The Dark Inspiration Behind Sarah McLachlan's Angel

Singer-songwriter Sarah McLachlan creates compelling, emotionally charged music, which has brought her many accolades during her long career. She made her debut with the 1988 album, "Touch," and the record enjoyed some success in her native Canada and in the United States (via AllMusic). She also helped create the touring music festival Lilith Fair in the 1990s. This tour showcased the music of an interesting mix of female performers, including Fiona Apple, Jewel, and Sheryl Crow.

With her fourth album, "Surfacing," McLachlan scored hits with such songs as "Adia," "Building a Mystery," and "Angel." The record also brought her first Grammy Awards — she won for best female pop vocal performance for "Building a Mystery" and best pop instrumental performance for "Last Dance." While those two tracks brought her top honors, McLachlan's song "Angel" has also proved to be one of her most popular and enduring songs. Nevertheless, few people know the full story behind this moving ballad.

Another musician's death inspired Angel

"Angel" has earned a special place in pop culture, often offering comfort in the face of some kind of loss or challenge. Sarah McLachlan has performed it several times to mark such somber occasions as the dedication of the Flight 93 National Memorial (shown above), which honors those lost on September 11, per National Park Foundation. This song explores an individual's release from suffering and finding peace, and people have really connected to its message. As McLachlan explained to CBC Radio, "So many people over the years have stopped me on the street or wherever and said, 'that song in particular has really helped me through a tough time, or 'I played it at my mother's funeral, that was our song.'"

The inspiration for "Angel" came from a tragic death in 1996. McLachlan read about the death of Jonathan Melvoin, a keyboardist who toured with the Smashing Pumpkins, in Rolling Stone magazine. He died of a drug overdose in a New York City hotel room (via The New York Times). And while she didn't know Melvoin personally, something about his experience with addiction moved her to pen this song. McLachlan could relate to the loneliness and isolation musicians experience while touring. "I was in that situation myself so many times, in another hotel room, by myself, on the road exhausted, wondering, is there an end to this?" she told q's Tom Power (via CBC Radio).

If you or anyone you know needs help with addiction issues, help is available. Visit the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration website or contact SAMHSA's National Helpline at 1-800-662-HELP (4357).

McLachlan was shaken by Melvoin's death

In a post on Quora, Sarah McLachlan explained that she was deeply affected by Melvoin's death. "The story shook me because though I have never done hard drugs like that, I felt a flood of empathy for him and that feeling of being lost, lonely and desperately searching for some kind of release," she wrote. The lyrics came to her while she was staying in a cabin near Montreal, and the words just flowed out of her in two days.

In 2007, "Angel" took on another cultural significance when it was used in a commercial for the American Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals. Its mournful lyrics, accompanied by images of abused animals, proved to be heartbreaking, and McLachlan appeared in the ad to encourage others to support the ASPCA. This moving television spot helped the organization raise approximately $30 million, per The New York Times.

The ad became so prevalent that it inspired several parodies and spoofs. "Saturday Night Live" had a field day with it back in 2009, and even McLachlan has proved to have a sense of humor about it as well. She appeared in several commercials that played off her "Angel" ASPCA ad, including two Super Bowl commercials — a 2014 ad for Audi and a 2023 ad for Busch beer.