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In making new music for a changed world, Sarah McLachlan asks: ‘Where’s my place?’

‘I’ve always considered myself to not be political, but I’m not sure any of us have the luxury anymore’
Sarah McLachlan performs during WE Day in Toronto on Thursday September 19, 2019. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Chris Young

Sarah McLachlan is searching for her purpose in this fractured world.

The Halifax-born singer-songwriter once shattered boundaries with her Lilith Fair tour by empowering a generation of female voices.

But lately, as she prepares her first album of original material in a decade, she is questioning how to voice her opinions on social and political issues.

“I’ve always considered myself to not be political, but I’m not sure any of us have the luxury anymore,” she said in a phone interview from her Vancouver home.

“I just want to be thoughtful in what I say. I want to let the music speak for me.”

McLachlan is still figuring out exactly what that means to her. She’s currently in the studio with producer Tony Berg, known for his work on the Boygenius album, to shape her ideas into a record.

She’ll also embark on a North American tour next month that celebrates the 30th anniversary of “Fumbling Towards Ecstasy,” performing the album in its entirety. The shows kick off in Vancouver on May 23 with additional Canadian dates in Toronto on June 19 and Montreal on June 20.

McLachlan spoke with The Canadian Press about revisiting her 1993 album, recording a new one, and deciding when to speak out.

CP: Playing one of your albums front-to-back is something you haven’t tried before, and it makes sense to pick “Fumbling,” since it includes “Possession,” “Hold On,” and fan favourite “Ice Cream.” But what made you want to hit the road for this one in particular?

McLachlan: There’s a ton of nostalgia around it for me and probably a lot of people. I think it’s my favourite record. It was certainly the easiest record I ever made. And there was a lot of joy and fun attached to it. I know so many people who’ve said, “That record got me through university.” And, I think every song has a certain importance. So playing it in its entirety will be a lot of fun and something I’ve never done.

CP: While you haven’t been absent from the music industry — you released a 2016 Christmas album, hosted the 2019 Juno Awards and continue working with your music school charity — there’s been little new music from you lately. What happened?

McLachlan: I don’t really have an excuse. With COVID, everything ground to a halt, and I didn’t have a huge deadline to finish it. So I just allowed other things to intervene. I learned how to skate ski, which is really fun. It’s one of those things where I need to get outside and my partner was a big skate skier. It’s been a new lease on winter for me.

CP: Now there’s the making of an album in the mix. You’re working with producer Tony Berg, who’s a frequent collaborator with Phoebe Bridgers and was involved in the Boygenius album. How did that come about?

McLachlan: I had been writing and had enough material that I thought: Let’s get into the studio and see what happens. I absolutely love Phoebe Bridgers and Boygenius and there was a list of producers and his name was at the top. I met him and we connected right away. We spent five days together. We’re kicking each other and laughing and taking the piss constantly. He’s like my older brother. And now as soon as I finish this call, I’m jumping in the car, heading to the airport and going back to L.A. I’ve got another 10 days in the studio. And it’s just been so much fun to explore.

CP: What are you writing about?

McLachlan: Oh the end of the world. Fun stuff. No, I’m kidding. Am I kidding? Eh…

CP: I don’t know, I can’t tell!

McLachlan: I’m not sure myself. A lot of it is just about where I’m at in my life, reflection on parenting, and being a woman in our times. The demise of society. A lot of possible scenarios are creeping in. It’s like, where is my place in all of this? What is my continuing purpose? What’s my new purpose? Why am I still making music? These are questions that I’m asking myself. I don’t have any solid answers yet. But the music will speak for it, eventually.

CP: You’re coming back in a very different cultural climate. You mentioned being a woman today, and I assume you’re referring to the stripping back of abortion rights in the U.S. You’re also among more than 300 artists who signed Tegan and Sara’s open letter opposing anti-transgender legislation in some Canadian provinces.

McLachlan: Anybody who’s different is under threat and that typically is marginalized societies. We are living in very precarious times. We think in Canada we’re so much more advanced than the states, but we’re not, really. And I think these things have to be talked about. That is a lot of contemplation for me as an artist when we (discuss) my place. I haven’t been out and around for a bunch of years. I’ve been living my career quietly. I never liked fame, and being constantly asked for my opinion. I just know how I feel and that things can be quietly heading in a really bad direction.

CP: It sounds like you’re still in the process of figuring this all out.

McLachlan: I haven’t had a lot of conversations about this other than with close friends and family. And they don’t know how to counsel me because, they’re like, “Just don’t say anything.” And I’m like, “I can’t not say anything.” I think it’s scary for anybody to stand up and take a strong stance because you have people on the opposing sides, the right and left, or the fundamentalists on either side. And there are so many threats of violence (against) someone saying the wrong things and making a stupid comment. And there’s so little forgiveness. I say: Look, we’re all learning. We’re all trying to figure out how to be in this new world. And it’s going to be messy.

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— This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.

David Friend, The Canadian Press