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Sarah McLachlan brings stripped-down shows to Las Vegas Strip

She’s coming to Vegas to be un-Vegas.

Sarah McLachlan is on the line, talking about stripping things down on the Strip.

In a few hours, she’ll be singing for Barack Obama at a speaking engagement by the former president in McLachlan’s hometown of Vancouver, Canada.

In the meantime, she’s inviting all of us into her family den.

Kind of.

“It’s like, ‘Welcome to my living room,’ ” McLachlan says of her upcoming three-night stand at Wynn Las Vegas. “It’s basically an intimate evening, me at my piano, telling stories about the songs. I think it’s sort of the antithesis of Vegas, because there’s these huge productions, everything’s so produced, lots of bells and whistles.

“This is just me, singing my songs. It’s something that many fans have asked me to do for years. I guess I’m finally acquiescing.”

Her way or the highway

McLachlan has never been much of an acquiescer — and she knows it, which may be one of the reasons she lets loose with a hearty laugh after that last line.

But her insistence on doing things her way is a prime reason the velvet-voiced singer-songwriter is still here doing her thing 30 years in.

To wit, McLachlan shares an anecdote about some unwelcome career advice she got upon inking her deal with Arista Records in the early ’90s.

“Very briefly, with the American label when I got signed, there was a moment of the A&R guy coming and telling me that he didn’t hear it, that he didn’t hear anything on the record that he liked,” McLachlan recalls. “And I said, ‘Well, doesn’t it make you feel something?’ And he said, ‘That’s not the point.’

“I was so disheartened, because of course, that’s the only point,” she continues. “I phoned my manager and said, ‘If this is what it’s like to be on a major label, I want off. Please don’t make me do this.’ He fought the fight with (label head) Clive Davis, and Clive, because he hadn’t spent any money I think, was just like, ‘Sure. You want to hang yourself? Go for it.’ He left us alone and, hey, it worked.”

There’s that laugh again.

It worked to the tune of 30 million-plus album sales, a trio of Grammys, and the founding of Lilith Fair in 1997, which would become the most successful all-female music festival in history during its initial three-year run.

Nowadays, McLachlan divides her time between being a mother to two daughters, overseeing three nonprofit music schools for at-risk and underserved youth and maintaining her career in music.

It’s a juggling act, which is why it’s been five years since her last studio record, “Shine On.”

“The music thing, it’s coming. It’s just taking its sweet time,” McLachlan says of assembling her next album. “I’m chipping away at it.”

Slow-building success

McLachlan still tours, though, and her latest show is something of a departure for her, playing smaller venues, delving into some songs she hasn’t played in years, accompanied only by a cellist.

“Recognizing that I’m playing almost two hours, pretty much acoustic, I really wanted to try and build out the set as best as I could as far as dynamics are concerned,” McLachlan explains. “I thought a little bit of a challenge for myself would be to play electric guitar again, which I haven’t done in years. I was sort of looking at instrumentation and what I could do a little differently to make it unique. Most of these songs, this is how they began. I wrote them by myself on piano or on guitar, and then they became produced. It’s fun to be able to strip back everything and bring them back to their original versions.”

Though McLachlan started playing the ukulele at age 4 and was classically trained on guitar and piano growing up, a life in music wasn’t a given for her.

“I think somewhere in the back of my mind I had hoped that this was something that I could do, but I was also raised by two academics who told me that I was going to university, that this was a lovely hobby, and that was the end of it,” McLachlan recalls. “I never assumed or pursued the idea of a music career. I went to the art college in Halifax for a year and then was offered a record contract kind of out of the blue. It was just kind of a crazy thing that happened. I never looked back, because it was like, ‘Are you kidding me? This is a possibility? Wow. OK.’ ”

Road warrior

McLachlan’s first Vegas gigs were far from the Strip, at the now-shuttered Huntridge Theater. It was through constant roadwork that she gradually built a following. Her third album, 1993’s “Fumbling Towards Ecstasy,” was McLachlan’s first to go gold in America, setting the stage for 1997’s eight-times-platinum “Surfacing,” her biggest seller, propelled by hit single “Building a Mystery.”

“My success was not household, my success was quiet,” McLachlan says. “It was a wonderful way to come into the world, to not be an overnight sensation. Every time I’d go back and play (a city), there’d be maybe twice as many people. At first, it was 50, then it was 100, then it was 200, 400, 1,000. I toured and toured and toured, and I just kept coming back to all these markets, slowly developing a fan base. I think I toured for over two years for ‘Surfacing,’ like solid. It was full-on for a long time.”

While McLachlan doesn’t play quite as many shows nowadays as she did back then, one thing hasn’t changed: What she gets out of her shows.

“There’s a great sense of, ‘OK, this is where I’m meant to be, this is what I’m meant to be doing,’ ” she says. “It just feels fantastic to be able to still do this after 30 years. It’s never lost its allure to me. I love singing. I love playing live. It’s never gotten old.”

Contact Jason Bracelin at jbracelin@reviewjournal.com or 702-383-0476. Follow @JasonBracelin on Twitter.

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