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Sarah McLachlan: the essentials

Kiah Welsh

With 40 million albums sold, three Grammys and nine Junos to her name, Sarah McLachlan is one of Canada's most celebrated artists. The Vancouver-based artist combines an ability to write raw, intimate and relatable lyrics with a sound that connects with the masses. And her passion doesn't stop there, as she's used her talent for music as a voice for social change. In 1997, she founded Lilith Fair, a summer touring music festival organized to showcase and promote female musicians. She also established the Sarah McLachlan Foundation, which helps bring music into the lives of young Canadians in Vancouver, Surrey and Edmonton. Her work isn't limited to fellow human beings, either, as McLachlan is widely known as an advocate for animals and a spokesperson for the SPCA.

This week, Sarah McLachlan turns 49. To celebrate, we look at nine tracks that have made an impact on our lives and are essentials for your playlist.

Song: "Into the Fire"
Album: Solace (1991)

Before the sweet and firmly female-focused Fumbling Towards Ecstasy, or the deeply dark and personal, star-making Surfacing, McLachlan released the album Solace. This was 1991. Video channels were a decade into broadcasting, and McLachlan took full advantage of the relatively new medium by releasing not one, but two videos from this record featuring nudity.

Her nakedness took a humble form in "The Path of Thorns (Terms)," and in “Into the Fire,” the musician's form is primal, lying unclothed, covered in a cold mud, transforming into a warrior of sorts when she washes herself clean in a waterfall. The barefooted child wandering through a forest coupled with the lyrics “milk and honey so intoxicating” and “open the doors that lead on into Eden” offer an ancient, fantastical feel to the viewer/listener. It’s also one of the few McLachlan singles that is bursting with energy right from the first note.

— Jeanette Cabral (@jeanettecabral)

Song: "Possession"
Album: Fumbling Towards Ecstasy (1993)

The first single off her landmark album Fumbling Towards Ecstasy, “Possession” is often mistaken for a love song, and is even chosen as a wedding song. But it’s actually sung from the perspective of a man violently obsessed with a woman, and some of the lyrics were even drawn from letters McLachlan received from obsessed fans — one of whom later sued McLachlan for using his words. It’s a powerful, arresting track that makes a strong statement about sexual harassment, but is as beautiful and ethereal as it is disturbing.

— Jennifer Van Evra (@jvanevra)

Song: "Ice Cream"
Fumbling Towards Ecstasy (1993)

Sure, you might consider it one of McLachlan's simplest songs, both in lyrics and melody — but that straightforward, under-three-minutes setup is a big part of what makes "Ice Cream" so delicious. Just like your favourite plain, double-scoop treat from the parlour down the street, this track off of 1993's Fumbling Towards Ecstasy is uncomplicated: no toppings, no second thoughts, no regrets, just total indulgence. I first heard "Ice Cream" when I was a kid and couldn't imagine anything being better than chocolate. Thanks for the heads up, Sarah.

— Emma Godmere (@godmere)

Song: "Adia"
Album: Surfacing (1997)

In her song "Adia," McLachlan captures the essence of womanhood in her haunting voice and soulful lyrics: "Adia I'm empty since you left me/ trying to find a way to carry on/ I search myself and everyone/ to see where we went wrong." The song manages to identify with every woman's emotions addressing conflicting passions and entrapment. Yet, the sound of her voice carries a sweet reassurance that everything will be OK.

— Kiah Welsh (@simplykiah)

Song: "Sweet Surrender"
Album: Surfacing (1997)

Darryl "D.M.C." McDaniels has credited Mclachlan's music as an important part of his fight against depression. McLachlan's emotionally drenched, deeply affecting music has helped countless people dig deep inside themselves, and her album Surfacing really gets credit for being an ur-moment for popular music that can tear you down, then build you back up. "Sweet Surrender" is an amazing track, about losing faith, losing the identity you've built around that faith, and putting yourself back together in the hands and environment of the unknown. It's also one heck of a jam. This song often falls under the shadow of massive hits like "Angel," "Adia" and "Building a Mystery," but it is a true gem, and remains my favourite song from Sarah McLachlan.

— Kerry Martin (@OhHiKerry)

Song: "Angel"
Album: Surfacing (1997)

Because of its use in anti-cruelty ads for the SPCA, this track has become synonymous with animal welfare causes — but it’s also a powerful song of remembrance that McLachlan wrote for Jonathan Melvoin, the Smashing Pumpkins keyboardist who died of a heroin overdose. It's still widely used at memorial services.

"I've been in that place where you've messed up and you're so lost that you don't know who you are anymore, and you're miserable—and here's this escape route,” McLachlan told CMJ about the song in 1997. “I've never done heroin, but I've done plenty of other things to escape." The song is as spare as they come, and highlights McLachlan’s unmistakable vocal power and nuance as it cuts straight to the heart. — JVE

Song: "Good Enough"
Album: Mirrorball (1999)

“I don’t have to pretend/ she doesn’t expect it from me” was one of the lyrics that made me fall in love with Sarah McLachlan. "Good Enough" is about abuse and gendered violence toward women and girls, a theme that the video doubles down on, but the song’s focus remains tightly on the power of female-identified love and friendship. “Just let me try and I will be there for you/ I’ll show you why you’re so much more than good enough.” It’s a life-affirming declaration and a beautiful promise all in one.

— Andrea Warner (@_AndreaWarner)

Song: "I Will Remember You"
Mirrorball (1999)

Within seconds of hearing this song, I can’t help but think back to all of my graduation ceremonies since elementary school. Sarah McLachlan’s voice filled the room as we marched away from one stage of life and into another. "Don't let your life pass you by/ weep not for the memories." It’s a reminder that we must move forward as much as we may want to stay in the past. It invokes feelings of change, uncertainty and hope all at once.

— Monika Platek (@MonikaPlatek)

Song: "Loving You is Easy"
Album: Laws of Illusion (2010)

McLachlan's "Loving You is Easy" is reminiscent of all the sensations you get when you're in love. It's poppy, easy-going and shines a light if you're feeling a bit down. Her lyrics express this joy: "Loving you is easy, loving you is wondrous and pure/ I shout it from the rooftops/ how long must I wait 'til I see your smile?" "Loving You is Easy" is the first single from McLachlan's 2010 album, Laws of Illusion, her first studio album of new material since 2003's Afterglow. — KW

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