In 2020, singer-songwriter Tara MacLean wrote a vulnerable and revealing article about what it’s like being a woman in the music industry and having to deal with issues of body image. The article went viral, was picked up by a few magazines, and soon caught the attention of Carolyn Forde of the Transatlantic Literary Agency who convinced Tara to expand the article into a book.
The result is the best-selling memoir Song Of The Sparrow, published by Harper Collins Canada. The book chronicles Tara’s career, describing her experience as a young girl singing at country fairs in Prince Edward Island, through her days at Nettwerk Records, as a member of the trio Shaye, and finally back as a solo artist. Song Of The Sparrow also dives into some of Tara’s personal life, detailing her upbringing in a poor family, experiencing sexual abuse, and establishing a loving, supportive family of her own.
“I saw my first draft of the book as an opportunity to really be completely cathartic and just put it all out there. I was ready to open up and lay it all on the line,” she said from her home in Prince Edward Island. “Then I worked with my editor to decide on what to share. In the end, I decided to share it all! It felt really right and I wanted people to understand where the music comes from and why I continue to write the way I do.”
Tara’s 1996 debut album contained the single 'Evidence', which behind the pop musical framework contains the lyrics, “Can you hear the child in tears / whose innocence was stolen from her hands / and can you hold her in your arm / and tell her that you’ll try to understand / when there’s no way in hell you can.”
“One of the beauties of being a songwriter is you can tap into that darkness, pain, and trauma and you can extricate it from yourself via songwriting,” said Tara. “What started happening from a very early age when I wrote songs was others would say to me, ‘Oh my gosh, I can’t believe you put that into words. I feel that I think that but I didn’t know how to say it. Thank you for this song. It’s helping me get through this darkness.’ That’s really the medicine of songs.”
Throughout her career, Tara has gained a following due to the ways her lyrics impact listeners. However, her fans did not know just how personal some of her lyrics were.
“People who saw me live over the years would know that because I tell stories with the songs,” she said. “Songwriting is more often than not personal for the writers so maybe people assumed that. My hope is that people will see themselves in the songs.”
The chance to expand on some of the themes Tara touched on with her songs was a big attraction in tackling a memoir.
“I thought there’s a lot more here than I’ve shared before,” she said. “Even though cool stuff happened to me, my life was quite normal. The things that happened to me were normalized. When I look back now as a woman to the little girl I was, it’s kind of scary that those kinds of things can feel normal. So bring them out into the light and recognize the idea that these things should not be normalized in a home. That doesn’t make it safe, it doesn’t make it right. Hopefully, it will help lend a voice to people who are perhaps stuck in similar situations.”
A cross-Canada “Songs & Stories” tour from mid-March until early May celebrates the release of Song Of The Sparrow, and the companion album, Sparrow, featuring two new songs and re-interpretations of some of Tara’s best-known songs. Produced by Daniel Ledwell, songs like 'Evidence', 'Let Her Feel The Rain' and 'If I Fall’ are wrapped in sonic textures which give the lyrics the focus they deserve. For Tara, it was an important exercise.
“As someone in my late 40s, going back and singing something I wrote in my late teens was really powerful,” she said. “When you recall a song you get really intimate with it, every single word, every emotion. I recognized the way I was, I still am today and also the ways I’ve changed and grown. I was really grateful to Daniel. He recognized the ways we needed to deepen and mature the songs in order for them to match who I am now. That was an amazing process, a ripening process for me as an artist.”
At the beginning of Tara’s career as a songwriter and recording artist, she had a supportive record label and publishing company behind her. Not every artist is so fortunate.
“Landing in the arms of Nettwerk Music Group and Sony Music Publishing was the absolute best thing that could have happened to me,” she said. “In Canada at that time Nettwerk was such an incredible feminist/indie/alternative label. They were all about whatever it was inside of me unfolding and blossoming. They never told me who to be or what to do or how to look. The same with Sony. They just wanted me to write songs from my heart and would do anything in their power to make sure I was with the right people or in the right environment. It wasn’t really until I got to the U.S., into the major label world, that things started changing a little bit.”
Touring through the States was a big eye-opener for Tara.
“Seeing the star-making machine and how painful and unauthentic it was, and trying to navigate that, was very challenging,” she said.
“But I’m really lucky I cut my teeth in a safe environment in Canada.”
What grounds and guides Tara these days is the philosophy of “no expectations".
“It’s probably the most important thing I practice,” she said. “As soon as you have an expectation of something you can really get let down. Expecting your creative modality to make you rich and famous, or even to support you, you can’t expect people to do cartwheels or roll out the red carpet just because you put out some music. It’s important to go in, make what you make, put it out into the world, and dream big if you want to. My dream is to play the Sparrow album with symphonies around the world. That’s my big dream and I’m so all over that. I will work towards making that happen but I’m not going to expect it. I don’t want to be let down in life. Life doesn’t owe me anything. I’m here making music and I just want to be free. I don’t want to shackle myself with expectations. That’s really detrimental,(A) to the creative process and (B) to your dreaming. Sometimes what happens when you dream, it’s way bigger than you ever could have expected. It’s way greater, way more beautiful, and way more powerful. That’s what I like. I like putting things out and seeing what happens. Then if nothing happens, that’s great too, I’m fine. And that’s a nice way to live, not holding onto anything.”
For more on Tara MacLean, the memoir Song Of The Sparrow, and the album Sparrow, go to taramacleanmusic.com