“These songs have been done to death in thousands of different ways, and, as a musician, you’re trying to push the envelope a little bit and create something that’s different that people haven’t heard,” Sarah McLachlan explains, referring to Wonderland, her Yuletide collection that has its release on Verve this Friday (21st). “I felt a responsibility to do something a bit unique and different. You have to walk the fine line between creating something new and respecting the tradition and history. You never know where it’s going to go.”
Growing up in Halifax, McLachlan says she listened to Harry Belafonte’s evergreen Christmas album every year and it remains a musical lodestar to this day. “That’s the only record we had and we played it over and over and over at Christmas time. I was so in love with the way he sang those songs, the love and soul he put into it,” she says. “That’s the kind of Christmas album I wanted to make. I wanted to make something that made people feel the way I did when I listened to that album.“
Of course the first task was selecting the songs. “I knew I didn’t want to do ‘Frosty The Snowman.’ How am I going to do that without sounding trite and silly?,” she says. So she researched holiday songs and dissected tunes, figuring out ‘how to make them my own.’ For the most part, I just followed my gut. I think the album has a good arc to it," she reflects.
The selections reach back to the 1600s with “O Come, All Ye Faithful.” The most recent entry is Randy Newman’s forlorn “Snow” from the 1960s, which McLachlan recorded live, accompanying herself on piano. “It’s funny, a couple of people commented saying, ‘I’m not sure that should go on the Christmas record, it’s a little dark,’ and I said, ‘Christmas is not only about family and being connected, it’s also about a lot of people being really lonely at Christmas. It’s a highly charged emotional time.”
McLachlan recorded Wonderland last winter largely in Montreal at Pierre Marchand’s studio, with additional work done at her Vancouver studio. “He’s got three kids, I’ve got two kids, so organizing our schedules is intense,” McLachlan says. “I’d go out there for seven days, he’d come to me for seven days. There was four or five sessions like that.”
Making the album came at a good time for McLachlan, who is also working on a follow-up to her 2014 studio album, Shine On.
“The winter was a hard winter for me because I got my heart broken and I was writing, but at the same time I was making this Christmas record,” she says. “It’s kind of pure joy being in the studio and having beautiful songs to record and sing and explore and figure out what you’re going to do with them. So it was a real release and relief to be able to be in the studio.”
McLachan, who spent much of the summer on the road with Josh Groban, collaborates with acquaintances old and new on Wonderland. Emmylou Harris, a friend since the first Lilith Fair in 1996, contributes vocals on “Go Tell It On The Mountain” and “Away In A Manger.”
“She’s just a beautiful human being and I’ve always loved her voice,” McLachlan says. “With a Christmas record you have the opportunity to bring some different people into the mix and right away I thought about her.”
Martha Wainwright came into the studio in Montreal to also sing on “Away In A Manger.” “She’s another one who has a really unique voice that I love,” McLachlan says. “Honestly, I wish I could have gotten way more people to come and do that kind of thing, but it was what we could manage in the time frame we had.”
Members of Canadian quartet, Half Moon Run, play on five tracks and helped McLachlan flesh out some of the arrangements. “They’re all in their mid-to-late 20s. They’re incredible musicians,” she enthuses. For Canada’s oldest Christmas song, “Huron Carol,” Half Moon Run’s bass player told McLachlan, ‘I hear a drum beat’ and he started playing this crazy John Bonham beat on the song,” she recalls. “I never would have thought of that and it totally took it in the perfect direction I wanted it to go. That’s the beauty of having great musicians in the studio who all bring their own unique voice to a piece to make it something really incredible.”
Rounding out the guests is the Bulgarian Symphony Orchestra performing on four songs, including “Let It Snow,” “Silver Bells,” and “Huron Carol.” McLachlan enlisted orchestral arranger Brian Byrne to handle the particulars. “We had decided early on that it would be great to have string arrangements (and) we left some space for that and sent the arrangements to him and said ‘Work your magic.’ He did.”
“I’ve had a lot of people come to me and say Wintersong is a record that we put on every year, it’s become part of our family’s tradition, and I love that,” McLachlan says of her earlier season songbook. “I love that there’s something I’ve created that’s become part of someone else’s world and made them feel connected or brought them closer to their own emotions. I hope this does the same. I think that’s a great gift that music gives us.”