“I love making people cry.”
Tara MacLean said it with a laugh, but be warned: she means it, she’s really good at it and she’s been honing her craft from an early age.
The age was nine, precisely, and the revelation came 40 summers ago whilst delivering a nervous performance of “You Light Up My Life” barefoot on a plywood stage to an audience of fishermen and potato farmhands at a country fair in King’s County, P.E.I., that — as the accomplished singer/songwriter recalls in her utterly unguarded new memoir, “Song of the Sparrow” — left “grown men sobbing into their overalls, wiping their faces with dirty cloths” and a certain little girl convinced that music was to be her life’s calling.
Music and making people cry, of course.
MacLean has never been better at making you cry than she is within the pages of “Song of the Sparrow,” which arrived in bookstores this week via HarperCollins imprint Harper Avenue.
Fraught with details of a broken childhood spent being bounced city to city between parents and step-parents, her narrow escape from a house fire lit by an unknown arsonist in P.E.I. in 1987, and graphic accounts of sexual abuse and date rape, body dysmorphia and a teenage suicide attempt, it’s an oft-harrowing read that occasionally leaves you wondering why the universe would choose to single out this one human being for such punishment.
Ultimately, though, “Song of the Sparrow” is not at all a self-pitying wallow through the past but the tale of how all that hardship turned an uncommonly tough young woman into a pillar of strength. It will make you cry, but in a good way. A triumphant way.
“It’s really vulnerable. It’s a lot of stuff,” said MacLean from her “other” island home on British Columbia’s Salt Spring Island. “Honestly, I don’t know how to feel. Some moments I feel exhilarated and fierce and excited and wide open, and other moments I just want to, like, curl into a fetal position and go ‘What have I done?’ It’s a lot of feelings. But, for me, I think it’s time to tell the story. I think it could help people and that’s why I’m doing it.
“That’s exactly what I wanted to impart, that you do have a choice inside of the trauma as to how you react to it,” she continued.
“That’s really the whole message. We can either let life break us or we can let it turn us into something greater. I think people who know me know I’m a pretty happy person and would say, ‘Oh, we know it’s a happy ending.’ So no matter where I take somebody in the book, they know it’s a happy ending because they know me and they know that I’m a joyful person who loves life so much. But this is a big one. It’s a big bomb to drop.”
When MacLean first told this writer of her forthcoming book backstage at Andy Kim’s Christmas show at Massey Hall last year, she promised that tissues might be required and that it would be a “juicy” read. She was true to her word.
Not only does “Song of the Sparrow” fearlessly call out her own grandfather, Smiley, and a live-in family friend named Gilles for chronically abusing her and her late sister Shaye as children, it also takes shots at the systemic sexism and casual body-shaming she experienced while coming up in the music industry during the mid-1990s after being “discovered” singing to herself on the Salt Spring Island ferry.
(Shaye, who was killed in a car accident on a New Brunswick highwayside in 2002, lived on in the name of the Can-pop “supergroup” MacLean formed with Kim Stockwood and Damhnait Doyle the next year.)
The book unflinchingly kicks ass and takes names (and, more often than not, names names) throughout, but it remains remarkably judgment-free: MacLean takes great pains to humanize and to understand even some of the most demonic figures in her life.
Her love and respect for her parents — her actor mother Sharlene MacLean (“The most exquisite, talented and brilliant human being that had ever existed, and … a queen in my eyes”), her biological father Danny Costain and her stepfather Marty Reno — shines through in “Song of the Sparrow,” too, even when she’s enumerating the many mistakes made during her upbringing.
There’s no bitterness in the book, just level-headed reckoning with unfortunate situations she’s been able to rise above in hindsight.
“Really, the perspective I was trying to look at my life with was all of us are these fallible humans stumbling around making mistakes and hurting each other, and I think that just deserves a ton of compassion. I want to understand why people do the things they do and that was really a part of the exploration, right?” said MacLean.
“It was looking at these people in my life — some of whom did quite monstrous things — and yet maybe there’s deeper pain there. We’re all traumatized here on earth, to some degree. So why is this happening? I didn’t want to make anybody an unsympathetic character. I wanted everyone to be understood in some way … And I couldn’t write this book if I felt sorry for myself. Not one bit. That would have been a s— show.
“I’m just so grateful to be alive. I’m so grateful I got to experience these things. I’m grateful I got to write about it. And you know that moment sometimes when you see a movie or you read a book or you hear a song and you close that book and you put it to your heart and you go ‘Yeah, OK’ and you open your eyes and you see the world a little differently? That’s what I’m really hoping for with this book, that it affects people in that way. That it maybe tweaks the filter a little bit toward forgiveness and compassion for other people and for ourselves, especially.”
This week’s release of “Song of the Sparrow” will be swiftly followed by the arrival of a new Tara MacLean record entitled “Sparrow” on March 31, although MacLean has been so preoccupied with the unveiling of the book she confesses “sometimes I almost forget I have a new album.”
“Sparrow,” recorded in Lake Echo, N.S., with Jenn Grant/Justin Rutledge producer Daniel Ledwell, pairs ethereal reimaginings of early MacLean songs such as “Evidence,” “If I Fall” and “Lay Here in the Dark” with a handful of new tear-jerkers like the titular first single “Sparrow,” which proclaims, “Nothing’s unforgivable if you let go” as its refrain.
MacLean’s hope is that “Sparrow” will function as a sort of companion piece to the book, as it certainly grounds the wounded material from her 20-something days on the Nettwerk and Capitol Records rosters in revealingly new context. She’ll be taking it on the road coast-to-coast in tandem with readings well into the summer.
“It just made sense while I was writing the book to have a one-stop shop for a lot of the songs that I was talking about in the book, and then I thought, ‘Wouldn’t it be nice to reimagine them and record them again and sing them as I would now?’” said MacLean.
“And also to remember who I was, really get back into those lyrics. Because a song like ‘Let Her Feel the Rain,’ one of the first songs I wrote, I was 19 when I wrote it. It’s a very young lyric. So I just wanted to reintroduce myself to young me through that recording process. And then the message that I got back from my young self was ‘I was sending you messages in the future.’”
And what do the most important young selves in MacLean’s own life, her three teenage daughters, have to say about all the pain and sadness and dirty laundry and womanly strength on display in “Song of the Sparrow”? Surely some intense conversations are about to be had.
“They’re very, very supportive. Incredibly supportive,” she enthused.
“You know, songwriting is very vulnerable. I get up onstage and pour my heart out so they’re kind of used to me moving through the world in a way that is very raw. And they love that. But Stella, my middle child — she’s 17 — is the only one who’s started reading this at this point and she wrote me a little note that said, ‘I can’t believe that the little girl with that fire in her heart and honey in her voice is my mama.’
“That’s what she said. And I will never forget those words. I will never forget them.”
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