Humbling Towards Ecstasy
Sarah McLachlan lights up Lilith tour
by Ian A.D. Jack
" I never got into this to be famous, although I have to say I really enjoy the aspect of people liking me. Everybody wants to be loved and wants to leave a mark in a positive way; I feel that I'm able to do that in the career I've chosen. But the same trip is really weird. It's something that I've been struggling with, because it's bullshit and it's got no token reality."
This is the Sarah McLachlan that presents herself to me over a half hour phone conversation from her home in Vancouver: always trying to keep the reality of her pop stardom in equilibrium with her "everyday people" ideal, and struggling to the last word of her answers to convey her most honest sentiments. If her primary concern is to "leave a mark in a positive way," then she has little to worry about.
Unless you've been locked in the trunk of a car for the past month, you are likely aware of the impact Ms. McLachlan has had on the pursuit for female performers to have their voices heard on egalitarian plane. Not only is she accomplishing this with the success of her own portfolio - evidenced by the swift sales of her fourth proper album Surfacing - but with the aid of her own female touring festival known as Lilith Fair. Hers is a voice that has nurtured an audience bridging continents, age groups and genders. Whether she likes it or not, Sarah McLachlan is a role model to many.
"I'm finally embracing it now," she admits with a hint of hesitation. "1 feel I'm strong enough as a person and I think I've worked hard at myself to be a good person. So now I feel comfortable being a role model. When I was 23 and completely fucked up and hated myself, I was very uncomfortable being a role model - 'Don't look at me, I'm more screwed up than anybody I know' - but now I feel I have a much better handle on things."
With an impressive string of cover stories in high profile publications like Time, Maclean 's, and Entertainment Weekly and the behemoth success of the Lilith Tour it would seem her grip on her career is pretty tight. However, the past year will not be remembered for her creative fertility. McLachlan was able to come out on top of her well-publicized boxing match with writer's block with the help of her understanding labels (neither Nettwerk nor her American label Arista asked for demos) and eventually realizing that her inner voice still had a lot to say.
"It's just time and trust. I had been on the road for two and a half years and the last thing I wanted to do when I came home is write. It was a big psychological block of 'finishing record equals touring' or 'never finish record,"' the songstress laughs. "Because I didn't want to go on the road again."
Superfans of the artist know her tour hibernation didn't keep her out of the public eye. Since her groundbreaking muliplatinum 1993 album Fumbling Towards Ecstasy, McLachlan released two albums of odds and sods and lent her talents to recent albums by Blue Rodeo, Delerium and Wild Strawberries. Although she is unsure whether these collaborations influenced anything on Surfacing, she does regard her appearances in different musical worlds as taking a healthy "vacation from myself."
"That's the joy of it. There's no responsibility because it's not my project. You want me to play grungy electric guitar? Sure. It's something that I might not have on my own record. [The Wild Strawberries' songl 'I Don't Want to Think About It' was so fun. It was like I just strapped on a big penis and rocked. Not to say that a woman with a lovely vagina can't play rocking guitar," she laughs.
Her vacation from her own music also gave her time to tie the knot to her longtime partner/drummer Ashwin Sood. The singer speaks of this high point in a difficult artistic time fondly, but denies the romantic union helped release her creative tourniquet.
"It was actually the biggest distraction of my life. The most beautiful distraction in the world. I was considering calling the album that for a while - Beautiful Distraction. It took two months out of the project where I was just completely - I mean, I'm an air sign, so you know I was just like 'Whoosh !' - off the ground I can't work. I can't do anything."
Though most fans will not be disappointed, Surfacing's "ten squeezed out" tracks do not combine to make her strongest work. There is however, a combination of her familiar mellow stomping ground and some of her strongest potential singles to date ("Aida, "Sweet Surrender" and "Witness"). McLachlan admits that "more than half' of the album was a result of the studio sessions.
"'Angel' was the first song that came out in that time. I pretty much finished writing 'Sweet Surrender' - laboriously for six months. 'Angel' came really quickly and easily. It reinstated that I can do this and that there are moments."
The rest of the album was finished by McLachlan and her longtime producer/collaborator Pierre Marchand in his Montreal studio. After an eight month birthing process, she decided on a name for her musical baby - a name she insists had nothing to do with the same title of one of Margaret Atwood's celebrated works.
"I didn't pinch the title from it," she says. I came up with it all myself, then I realized, 'Shit, that's a Margaret Atwood book.' I haven't read the book since I was 12 years old. There's a lot of similarities. It reflects me going into a really dark time and coming out of it. When I think of surfacing, I always think of diving into water at night and just the blackness and the endlessness of it. It's very terrifying to me, the idea of overcoming your fears. You dive in, even though you a
scared shitless and you don't really want to do it. Surfacing is diving in and coming back up."
Last year, McLachlan had the chance to test drive the Lilith Fair with a few West Coast dates. Even in a musical era where women have firmly planted their foot on the map, a female-only festival was still conceived by the media as a bold move. And as cringe-inducing as it may be when major media forces like Time choose to sell McLachlan and her contemporaries as "Rock's Hot New Sound," the runaway success of tour proves that it was a bold move that worked. The tour's success pleases its founder, but it is important to McLachlan that the point behind her road show is understood.
"It's doing very well and I've had nothing but positive responses," understates the Vancouver resident. "There've been a few men journalists that have been like 'Are you a feminist?' like it's a dirty word and a man-hating thing, but you've got to get over this fear of women actually having a voice. It doesn't mean they're going to chop your dick off. I love men, and it's not about that. It's celebrating the fact that women finally have a voice and they are finally being listened to."
She also has no intention for Lilith to remain a female-only affair. McLachlan promises to go egalitarian for the next Lilith and present a true coed road show. Given the acoustic homogeneous lineup of the upcoming Toronto stop at the Molson Amphitheatre (Aug 15-16), I also inquire whether the festival will spotlight a more diverse roster the future. It's obvious by the shift in her pleasant vocal tone to a slightly defensive mode that she's been quizzed on this topic before.
"Some people would say it's not as diverse as it could be, and it's definitely not. Believe me, we asked all those people," she says. "It was matter of timing and everything else - whether people were in the studio or had already agreed to do another thing. Veruca Salt were asked, as was Bjork and Garbage who were high up there on my list. We asked all sorts of people but hey, you can't get everybody."
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