'I have to make fun of it': Sarah McLachlan on the intense power of Angel, the unofficial song of sorrow
Originally published on June 18, 2018
Tonight in Toronto, Canadian singer-songwriter Sarah McLachlan will receive the Global Inspiration award at the 2018 SOCAN Awards. She will be recognized for her contributions to the music industry, for her profound impact on music education for Canadian youth through her School of Music, as well as for her acclaim as a songwriter in a career that's spanned 30 years.
In that time, McLachlan has released six studio albums and sold over 40 million albums worldwide. She's also won eight Juno awards and three Grammys, including for her massive hit songs Building a Mystery and I Will Remember You. But there's one song in particular that has reached a level of cultural ubiquity that few songs ever reach.
Angel first appeared on her 1997 album Surfacing and was released as a single in 1998. With its sombre melody and heart-wrenching lyrics, Angel quickly became the unofficial anthem of mourning following tragic events, such as the death of Princess Diana in 1997, the 1999 Columbine High School massacre and the September 11, 2001 attacks. Today, it's recognized as the the de facto song of sorrow and healing for both public and private experiences of loss, a sentiment not lost on McLachlan.
"There's such an intense emotional connection to people's personal lives with that song," she tells q's Tom Power. "So many people over the years have stopped me on the street or wherever and said, 'that song in particular has really helped me through a tough time,' or 'I played it at my mother's funeral, that was our song.' It's such a gift, as an artist, to hear those stories."
Even Darryl "DMC" McDaniels of RUN DMC has said the song "saved my life."
McLachlan was inspired to write Angel when she read a Rolling Stone article about Jonathan Melvoin, the keyboard player from Smashing Pumpkins, who had died at age 34 as the result of a heroin overdose in his hotel room. The musician's death was particularly poignant for McLachlan because she could empathize with the pressures of touring and the "lonely existence" of life on the road.
I've never done heroin in my life and never will, but [I could relate to] that feeling of emptiness and needing desperately to find something to fill up the void."- Sarah McLachlan
"It broke my heart," McLachlan says. "I was in that situation myself so many times, in another hotel room, by myself, on the road exhausted, wondering, is there an end to this? ... I don't think I was even enjoying myself playing anymore … I've never done heroin in my life and never will, but [I could relate to] that feeling of emptiness and needing desperately to find something to fill up the void."
Counting it among one of her greatest songs, if not the best song she's ever written, McLachlan believes that she couldn't have intentionally written a song like Angel because it was something she was just "lucky enough to channel."
"I don't know how else to say it, because usually writing songs is like extracting blood from a stone, especially lyrically, and that song just happened over the course of a week."
Angel arguably had a ripple effect when it was used by the Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals (SPCA) in the organization's public service announcements. It's uncommon that an advertisement is so effective or enduring that people remember it years later, but for many, Angel continues to trigger memories of the sad, neglected or injured dogs and cats from the SPCA's yank-on-your-heartstrings PSAs. These advertisements were so successful that they raised millions of dollars for rescue animals, largely thanks to McLachlan's song. "Everybody was so shocked by the money that it generated, myself included, and I think the SPCA as well," says McLachlan.
She goes on to tell Power that the SPCA dogs "were brutal to work with," and she had even considered bringing her own dogs in because they were better trained. "Dogs, when they're nervous or anxious, they pant," McLachlan explains. "And these dogs, they're rescue dogs and they're beautiful sweet animals, but they were nervous as hell, being forced to sit with a stranger under these hot lights for a significant period of time."
Today, McLachlan has a good sense of humour about her music, saying that she doesn't take herself too seriously. The SPCA ad was spoofed by Saturday Night Live, as well as by McLachlan herself in an 2014 Audi car commercial.
"I have to make fun of it," says McLachlan. "There's so many memes and everything else about, you know, Debbie Downer: 'Hi I'm Sarah McLachlan and I'm about to wreck your day.' It makes me laugh! I'm like, I know, I can't watch it — it's brutal! But it does work."
Click 'listen' at the top of this post to hear the full interview with McLachlan, where she also reflects on the legacy of Lilith Fair, her career and how music saved her life.
Written by Vivian Rashotte. Interview with Sarah McLachlan produced by Catherine Stockhausen.
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