idol rundown: sarah mclachlan's songwriting process

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I recently answered the question "What is Sarah McLachlan's songwriting process like?" on Quora.  I felt compelled to share it here because yes, she's one of my singer/songwriter idols!  Here it goes...

I don’t personally know Sarah McLachlan, but I sometimes feel I do because she’s been my idol since I was a kid. Her songs, in my humble opinion, are bar none some of the most well crafted songs I’ve ever heard. And her songwriting is simply brilliant, deep, and incredibly inspirational for me as a singer/songwriter myself.

For those of you who may not know Sarah, she’s a Grammy award-winner from Canada with over 40 million albums sold worldwide; founder of the Lilith Fair tour, which lasted from 1997 to 1999 and again in 2010, showcasing top female musicians from around the world; and she’s released at least 7 full-length solo albums including “Fumbling Towards Ecstacy”, “Surfacing”, “Afterglow”, “Wintersong”, and recently “Shine On”.

In terms of her songwriting process, it’s important to first note that Sarah is a trained musician in voice, classical piano and guitar from lessons taken as a child. It’s not always necessary to know how to play an instrument as a songwriter, but it certainly helps to know the basics, like chord progressions, to help convey your idea for a song, especially if you’re working with other writers and/or musicians.

According to many of her interviews, Sarah uses songwriting as a form of self-therapy to work through whatever she’s experiencing at that point in her life. Before releasing “Fumbling Towards Ecstacy” (my favorite album from her!), she was inspired by Thoreau’s Walden experience that she retreated to an isolated cabin in the mountains for nearly 7 months of meditation and soul-searching. That coupled with listening to music from her idols in seminal and folk including Cat Stevens, Joan Baez, Simon & Garfunkel, and Peter Gabriel inspired her to find her own point of view with a similar sense of honesty and emotional response, hence penning songs such as “Good Enough”, “Plenty”, and “Possession”. She mentions using a journal to write a sort of morning pages, getting out whatever came to mind until she’d finally start opening up about deeper thoughts she’d been experiencing. The key for her was to not edit or judge herself while writing.

I’d personally like to know if she writes her lyrics first and then the melody, or vice versa. What drives what? Every songwriter has a different style, and many do both depending on their mood (including myself). I’m willing to bet that Sarah tries both styles until she’s finally happy with the outcome of a song.

I’ve summarized some key takeaways of great interviews (links provided below) she’s done over the years:

Addicted to Songwriting Interview: Sarah McLachlan
RE: Release of “Fumbling Towards Ecstasy”
-Seclusion: Being away from society for a long period to help focus on soul-searching without being distracted.
-Journaling: Morning Pages or allowing yourself to write freely and ‘stream of consciousness’ without editing or judging oneself.
-Live in the present: Try not to live in the future and project things when the present offers enough songwriting material.
-Listen to music that inspires you: You can never get enough of listening to other people’s music to help tap into your flow.
-Pay attention to the first few lines you write: In her case, the first 2 lines tell the whole story of her song, which helps define which direction, lyrically, the song would go. She works through her experience in that song until she gets to the “other side” of it.
-Finding a title to the song: In her case, most of her song titles are from the last word in the 2nd line.
-Demoing a song: Make the song strong enough in its simplest form.
-Let songs be an act of discovery.
-Don’t judge songs you’ve already written: It’s good to be attached to songs, but on the flip side, if you’ve written something that you later realize was “a bomb”, then let it be. It’s only reflective of what you were experiencing at that time in your life, whether that experience be fictional or real.
-Read “Letters to a Young Poet” by Rainer Maria Rilke. She says his advice is better than any advice she could give.

Sarah McLachlan Interview Page 1
RE: After becoming a mother & her release of “Afterglow”
-Priorities shift when becoming a parent: Her process for songwriting took longer due to there being less time and requiring more discipline, but that’s ok. Just accept that it takes longer.
-Contemplating in a bathtub (!): She says a lot of contemplation happens in bathtubs…”Nothing like a hot bath to sort of ease the tension and think about what’s going to happen next.” (That’s certainly worth a try! For me it’s always been long hot showers!)
-Don’t live in that “self wallowing place all the time”: When writing poetry or songs, grow from it and move forward so that you’re not in that place all the time.

Life (and an album) at 46 & Sarah McLachlan on parenting, sex and 'having it all'
RE: Release of “Shine On”
These articles speak less about her songwriting process, but more about the fact that she’s still AT IT at the age of 46 (30 years after she signed her first record deal at the age of 19), as a hard-working and touring mom of 2 daughters and more passionate than ever to keep her music career going. She is a great role model of longevity in the music industry, not driven by fame, but driven by a genuine passion for creating music!

Stevie Nicks & Sarah McLachlan Interview
This is just an awesome interview from 1995 in Interview Magazine where one legend chit-chats with another legend :)

Last but not least, here’s Sarah McLachlan herself answering questions on Quora!
Sarah McLachlan

Thank you Sarah for being a continual source of inspiration for so many of us!
Shine On!