on that very first gig I ever did.

Wow, that’s incredible.

Yeah. Just this crazy luck of being in the right place at the right time. Sure, it was having some talent, but lots of people have a ton of talent and they don’t have those opportunities. So I consider myself to be incredibly lucky that it all worked out for me.

spinner image Sarah McLachlan holding guitar and singing into microphone
McLachlan, performing here in New York in 2015, is embarking on a new North American Tour.
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How is life different for you now in your 50s?

It’s quite wonderful, actually, with the exception of some of my body parts aching. I’m having a fantastic time. I feel revitalized. I feel like I still have a lot to say. I’m making a new record. I’m very excited about this tour, as well. I haven’t done a proper tour in almost nine years.

How are you staying healthy in preparation for the tour?

A lot of the work beforehand is just staying in shape. I live outdoors. I hike a ton. I skate and ski. I swim as soon as the ice is off the top of the lake. I eat really well. I don’t smoke. I hardly drink. I try to get a lot of sleep. It’s just consistency.

Do you feel like music helps you stay mentally acute?

Making music makes me really, really happy, and I think that’s a big part of keeping my mental state in a healthy place. That and being outside. Being outside and exercising in nature, for me, is incredibly important mentally. Hiking every morning with my dogs, which I usually do by myself, is sort of like a walking meditation. I’m often writing lyrics at the time, too.

What advice would you give to your younger self, or to newer musicians who are starting out?

I would just say, “Stay true to yourself. Know what you want, and don’t expect it to come easily.” But I would also say, “Don’t be so hard on yourself.” That comes as a double-edged sword. I think me being hard on myself was what pushed me to be better, but there was maybe a little too much self-loathing that went on.

You have collaborated with some amazing artists. Who is your dream duet partner?

It would probably be Peter Gabriel. That’d be my top choice, because I love his voice. Ray LaMontagne is another one.

What artists are you listening to these days?

Ethan Gruska. I think he’s fantastic. And Phoebe Bridgers, who is also part of Boygenius. I love them. I’m trying to do a Joni Mitchell deep dive, because everybody’s like, “Oh, you’ve been listening to Joni your whole life.” I haven’t. I’d only listened to a few songs. I just started listening to [her 1976 album] Hejira, and I’m just sort of digging into all her albums.

You founded the Sarah McLachlan School of Music, which offers free music education programs. Why is that so important to you?

I think music saved my life as a teenager. It was the one thing that I had that was mine. It gave me a sense of my own value. The same time I did Lilith Fair, I ended up making quite a bit of money, so I put that into a foundation and was trying to think, What can I do to continue the legacy? Around the same time, a lot of music programs were being cut from the public school systems here in Canada, and everywhere for that matter. I realized that kids didn’t have any opportunity to figure out who they were through music. I thought, I can try and start a program. It grew from there. I’ve been helping to fund it for the last 21 years, and we serve over 1,000 kids a year now in three locations in Vancouver, Surrey and Edmonton. It’s completely free. It’s been one of the greatest blessings in my life.


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Paddle boarders enjoy the sunset near Mackenzie Beach in the Tofino area of Vancouver, Canada.
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McLachlan’s Top 3 Canada Travel Recommendations 

McLachlan was born in Halifax, Nova Scotia, and resides in Vancouver. When asked for the top three places to visit in her native country, she offers this advice: ​

Vancouver Island: “In particular, a small place called Tofino on the west coast of Vancouver Island. It is heaven on Earth. It’s a beach community with 2,000 people year-round, and in the summer, [the population] swells. It’s a great surf community, and it’s just one of the most beautiful places.”

Cabot Trail, Nova Scotia: “I haven’t done it in a long time, but if you can drive up and down the coastline in Nova Scotia, it’s absolutely beautiful, especially in September.”

British Columbia: “I love B.C. so much. Everywhere is so beautiful. There are lakes everywhere. There are mountains everywhere. There’s the ocean. It’s all fantastic.”​

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