Sarah McLachlan, the 40 million-selling, Grammy-winning singer-songwriter, seems like she's led a charmed life. Certainly her adulthood -- aside from an unfortunate divorce that she spoke to us about last year -- has been fortuitous since she launched her acclaimed career back in 1988. But McLachlan's teenage years, like many of ours, were anything but charmed as the aspiring singer says she was mercilessly bullied in high-school.
"When I say music saved me, I don't say that lightly," McLachlan tells Spinner. "I didn't fit in, I didn't get on with a lot of people and I was sort of ostracized. Music gave me a sense that I was worthwhile and that I had something of value to offer the world even though everybody was telling me that I didn't."
When the young singer traded Halifax for Vancouver and broke out with her debut album 'Touch,' she instantly captivated music fans with both her talent and beauty, so it seems absurd that just a couple years earlier she was unpopular and picked on.
"I think it's probably a more common story than you think. I was very awkward as a kid. I was a square trying to fit into a circle and it never worked for me. The harder I tried, the harder I fell. For some reason I was a real target and I got beat up and called names.
"So did a lot of people, that was just my experience, but having music I was just such a refuge for me to be able to know there was something that I was good at. It makes me so sad to think that there are kids who might experience similar situations and not have the possibility of that outlet."
McLachlan was fortunate at the time to have a piano and guitar in her home and parents who could afford private lessons to augment her school's music program. But kids today are often not so lucky. "Music and art programs are the first to be cut in public school systems," she notes, "and a lot of these kids will have little or no opportunity to learn a musical instrument or learn appreciation of music in the way I got to. I was very lucky in my career and had way more money than I needed and I thought I want to do something good with it."
So she decided to start up the Sarah McLachlan School of Music, a free after-school program for at-risk youth in Vancouver which she has been funding "primarily by myself for nine years." Initially, it was an outreach program in partnership with Arts Umbrella, and run out of a church basement. But last fall, they got a permanent location, a former bowling renovated with soundproof walls, six studios, five lesson rooms and a performance hall, and set out on their own.
She's been working on ways to raise funds, including the recent holiday-themed song 'Space on the Couch for Two' that she wrote and recorded with her students to try and inspire donations. Since September, she's been putting in about three days a week working at the school.
"I had no intention of teaching," she says, "I never thought I was any good at it but I loved the experience of being with the kids and shepherding them through the whole process. But my involvement was in the development of the concept of the school and the curriculum and what kind of teachers to hire and just the vibe in the sense that the teachers respect the students and the students respect the teachers. There's a mutual understanding with everybody that goes there that this is a real nourishing place where there is no bad idea and everybody's voice is cherished. I think that a really important thing to empower these kids with that they are important and that they are special."
Every day after school, 290 inner-city kids take lessons in playing, songwriting, singing and production-oriented music lab. Programs like this have become especially important in recent years, as recession-related austerity measures have allowed governments to slash funding for arts education.
"It's a travesty because there's so many studies and tests proving that by having music and art education in children's lives advances them in math and sciences and English. It feeds a really important part of the brain that needs to be fed," she says. "It's trying to give these kids the opportunity to be able to express themselves and to be able to shine and to have something to feel good about and have ownership of that nobody else can take away from them."
Of course, her music school is not just about her experience of being bullied and finding salvation through music. Over the past decade, McLachlan has had two daughters whom she is currently raising on her own.
"On becoming a mother, I sort of feel like every kid is my kid. I really do get that sense in a much more profound way that we all are a global community and we all have to band to try and give the children of our this generation whatever tools we can to go out into this world and try and make it a better place," she says.
"I took a huge chunk of time off when they were young. They're both in school now and that's why I feel like I'm able to dedicate more time to this now and take this next step -- which is terribly time-consuming because I'm working on my new record, as well -- but it's a delicate juggling act and luckily they still like me."