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Interview: Tara MacLean opens up about sharing her roller coaster life through her new book ‘Song of the Sparrow’

Canadian singer-songwriter Tara MacLean is hitting her stride after navigating the music business for almost 30 years.

Having been signed to a major label in the late 90s and reached incredible highs, and dealt with the lowest of lows, MacLean is opening up about her life in best-selling new memoir ‘Song of the Sparrow‘. Accompanying the candid book is ‘Sparrow‘, a soundtrack that reimagines some of her best-known songs and shares a few new cuts too.

I spoke to Tara in-depth recently to discuss her reasons behind telling her story now, to talk about her experiences in the music industry, and to find out how she’s found herself through the hard times she’s been through…

I just finished your book ‘Song of the Sparrow’ and wow. I thought I knew everything about you but it turns out I didn’t know the half of it!

Most people didn’t. It’s OK! (laughs)

Why did you decide to write this book now?

What happened was life just sort of presented the opportunity to write a book, really magically. I wrote an essay about being a woman in the music business and body image, which got the attention of Carolyn Forde from Transatlantic Agency and she said, ‘hey, why don’t you write a book and show me a couple chapters?’ As soon as I wrote them, she sent them to HarperCollins and they picked it up right away. It was just a really magical unfolding so I like to follow that yellow brick road (laughs) and see what comes out of it. As soon as I really started that process of writing with the editor from HarperCollins, really holding my hand through the process, it just opened up and the book kind of fell out of me. I think the book told me it was time.

You share a lot in this book. Was there any point were you wondered how much to share or where fear made you begin to doubt yourself?

Oh, a ton of fear, absolutely. I try to go with the Elizabeth Gilbert School of dealing with fear, it’s like ‘okay fear, I know you’re in the car but you’re in the backseat and you don’t touch the radio’ (laughs). Those are her words and how she deals with that in her writing. I also knew I could write a first draft, I could just lay it all out on the line and that I could go back after and take out anything that didn’t feel right. With my first draft, I wanted to see how brave I could be. In the end a lot of it didn’t get taken out because I thought I really pushed the boundaries for myself and what I was sharing and that’s what I want to do. I want to be brave in all things in life, but especially if I have this incredible opportunity to share my life story. I might as well make it as true as possible.

Tara MacLean
Credit: Jen Squires

A big part of the book is about being a woman and the way that women are treated in society, especially by men. Was there a part of you that felt that being open and honest about what you’ve gone through, might help other women and sexual abuse survivors?

I think so. I’ve always been pretty outspoken about that. My very first single ‘Evidence’ was a song about that and a song that I wrote for my sister Shaye. I hoped that it would help people, anyone who is a survivor of sexual assault for sure, because of the way that I’ve survived it and then I’m now thriving. I wanted to be a living example that the things that happen to us don’t have to define us, in fact they can refine us into something more powerful.

One of the strands that’s weaved throughout the book is your pull back to music. There have been times when you’ve tried to run from it but you’ve always ended up returning to music. Why do you think that is?

It’s really a calling. If anyone’s ever felt that call from deep inside themselves, that you try to ignore and then it just keeps coming at you. The opportunities that I’ve had in my life to sing on some of the great stages with some of the most amazing musicians in the world and working with incredible teams. Music keeps showing me that that’s what I’m supposed to be doing. I’ve always loved writing, I’ve always loved poetry, but I always looked at it as something that I was doing as my therapy; trying to use it to get through life and understand the internal landscape of my heart. I did try to rebel against it and just say, ‘no, I don’t want to do music for a living, because how can you make a living making music?’ (laughs) I come from a country gospel singing father and it was really an unstable upbringing, as I share in the book, so I wanted something so stable for my kids and for myself. Then I realised that the only real stability is in answering your heart for your whole life and following that, and that’s the only thing that I listen to now. I’m really grateful to music, because without it, I don’t think I’d be here.

You really expose the reality of life in the music industry too. I’ve worked in the industry for years and it fascinates me that people are still unaware of what it’s really like. They see you with a major label deal and presume life is full of rainbows and sunshine, and often it’s not. It sounds like it really has been a roller coaster for you…

Oh, it was a roller coaster. Going from a relative indie label like Nettwerk in Canada to a major in the United States was fantastic. I was signed by this guy, Roy Lott, who was the President at the time and who was a real music guy. He was the real deal. I knew that I was going to be in good hands to a certain degree, but you just can’t escape the star making machine when that much money is being put behind you. Whereas with Nettwerk they were like, ‘you be you!’ (laughs) Capitol signed because I’m me and then they’re like, ‘but can we tweak this?’ Things just kind of went sideways a little bit. You want to maintain some kind of control, you want to trust the people you’re working with and yeah, I made some mistakes, absolutely, that I would go back and change. But in the end, I’m so grateful for the whole experience, even the stuff that I talk about where I completely burned out and couldn’t even remember the lyrics to my songs because I had been playing three shows a day for a year and a half straight. I’m even grateful for that because I learned what my edge was. You don’t learn that till you step over it, right? I know how to take care of myself now. I know who I want to be in the music business and I just want to be so authentic and true to myself. That’s what I get to do now. So I learned from all of that, what I want to be, what I don’t want to be and now I’m here and everything is totally golden (laughs).

That’s the one big takeaway isn’t it? Had you not gone through the experiences you have, would you still be where you are now? As a longtime follower of your work, it feels like you’ve really found your groove in recent years. You mention in the book that Daniel Lanois advised you to keep your music simple, and he was 100% correct. What an incredible lesson to learn from one of your idols…

Oh, yeah, he still is my favourite musician of all-time.

Having had that advice, has that informed how you approach your projects now?

Absolutely. This album that’s coming out right now is, of course, the soundtrack to the book. There are seven reimagined songs that are revisited like I would sing them now with Daniel Ledwell producing and we just gave it this beautiful, lush, but still spacious production. My dream for the next album is to go and just write with the best songwriters in the world and record a very simple raw, all about the song all about the performance album, finally. Do something like what I do live, my favourite thing in the world is singing live, so I’d love to finally be able to really captured what I do live.

Tara MacLean
Credit: Deanna Milligan

The reimagined versions of these songs are so interesting because you can hear that you’re singing them now from a place of experience and wisdom. Was it easy because you’ve lived with these songs for so long or was it a challenge because you had to really dig deep?

It was a little bit of both. A song like ‘That’s Me’, which is one of my favourites and it’s going to be a single – I just shot the video for that – it’s a song where it was the snapshot of myself at a very young age, at 20 years old. We’ve dropped the key because my voice is lower now. We approached it with a little less innocence and a little more grit, which is also what I feel like I’ve gotten over the years. Singing that song, there were times where I was just in tears singing it again because I’m like, ‘that’s still me. This is still me’. ‘If I Fall’ I almost didn’t want to redo that one because I’m so tired of singing that song after all those years (laughs). I thought, ‘it’s kind of a bubble gum, I wrote it for a theme song for a show’ and then I resang it because my marketing manager Sherry Sinclair insisted I do it and so did Daniel Ledwell the producer, so when I revisited it, I was like, ‘wait a minute these lyrics are kind of good. They’re helping me now’ (laughs). There was a lot of layers to revisiting the songs and I’m just so glad because it was really a full circle experience entirely.

Your thoughts on ‘If I Fall’ were one of the moments I gasped at in the book. It’s a song I’ve aways loved and I’d never thought of it as ‘bubblegum’…

I know but we get snobby about our own music (laughs).

I can see what you were saying in the book that it’s different to the other songs on ‘Passenger’ and it was the obvious radio single. Has rerecording the song helped you find a new appreciation for it?

Yes, absolutely. I have a much deeper appreciation. When I was younger, I just so deeply wanted to be recognised as a poet. When I wrote that song, I was trying to keep it simple because the intention was outside in songwriting, right? (It was supposed to be a song for the) TV show ‘Felicity’ in the 90s so I thought about the song from the outside, it didn’t come from the inside out. What I’m realising now is that they were entwined. I couldn’t write something thinking from the outside without it meeting what was happening inside me. Now, I’m understanding more that maybe the wisdom was in there I was just being judgmental of myself and desperately wanting songs like ‘Divided’, which was the single after that, songs that were really deeply poetic to me and had a mission (to be released). Now I realise that ‘If I Fall’ was so much more important than I knew. People have come up to me so many times over the years and said that song was their theme song, or got them through their mom passing away, or they would roll down the window in the summer and just crank that tune. I think sometimes we don’t know if the work we’ve done has impacted people. I definitely love that song a lot more (laughs).

I don’t know if I ever told you before but I discovered your music in the 90s through a newsgroup, EveryDay Angels (a group for singer-songwriter Jewel) – remember those? That led me to pick up all of your albums during a holiday to New York in 2000 because at that time your music wasn’t easy to get here in the UK…

I didn’t realize that was how you found me. I love that. The EveryDay Angels were one of the first fan groups online. They really wrapped me in their wings and as a result I also got to spend a little bit of time with Jewel. They ended up putting on some shows and they would invite Jewel and invite me, and they were such devoted fans. It really taught me about the joy of meeting fans that are really grassroots and are invested in you. That group really invested in me and and it was the first time magazines were starting to pick up on the fact that there were these online fan groups that were really making waves for artists, really creating a scene. I love that that’s how you found me. I think that’s spectacular.

That group led me down the road of discovering not only you but Sarah McLachlan, Dido, Paula Cole, Kendall Payne to name a few. I was so frustrated that here in the UK radio and labels just weren’t supporting female artists so I actually wrote to Jewel’s label to complain and they sent me back a load of flyers to spread the word…

Wow, I’m so glad you did that. It’s really hard to break in the UK as a North American artist. As you know I’ve never toured there, I’ve never played there, I’ve never had anything released there. You obviously have shown me to your audience in the past, which has been so great, but now we’re really pushing to have me come over there. I have some shows booked finally and my book has opened up a lot of doors over there. I have amazing PR and it’s a very, very exciting time.

You’ll be here in May for a headline show…

I’m gonna do a showcase at Camden House on 30th May and then I’m going to head down to Hay-On-Wye LitFest and do a showcase there and a book reading.

What a perfect tie-in. That’ll be lovely…

I know it’s just perfect. It’s such a beautiful prestigious (event) so I’m really honoured to be on it. I’m very excited.

Tara MacLean
Credit: Deanna Milligan

Will your London show be a solo show or will you have a band?

I have two incredible musicians that play with Dido. She hooked me up with her musicians. It’s gonna be amazing.

‘Song of the Sparrow’ has made the best-seller lists in Canada. How does that feel?

Pip, I can’t even tell you. There are really no words for the response and being able to be on the bestseller list. It debuted at number four for top-selling Canadian author and it debuted at number six for all international authors. That’s just something that I never even dreamed was possible. Hats off to my team, and everyone at HarperCollins, and my management. We just spread the word far and wide, and really believed in the book. The response has been incredible. The readers have been writing me letters, like love letters. I’ve gotten wonderful responses to my music in the past but this is a whole other level of sharing back to me of how they relate. That really is the thing that’s making me the happiest, is that it’s landing really deeply for people and they’re also liking the writing, which makes me feel really happy. The reviews are great from the journalists and it’s an incredible experience. We’re also partnering with sex assault centers across Canada, to try and raise awareness and funds for these drastically underfunded sections of our healthcare system so hopefully, the book will also be solutionary in that way.

The momentum for you really is spreading global and this will end up being cyclical for you becasue people who read the book may then discover your music, and you’re going to be reaching audiences you never have before…

That’s the dream. That’s the hope. One of my favourite things is when other people perform my songs so my hope is that the book will send people down the rabbit hole and then other artists might hear my songs and say, ‘hey, I’d love to cover that, this a good song’ and then the songs can just keep being out in the world and moving forward without me and I can sit back and write my next book (laughs). No, just kidding! I’m going to be touring. You’re right, the momentum it is bigger than ever and, and I’m so grateful to all of the teams I that I worked with before at EMI and Capitol in the US, Asia and Canada. All of the people that I’ve worked with in the past have been so great but this time I know what to do and I know what not to do. I think just knowing who I am more completely is also helping that momentum as well.

The times are changing too. In the book you talk about the comments and behaviour you experienced while on the promo trail with a major label such people commenting on your weight and making you feel uncomfortable at photoshoots. That blows my mind and it must have been off-putting for you?

Yeah it is. Any time you put yourself in the public eye, you’re going to be scrutinized. I’m sure lots of people aren’t going to like what I’m doing, and they’re gonna pan it. I’m ready for that. When I was young and I was in the music business, I don’t think I was ready for the cruelty at times. I’m just so much more grown up now and a lot of those things that would affect me as a young woman can’t touch me anymore. That’s a really great place to be. I feel a lot more fearless.

The book, the album and touring are likely going to take up the rest of the year. What’s your master plan beyond that? I know you’ll have one…

Oh, you know that I do (laughs). I have really big dreams. To me, the pinnacle of everything that I’ve done would result in a tour with symphonies around the world. That’s really what I’m going to shoot for. I’m really lucky that I live in Canada and we have such incredible arts grants here from Factor to Canada Council to Music PEI, my local grants organisations, Innovation PEI… there’s all of these funding opportunities to create shows and to live our dreams as artists at a world class level. That’s what I’d like to do. I’d love to have the charts made for a bunch of songs and to tell the story of ‘Sparrow’ in a way that is on some of the best stages with the greatest symphonies in the world.

The Royal Albert Hall in London has to be on that list surely?

Absolutely! You will be there! (laughs)

Let’s manifest it now…

This is the thing. Here we all are on this little planet and the only thing really in our own way is ourselves. Someone called it a havingness ceiling, where we dream but then we think, ‘oh, you know what, maybe I don’t deserve that or maybe I’m not good enough to do that’. At a certain point, you realise, and maybe that’s the thing about being almost 50, is I’m past the point of doubting myself or doubting that I shouldn’t just try at least. Then no matter what happens, it’s just all gravy because I’ve given it my best. That’s what I’d like to do. I’d like to dream big. I’d like to make as much happen as possible and I hopefully will help the world in some small way through the messaging in the book.

It’s an important life view to have. I turned 40 last year and I’m feeling more energised to reach my potential and make things happen. No one ever gets to the end of their life wishing they’d done less do they?

It’s the opposite of a midlife crisis. I think you have a crisis, if you don’t have your dreams. If you still have dreams, then that’s the time to go for it if you can. I understand there’s a lot behind that – a lot of privilege, my health and a lot of things that are I have going for me – but I’m using every single thing that I have to make those dreams come true. The best part of it is I’m surrounding myself with a team that are such good vibes. Whenever I throw a dream out they’re like, ‘yes, let’s do that! Now let’s step backwards Tara. What do we have to do to get there?’ It’s really fun to share my dreams with you Pip, who’s been with me for so long and who knows the music so well. Finally, when we are at that pinnacle, in Vienna with the symphony, we can just say, ‘hey, what a beautiful road’. It’s not easy. It’s hard. You don’t get this kind of music or this kind of book without suffering. All of us go through suffering and I feel like it’s just time to enjoy life, that’s for sure.

Tara MacLean’s book ‘Song of the Sparrow’ and her album ‘Sparrow’ are out now. She will perform at Camden House in London on 30th May 2023 and she’ll appear at the Hay-On-Wye LitFest on 1st June 2023. Find out more information at https://www.taramacleanmusic.com/shows.

Pip Ellwood-Hughes
Pip Ellwood-Hughes
Pip is the Editor of Entertainment Focus and the Managing Director of agency Piñata Media.

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