McLachlan is an artist associated, for better and worse, with causes. For better was the female-artist-only Lilith Fair, which she cofounded in 1996. But there's also that ASPCA commercial in which her slow, sad "Angel" plays behind images of forlorn shelter animals and an even more forlorn McLachlan asking for help. The ads sparked more than $30 million in donations.
"I can't watch it when it comes on, it's so depressing," she says. "I know I got pigeonholed by that ad. People turned away because it's brutal, but it raised so much money."
She jumped at a chance to make fun of herself in an Audi ad for this year's Super Bowl, with a "Doberhuahua" dog chewing on McLachlan's guitar while she reels in horror. "It was a nice opportunity," she says, "to distance myself from the ASPCA ad and show I don't take myself that seriously."
A McLachlan sense of humor? Yes, she says: "I'd even say that I have a dirty sense of humor. Twenty years of being on tour buses with men does that to you."
Since the first Lilith, the road has had its twists. It was the highest-grossing touring festival of 1997. Lilith was retired in 1999, but McLachlan resurrected it in 2010 around the release of her album Laws of Illusion. Tickets sold poorly, though, and some shows were canceled. The first Liliths reflected the social and political moment, empowerment of women, and fairness to musical artists of all genders.
"There wasn't enough due diligence done as to how the market or my fans had changed," she says. "Many of the young women who came to Lilith in the '90s now had children, jobs, and responsibilities. It wasn't an easy thing to get them out. Plus, the need for something like Lilith had changed as well.
"[That's] not to say that there is not a lot of work to be done still to right the inequalities that women face."
The first decade of this millennium has been full of milestones, some rough. Her mother died in 2001, while McLachlan was pregnant with her first daughter (born in 2002). Another daughter was born in 2007. McLachlan separated in 2008 from her husband, Ashwin Sood. In 2010, she lost her father. That year, Laws of Illusion came out. It sold poorly, and she left her longtime label and management company, Nettwerk.
Laws of Illusion was bleak and scattered. "I went through an upheaval around turning 40," she says. "All of my important male anchors went away at the same time. Illusion was fairly dark, which is probably why it didn't sell well. This new record, though: I'm happy and it shows."
In Shine On, McLachlan remembers her father in the bittersweet "Song for My Father," and the troubles of relationships in "Broken Heart" - but there's also hope and a brighter future. She says it's imperative to look at the small things and find beauty - "because it's there," she says with a laugh. "Sounds corny, but I'd rather look toward the good than toward people tearing each other to shreds."
Shine On makes forays into soul ("Love Beside Me") and swing ("The Sound That Love Makes"). "That heavy, swampy thing just happened," she says of the former. "And 'The Sound That Love Makes,' it's like ice cream. The prospect of being in a relationship is a gorgeous thing." (She's dating former professional hockey player Geoff Courtnall.) The biggest difference between this and previous albums is that her own life provides much of the material.
"In the past, it was my story, but I culled from other people's lives and experiences to complete the picture. This time, though, it's all me - no filler. No meanings cloaked in ambiguity to make it relatable. I'm 46 years old. You don't get to this place unscathed. Shine On is me, and I'm proud."
8 p.m. Thursday, Mann Center for the Performing Arts, 5201 Parkside Ave.
Information: 215-546-7900 or www.manncenter.org