Canadian singer-songwriter Sarah McLachlan is best known for her folk-rock ballads “I Will Remember You,” “Building a Mystery” and “Angel.” But dig deeper into her background, and you’ll find 12 years of classical music training at the Royal Conservatory of Music in Toronto, where she studied piano, guitar and opera.
McLachlan, a multiple Grammy and Juno Award winner, is the first to admit it wasn’t because she necessarily loved classical music; more to the fact, her parents encouraged this course of study.
“If I had to define myself with one kind of music, it would be folk above and beyond,” McLachlan says, adding she grew up with ’60s/’70s-era singer-songwriters Simon and Garfunkel, Cat Stevens and Joan Baez. Her conservatory studies were a means to an end. “I simply wanted to learn the instruments. But later I realized I absorbed so much more, in particular, understanding music theory and the ability to read music. I can still look at a score and read it well enough to be able to speak the language.”
That skill will come in handy when McLachlan performs June 16 with members of the Chicago Symphony Orchestra for the CSO’s annual Corporate Night concert. Sean O’Loughlin conducts.
As for what she has planned for the performance, she says, laughing, “Well, no trapeze or anything like that.” What she envisions is a “nice cross-section” of her most popular material, the songs that “lend themselves to a symphonic setting.”
“It’s exciting to sing these familiar songs and have this beautiful score,” she says. “It’s like being in your own movie.”
After nearly a year of touring behind her 2014 album “Shine On,” McLachlan believes the CSO performance will jolt her out of that world. “It’s kind of freeing in a way,” she explains. “On the road you play the same set every night with the same musicians, and you get a little bit stuck in how you do the songs. But this sort of setting frees me up to take some chances vocally and do things a little differently.”
A native of Halifax, Nova Scotia, McLachlan recalls at the age of 4 wanting to be “just like Joan Baez” and to learn the guitar. She was too little, so her first instrument was the ukulele. When she was 7, her parents, both academics, moved the family to Toronto so she could attend the Royal Conservatory. Against her parents’ wishes, McLachlan lobbied hard to attend the Nova Scotia College of Art and Design. During her first year there, she was offered a five-record contract. She went to her dad (“not my mom because I was terrified of her”) and explained the situation. He understood, and McLachlan was just 19 when her first album, “Touch,” was released in 1988. Since then, she has gone on to become the queen of hauntingly ethereal, emotional ballads.
“Nothing would have stopped me from moving to Vancouver to pursue music but having his blessing was good,” McLachlan says. “My mom took a while longer. She was convinced I was going to get hooked on heroin and get pregnant. When I came home nine months later not with a baby but a finished album, I think she was incredibly relieved.”
As the mother of two young daughters, 13-year-old India and 8-year-old Taja, McLachlan, 47, now understands where her mother was coming from: “Oh, how I wish she was still here so I could tell her. I really do get it now. Wisdom is wasted on youth. It doesn’t matter what people tell you; you just have to live it.”
Drawing from her own life was the main creative force behind “Shine On,” a collection of songs that proved to be “cathartic” for the singer-songwriter. Each album is a “postcard of the emotional space I am in,” and a trio of life-changing events — divorce, the death of her father and her departure from her management/label of 25 years — pushed her to a new “lyrical freedoms.”
“I think there were a lot of strong stories I wanted to tell, and I could use my own experiences, rather than reaching out into a parallel universe and using the inspiration of other people’s stories,” McLachlan says. “And that was kind of freeing. These songs are completely me. I was honest. I didn’t have to hide behind anything.
“Plus, lyrically and musically, I think there are some nice raw moments. I was trying to get away from my need to reach perfection and allow the mistakes to stay. To actually enjoy them because they are the most honest bits.”
Of course, you can’t talk to McLachlan without the subject of Lilith Fair coming up. She co-founded the massively successful, female-centric festival (1997-99) in response to her frustration with concert promoters and radio stations that at the time refused to feature female musicians. The question now is: Did Lilith Fair change anything?
“I think at the time it did,” McLachlan says with a reflective pause. “It opened a lot of doors. Having that unifying force, all of us together, we gathered a bigger fan base. But it’s never been about domination; it’s about equality. Music is cyclical and continues to slowly shift. These kind of societal changes take generations.”
Now that McLachlan is beginning a hiatus (except for a concert here and there) and has settled in her Vancouver home with her daughters, she’s taking a “bit of a breather.” But in the next breath, she insists she will never completely turn away from the stage.
“Performing live is the culmination of all the blood, sweat and tears of making a record, which is insular and isolating and lonely at times. I’m a very social creature. I love singing. I love performing. It’s the moment when I feel I’ve found my purpose.”
Mary Houlihan, a Chicago-based arts writer, contributes to Playbill and other publications.