Sarah McLachlan talks guitar, piano, demoing and her new album, Shine On
For her eighth studio album, the luminous and compelling Shine On, Sarah McLachlan wanted to shake things up a bit. Since 1991, she's worked with producer and multi-instrumentalist Pierre Marchand (who helmed the bulk of the new set) on an unbroken string of platinum and multi-platinum releases. "I wanted to try a few different things," McLachlan says, "and it was actually Pierre who suggested I that I look to some new people."
Hoping to capture more of a raw, live off-the-floor feel on a couple of cuts, McLachlan hooked up with fellow Canadian Bob Rock, best known for producing mega-sellers for hard rockers Metallica, Aerosmith and Bon Jovi, and she couldn't be happier with the results. "Bob is a lovely, lovely man," she enthuses. "He brings out a more rock ‘n’ roll element, which you can hear on Flesh And Blood and Love Beside Me. It was a lot of fun to work with him."
McLachlan sat down with MusicRadar recently to talk about the new album, reconnecting with the electric guitar (and ukulele), what she looks for in a good piano sound and whether she even thinks about the radio when songwriting. (Shine On will be released on May 6. You can pre-order the album at Amazon, iTunes and Target.)
Aside from wanting more of a raw feel on some songs, was there anything else you were looking to do differently on the record?
“I don’t set out to reinvent the wheel. I just want to keep pushing myself and do something different, but I never quite know what that is. I don’t set out and say, ‘OK, I’m going to make this kind of record.’ I don’t try to write something for a specific genre or try to push it in a direction that it doesn’t want to go in. The songs just reveal themselves, and when they do, that’s when things start to take shape.”
Bob Rock got you to play electric guitar on the cuts you did together.
“Yeah, which I love! I haven’t done that for so long, but he really encouraged me, which was great. It’s rekindled my love for playing electric guitar, so I’m excited to play these songs live.”
The guitar sound on Flesh And Blood is big and rousing, and on Love Beside Me it’s kind of tough and gritty. What guitars were you using? Were they yours or were they some of Bob’s?
“Oh, God, it was white and solid-body… It was a little guitar. [Pauses] Shit! I’m terrible at this – I’m so not a gearhead. I can never remember of the names of anything, including people. I can’t tell you what I played." [Laughs] [Editor's note: According to Bob Rock, in the studio Sarah played a 1961 "'Dave Vidalized" Stratocaster and a 1993 chambered Dave Johnson-reliced Gibson Les Paul with real PAF pickups.]
Well, you play and sound great. When you were growing up, did you play electric guitar at all?
“No, I never played electric till I was in my 20s. I played acoustic growing up – acoustic guitar and piano. The first time I played electric was probably on my second record. That was just Pierre saying to me, ‘Play that on electric,’ and I went, ‘But I don’t play electric.’ But I got it in my hands and found out it was the same thing – just more noise.”
On longtime producer Pierre Marchand
Do you have any favorite guitar players? Any guitar-based bands you especially like?
“Well, I love Dire Straits, and I love The Edge. I love the way he plays guitar. He can do no wrong. He’s just delicious, as far as I’m concerned.”
Actually, the guitar sound on Flesh And Blood is very Edge-like – those big, ringing, rousing chords.
“It might be reminiscent of him. I was thinking more The Smiths, but yeah, you can put The Edge in there, too.”
Bob Rock is famous for his meticulous nature in the studio. He likes to record a lot.
“He likes to record a ton and figure it out later. That made me a little uncomfortable, and I ended up going track by track and stripping a lot away and then rerecording a lot of stuff in the end. My ears get tired, and I can’t tell what’s what. I like to hear the definition between parts. What I feel Bob brought was that raw energy. Yes, he likes to record a lot, but where I feel he shined with me was we got great musicians together and did things live off the floor for a lot of these songs. That sort of defined the vibe.”
After all this time, what’s your working relationship with Pierre Marchand like?
“We’re two peas in a pod, which is good and bad, depending on how you look at it. [Laughs] Pierre’s meticulous in a whole different way in how he approaches creativity. He’ll hone in on a part and just obsess over it for a while. It sounds kind of boring, but I think that's if you’re not in his head. I tend to leave him alone when he does that stuff. A few hours later, I’ll come back and be like, ‘Holy shit! That’s fantastic. What did you do?’ But that’s how he works.
“He really pushes and pulls the music, not just the sonics but ‘What instruments are we gonna use for this? How’s it going to look? How’s it going to feel?’ I don’t even know how to speak to his process. He just pulls great stuff out. He goes to places that I never would have thought to take a song in.”
You’re one of the few piano players who has a very identifiable sound. When I hear you play, I know exactly who it is. Elton John’s another one.
“Really? So you must be a muso then.” [laughs]
Yeah, something like that. Let me ask you, what are the tonal characteristics you look for in a piano? For you, what goes into getting a great piano sound?
“Full body... warmth... good high end and good low end. Like any instrument, a piano needs to sing to you. And with any wood-resonating instruments, they take their time. I have a Steinway in my living room that I hated for the first 10 years. It sounded great in the showroom, but when I brought it home it just didn’t have any guts to it. I’ve had it for 24 years, and now it’s just glorious. It’s all warm and fat and great sounding. It just needed time to mature.”
Do you notice that certain songs come out when you sit down at the piano versus when you pick up a guitar?
“Absolutely, yeah. I feel like it’s a real plus to be able to play adequately on both instruments because if I take a song to a certain place on the piano and I get stuck, I’ll take it to the guitar and it’ll go somewhere infinitely different. So that will inspire certain changes.”
In Your Shoes is such a big, beautiful and hopeful song. I understand that you dovetailed some of your own experiences as a teenager with the story of Malala Yousafzai – how did that work exactly?
“They’re two separate stories, and it’s hard to explain the whole thing. Songs start out in moments. The idea of ‘You turn the radio on, play your favorite song and cry’ – that whole little bit came out as one piece very quickly. I thought, ‘Wow, what is that? What does it remind me of?’ I started thinking about when I was a kid, and I would be sitting on the couch with my headphones on, you know, playing my favorite record and sobbing my eyes out ‘cause I didn’t have any friends or whatever. So it started out as that.
“But I couldn’t finish it; I couldn’t figure it out. There had to be something more than that, but I didn’t know what else to say about it. Then the story about Malala came on the news, and she was such an incredible heroine. She had struggled to be heard and to be respected, and she was taken down by the Taliban. But yet she didn’t die – she survived. It was such an incredible and powerful story, and she instantly became the heroine of the song. It was easy to write after that.”
How did the ukulele happen on The Sound Love Makes? Did it start out as a ukulele song?
“No, it started out on electric guitar. My guitar player, Luke Doucet, who’s a wonderful songwriter, wrote that. He sent it to me and said, ‘Hey, this reminds me of you’ – I’d recently fallen in love, so of course, I told him all about that. He said, ‘It’s a sweet little love song, and I thought you might like it.’ And I heard it and said, ‘Oh, this is gorgeous. I love it!’ [Laughs]
“I was with my keyboard player at the time, Vincent [Jones]. I was in his studio, and he had this beautiful ukulele. I was like, ‘Ahh! That was my first instrument.’ I started taking uke when I was four years old. So I thought it would be fun, but of course, I picked it up and I realized that I didn’t know how to play it anymore. But Vince gave me a chord sheet with all the possible chords on it. The Sound That Love Makes was in my head, so I started playing it on piano for Vince. Then I tried playing it on the ukulele, and he liked it. So I learned how to play ukulele again with that song.
“I actually didn’t intend to use it like that on the record, but I started playing it for other people, and they’d say, ‘Oh, it’s so sweet and effervescent. You can’t change it. You have to leave it exactly like that!’ [Laughs] I had so many people say, ‘Don’t mess with it.’ So that’s how it ended up on the record like that.”
What’s your demoing process like? You have your own studio in your house – do you do very elaborate demos?
“No. No, there’s no point. I did a bunch of demos with Vince, mainly to get the ideas down, because they live in my head for so long, or they’re on my iPhone in little bits and pieces. [Laughs] I always have my iPhone with me at the piano in case some magic happens, because I’ll forget it instantly if I don’t record it.
“But demoing for me is more of a means to an end: Get the idea down, here’s the vibe. Surrender And Certainty is almost exactly like the demo. Even though I redid everything, I loved the energy of it. It was so simple and dark and brooding and melancholy. It didn’t need much, so it stayed pretty much that way.
“In Your Shoes I did on piano, real simple, and it ended up sounding the way that it does. That being said, when I do these songs by myself live, I have to be able to perform them on a simple instrument without all the bells and whistles. So for me, it’s easy to almost go back to that demo kind of feel.”
You’re able to write very personal songs that are still very commercial – they get played on the radio. How do you reconcile the two types of writing?
“I don’t think about it. I’ve never written songs for the radio. I’ve never written for anybody but myself. It’s an incredibly selfish thing. [Laughs] And I don’t mind saying that. I don’t do it with anybody else in mind, and I’m not trying to please anybody but myself. I’ve just been incredibly lucky that what I’m talking about and the way I say it and sing it resonates with other people. I never think about commercial radio. I don’t think ‘This has to be a pop hit.’ I can’t let that into it or else that’ll sully it.”