When opportunity knocks, even on a ferry boat, it’s best to answer.

Most artists wish they had the luck of Canadian singer-songwriter Tara MacLean. When she was a nanny at age 19, she was on a ferry with some friends, setting sail for an island near Vancouver. To break up the boredom, they moved to the top deck and, armed with a guitar, MacLean sang a few songs.

Passengers gathered around for the impromptu gig and cheered her on.

“These two people specifically approached after we were finished,” MacLean said recently, “and they were from a record company and they offered me a deal. I didn’t think I would end up doing this for a living. I mean, who’s crazy enough to actually go be a musician?

“My mom was an actress and my dad was a musician, so I was always the disapproving oldest child who couldn’t believe how irresponsible they were. ‘You have four children, do you think that’s a wise thing to be doing? We don’t have any money.’ So I didn’t think I’d be the one doing it, too. I thought I’d end up being the lawyer everybody needed in the family.”

The guiding hand of chance, as one of MacLean’s friends described it, tapped her on the shoulder, and she hasn’t looked back since.

“I had a year of making decisions and writing and seeing how I was going to approach this situation,” she said. “Management basically set me up in a little cabin with a piano and money so I could eat. I didn’t have to work; I just focused on my music. A year later, I started the record (her debut Nettwerk album ‘Silence’). Then I toured a few years on that record, took a year off and made the next record.”

That next record, “Passenger” (Capitol), was released stateside Feb. 29. Her passionate vocals and personal, penetrating lyrics have already garnered followers, particularly with the first single, “If I Fall,” which was featured in the “Teaching Mrs. Tingle” film soundtrack. The song is in the Top 10 on Pause & Play’s weekly Picks chart.

“I wanted to make a record that was thought-provoking and would evoke emotion,” she said. “We live in a world that’s really good at numbing itself; we have all these doctors ready to give us these nice little pills if we’re not happy. I watched my mom do that at a certain time in her life, and she ended up in the hospital and she had to face all of her demons. I said to myself, ‘You know what? I’m not going to numb myself – from the beginning.’ I’m just going to see what I feel and it’s been an incredible journey of terror and euphoria. I want to express that, and I want to show that I’ve been to these places so that if someone listened they could say, ‘Yeah, I’ve been here. I know where she’s at.’ ”

Her journey has been an unusual one. Born on Prince Edward Island, she lived a bohemian lifestyle with her parents and three siblings in the 1970s.

“Most people had electricity in the ’70s and running water, but not us,” MacLean said. “My parents were sort of these pagan hippies who grew pot and hung out outside under the stars a lot. It was a very beautiful, nature-filled way to grow up. The outhouse wasn’t the most pleasant thing, and we had to pump for water. I remember the day when I became big enough to pull the pump down myself, that to me was becoming a woman.

“Then we moved into the city when I was about 6. The big city, Charlottetown, with about 30,000 people. My father had left us, and it was real challenging but certainly character-building.”

She needed all the character she could muster, because tongues were wagging in Charlottetown about the MacLean children and their struggling actress-mother.

“There’s a certain kind of small-town way. Everyone knows you and everyone knows your business,” she said. “With my mom being an actress, we were very poor, so we got teased a lot for being poor. And my uncle went to jail for selling pot, which is so silly; he got sentenced to like seven years. That’s when I realized everyone knew everything, and I just felt so exposed and that I didn’t belong. I felt it was time for me to leave; I felt the friends I had, I had outgrown.

“For example, I went to the Caribbean for a year when I was 10 because my dad came back and took us there. We came back and I would be telling stories of jumping off the boat and swimming with fish and no one would believe it. It was so farfetched that you got off the island; no one could comprehend the possibility of these things actually happening. I was so animated as a storyteller, and kids would say, ‘Yeah, right, you just went to Halifax.’ ”

A fire that destroyed her family’s home sealed her decision to leave Charlottetown.

“An arsonist came in and tried to burn our house down and succeeded, and he almost killed us all,” MacLean said. “A police officer was driving by and just happened to see a little flicker in the window. It could’ve been just the fireplace going, but he felt something was wrong. He got out of the car and went up to the window and saw that the whole downstairs was on fire.

“My brother jumped out the window, then the policeman got both of my sisters, who were passed out from smoke inhalation. I was the only conscious one and I was freaking out. The rescue was so heroic and courageous; he got us out five seconds before the house caved in. He was awarded a medal and also the story was written up in Reader’s Digest. After that, I just couldn’t stay in Charlottetown anymore. After that, Charlottetown was dead to me.

“I found out a few years before that that my dad who raised me wasn’t really my dad, that I had another dad somewhere off in British Columbia who was a dancer. I decided I was going to meet him and I went on my quest. He’s amazing, and I stayed with him for a couple of years and finished high school.”

Then came the guiding hand of chance on the ferry boat. Later, “Silence” sold more than 25,000 copies in Canada. She toured the United States, opening for Sarah McLachlan, Barenaked Ladies and Paula Cole and playing at all three Lilith Fairs. Then with “Passenger,” released by Nettwerk in Canada late last year, MacLean was hotly pursued by Capitol, Warner Bros. and Columbia.

Now she’s in the middle of another stateside tour. Not bad for the poor little girl from Prince Edward Island who never entertained thoughts of being a performer.

“I had done musicals as a kid, and I always sang for the Irish relatives when they came to town,” MacLean said. “My grandmother put me in a couple of singing contests when I was a little girl because I could always sing. But I hadn’t gone out and done a whole lot of singing in public, certainly not my own shows or my own songs. That’s why all of this is still such a thrill for me. Every day, there’s something new and exciting.”

THE FIRST RECORD I EVER BOUGHT: “I remember five vinyl records that I played over and over again. I must’ve been about 7. I had Bob Dylan’s ‘Slow Train Coming,’ because my parents got into gospel music; the ‘Fame’ soundtrack, every week I used to work on the rabbit ears of our little 12-inch black and white television set so I could watch that show and I just loved Irene Cara; Abba’s ‘Greatest Hits’; I had the ‘Annie’ soundtrack, and that was important for every 9 year old girl, and I had Stevie Nicks’ solo record, ‘Bella Donna.’ Now that I think about it, all those records probably say a little bit about me.”

THE FIRST CONCERT I EVER WENT TO: “It was my dad’s. I went to see him play with Gene McClellan, and he had a band called Refuge, a gospel trio. They toured for about 15 years. Gene wrote ‘Put Your Hand in the Hand’ and also wrote ‘Snowbird’ for Anne Murray. My first big pop-rock concert was Honeymoon Suite. Hey, what can I say, nobody came through Charlottetown. I want to change that like Shania (Twain) did for Timmins.”

THE LAST CD I BOUGHT: “I just got Bruce Springsteen’s ‘Nebraska.’ It’s lots of highways, cars and speaking to the judge. I love it. It’s very cool. There’s something about it that just wraps around you.”

BWF (before we forget): Visit Tara MacLean on the Web @ www.taramaclean.com.