‘A hard thing to go through’

Sarah McLachlan’s new CD was inspired by her breakup

The arrival next week of Sarah McLachlan’s new CD Closer: The Best of Sarah McLachlan introduces a cunning new hybrid: a “greatest-hits” retrospective driven by tabloid-worthy gossip. Fourteen of the CD’s 16 tracks have been culled from the 40-year-old Vancouver singer’s beloved repertoire—there’s elegiac Angel, the unofficial post-9/11 anthem, there’s Possession, about her former stalker, and there’s Adia, about a woman whose identity McLachlan refuses to reveal.

What’s fuelling the buzz, however, is the CD’s two new tracks, or, more precisely, their inspiration: McLachlan’s split with her husband of 11 years, Ashwin Sood, the former drummer in her band with whom she has two daughters, aged six and 15 months. Vancouver blogger Elaine Lui broke news of the breakup in May on laineygossip.com. McLachlan made it official last month in an interview with Billboard.com: “I’m separating from my husband, so these are the songs about that,” she said. Within minutes, it was headline news.

Her desire to release the new music provided the impetus behind the CD, McLachlan says on the phone from Vancouver. “I was nowhere near having enough songs to put out a record and I talked to my manager who said if you’re ever going to do a greatest hits, now is the time to do it.”

Of course, they could have thrown the new songs on iTunes. But that would be a missed opportunity given McLachlan’s core audience—women over 35 who’ve followed her from her indie-record status through her 1997 celebrity breakout following the blockbuster CD Surfacing and her all-femme Lilith Fair tour, or “Vulvapalooza” as she jokingly refers to it. It’s one of the last audiences willing to pony up for a CD (more for the “deluxe” two-CD Closer), and the reason McLachlan was the fifth-bestselling artist between 1995 and 2007, according to Nielsen SoundScan Canada. Shrewdly, Closer will also be sold at Loblaw stores and London Drugs.

Bob Lefsetz, a respected Santa Monica, Calif.-based industry observer who publishes the online Lefsetz Letter, says compilation discs are increasingly common now that CDs are sold primarily through big-box stores like Wal-Mart, which don’t have the space to carry artists’ catalogues. “People put out ‘greatest hits’ just to have something in the store,” he says. “It’s all about the money.”

Over the years, McLachlan’s management has proven clever repackagers: of her 18-CD discography, only five are all-original music, the last being Afterglow in 2003. Since then she has released another five CDs.

McLachlan says she had trepidation about writing the new songs for fear of breaching privacy, but is glad she did: “It’s obviously very personal and a hard thing to go through, and I didn’t think it’s anyone’s business frankly—other than the immediate parties involved.” She sees the dichotomy: “I’m willing to write about it fairly openly but I don’t want to talk about it, but that’s the way I’ve always been.”

Anyone combing through the lyrics for smut will be disappointed. U Want Me 2, the CD’s single, is more forlorn than bitter: You walk on by / Clueless and so high / Following your aimless path away from us / You’re so far away / And what can I say / Cause I can’t be the one you wanted me to be.

Don’t Give Up on Us is a classic I-can’t-believe-you’re-breaking-up-with-me song: Oh baby, I know your heart is full of doubt / You don’t need to be without these loving arms / That will hold you through your darkest hour / I’ll be using all my powers / So I can reach you / Oh my love / Don’t give up on us.

Misery can be a muse. “A lot of compelling emotional stuff comes from pain and sadness but that’s a different place than depression,” she says. “I’m rarely in that place because it’s debilitating. I work very hard to stay out of that place.”

Her promotion schedule is gruelling: wall-to-wall interviews, concerts in New York and Boston, appearances on Live with Regis and Kelly, Good Morning America and Late Night with Conan O’Brien. She describes her current life as “treading water, between everything going on personally and putting out this record and having to be in an outwardly social place. I don’t really feel like it. But that is part of my job and I really want this record to be successful.”

The idea that her divorce has become a marketing angle makes her cringe. “I hope nobody sees it that way because that would be so perverse.” Hearing the CD makes her nostalgic, she says. “When I listen to the tracks in order they’re little postcards from my life.” She laughs at the idea her two new songs have been anointed “greatest hits” by proximity. “That is kind of presumptuous,” she says. Maybe. Or more likely Sarah McLachlan knows her devoted audience, eager to share her pain, will make it so.