20 Albums 20 Years Later

Sarah McLachlan’s Deeply Personal Album Became An Unlikely Home For Anthemic Rallying Cries

Sarah McLachlan's "Surfacing" turns 20 this year.

20 Albums 20 Years Later remembers and explores the music that touched us back then and still resonates today. Join A Plus as we take another listen to albums released in 1997 and celebrate their contributions not only to the charts but to our lives.

You're watching your favorite show. It breaks for ads and suddenly you see sad, slow-motion faces of dogs and cats in cages, and you hear the dulcet tones of Sarah McLachlan's weepy smash "Angel" lilting in the background. By the time the ad gets to Sarah cuddling a puppy and imploring you to donate, you're either in tears, logging into your Venmo, or switching the channel. If you switch, you're not alone. "I change the channel," says Sarah, who has parodied it in a Super Bowl ad for Audio in 2014. In numerous interviews, she has stated, "I can't even look at it, it's so depressing. That being said," she adds proudly, "the ad generated $30million dollars for the ASPCA, it did amazing things." 


Sarah's emotional fatigue extended to Surfacing — her fourth album — on which "Angel" appears along with the Billboard Hot 100 hits "Building a Mystery" (No. 13), "Sweet Surrender" (No. 28) and "Adia" (No. 3). Following the worldwide success of her third album, 1993's Fumbling Towards Ecstasy, which featured the international hits "Possession" and "Ice Cream," Sarah, who was already an established star in Canada, decided to use her expanded platform to explore the darker sides of life and herself on Surfacing. Surfacing peaked at No. 2 on the Billboard 200 chart, and has since been certified eight-times platinum, despite mixed reviews from critics who either found it "lush" or "banal." "There are some songs on this new record that are depressing," she said at the time. "But there is a beauty in being sad and just showing that for what it is. There's a beautiful truth in that." Recording Surfacing, however, exacted a toll. "Sometimes it's hard to let things go. That wasn't an easy one to let go. By the time the album was done, I was like, 'I don't want to hear those songs again,' " she said. "Angel" was the exception. "I remember saying to a friend, 'The only song that is good on this record is 'Angel.' "


"Angel" did matter to a lot of people, including RUN-D.M.C.'s Darryl McDaniels. An outspoken advocate for mental health issues and a proponent of positive thinking, Darryl, who has been prone to near-suicidal depression most of his life, recounts how his condition became acute when he found out he was adopted, an experience he had in common with Sarah. In one conversation, teary-eyed, Darryl says, "I was at a point in my life where I was highly depressed. One day I turned the radio on and that record 'Angel' came on, something in me said, 'It's good to be alive.' I listened to that record for one whole year. The crazy thing is, I went to a [Grammy] party I didn't want to go to. Who walks in? Sarah McLachlan. I lost it. 'Oh my god, that's the lady who made that [song that] saved my life.' I walked up to her and said, 'Ms. McLachlan, I just want to tell you about your record 'Angel.' It saved my life. It's my crutch, I never leave home without it.' She looked at me and said, 'Thank you for telling me that, Darryl. That's what music is supposed to do.' " The pair bonded and wound up recording a song together, "Just Like Me," in 2006. 

"Angel," which peaked at No. 4 on Billboard's Hot 100, was inspired by an article Sarah read in Rolling Stone about fatal musician overdoses, including that of Smashing Pumpkins' touring keyboardist Jonathan Melvoin (brother to Wendy of Prince and the Revolution). "I wrote 'Angel' thinking about those people, very quickly," she has said. "The whole thing came to me in three hours." 

“Building a Mystery”

"Building a Mystery" also came to her with similar ease. "I had a guitar riff I was playing, four chord pattern," she has said. "Pierre [Marchand, her producer] had a chorus he was working on without any lyrics. Within a half hour we had the basis of the song done. It was refreshing to do something straightforward. It's the most straightforward song I've written." It earned Sarah one of two Grammys (Best Female Pop Vocal Performance). Surfacing's other Grammy win was Best Pop Instrumental Performance for "Last Dance." 


"Adia," inspired by feeling that you're responsible for everyone, stayed in the Billboard Hot100's top 10 for 16 weeks. It was nominated for a Best Female Pop Vocal Performance Grammy in 1999, but lost, perhaps inevitably, to "My Heart Will Go On," Celine Dion's juggernaut anthem for James Cameron's blockbuster, Titanic

“Sweet Surrender”

"Sweet Surrender," which she has said is "about the fact that we all ... have insecurities to hide, and we often do that by putting on a facade," reached No. 28 on the Billboard Hot 100. A 2001 remix by EDM superstar Tiësto peaked at No. 6 on Billboard's U.S. Dance Club Play chart. Other electronic musicians and producers who have been inspired by or remixed Sarah include Florida break beat act Rabbit in the Moon and D.C.downtempo duo Thievery Corporation. 

In sync with the 1997 release of Surfacing, Sarah launched Lilith Fair, a touring festival that featured female headliners. At the time, there was a wealth of women musicians in the spotlight, including Tracy Chapman, Tori Amos, Ani DiFranco, Liz Phair, PJ Harvey, and Alanis Morissette, among others, but Lilith Fair was notoriously difficult to pitch in the male-dominated industry. Ultimately, the tour recurred for three years and raised more than $10 million for charity. Lilith Fair took another go at it in 2010, but it didn't have the same impact. Sarah admits they didn't plan accordingly for their audience, who is now older, more settled, and less mobile, or for younger audiences unfamiliar with Lilith Fair, overwhelmed by choices in the digital era.

As proud as Sarah is of the success of Surfacing, Lilith Fair, and her career generally, the achievement she is proudest of is her namesake music schools in Canada. Launched in Vancouver in 2002 with a focus on disadvantaged communities, the Sarah McLachlan School of Music now also has branches in Surrey and Edmonton. 

On April 2 of this year, Sarah was inducted into the Canadian Music Hall of Fame at the 46th annual Juno Awards. Musicians from then and now, men and women, including Josh Groban, Sheryl Crow, and Tegan (of Tegan and Sara), testified to her influence and their appreciation for her work. In her acceptance speech, Sarah, who had sold more than 40 million albums as of 2015, recounted her first gig in her first band when she was a teenager in Halifax. "Four people were there," she said. She remembers thinking, "'This is the best drug. I want to do this for the rest of my life." So far, so good. 

Surfacing is available on AmazonGoogle PlayiTunes, and Spotify.

Cover image: Nettwerk Records / Arista Records

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