I Talked To Sarah The Other Day...
And She Says to Say "Hello"
BY JULIE FORD
It seems only natural to begin our conversation by telling her what I call my Sarah MacLachlan story. The first time I saw Sarah MacLachlan perform was back in the winter of 1989 ("ohmigawd, you're kidding," and she laughs); she was opening for label-mates Grapes of Wrath at the Danforth Music Hall in Toronto, and my friend Michael and I had scored comps for the show. We each had heard this woman interviewed on CBC radio, she had recently released her first album, Touch, and lo and behold was doing this opening gig in town, so we had to go. Anyway, anyway by nature of Grapes of Wrath there were a lot of young teenaged girls in the audience ("ya, I bet"), and there happened to be an entire row of`restless ones sitting right behind us. So when Sarah came out on stage, a very nervous twenty-one year old playing her first gig in Toronto and opened her mouth to sing a beautiful a capella Celtic Song ("ya,'My Lagan Love', she acknowledges), the teenaged girls were immediately restless. "Eeewww, this is boring, this is gross, let's go hang out in the lobby, this is dumb. " Despite their initial lack of appreciation, something compelled them to stay in their seats. Good thing, too. By the end of her set, MacLachlan had the entire audience in the palm of her hand. Her warmth, her ingeniousness, her genuine excitement for what she was doing had won over the affections of a bunch of people, who, for the most part, had no idea who she was. Even the girls behind us were squealing with delight and it was an amazing example of the impact that Sarah MacLachlan has on her audiences. Since that 1989 gig, I have seen her perform many times, each concert a total Sarah love-in, the audience worshipping and enraptured. This is more than fandom, this is the embrace of a love, and I have never seen anything else like it on such a consistent basis with any other performer. I have a fair sense of what the audience gets out of this relationship, but what about the woman onstage? Does she feel that vibrancy?
"Totally. I mean for me playing like, 90% of that is the connection, the energy that's made between myself and the audience, that sharing of energy," she says. "It's the best drug in the world to feel that connection with that many people. And it's not even a tangible thing, it's just this vibe, this energy. Very cool."
Is there bad stuff, too?
"Certainly near the end of the last tour, or more so near the end of the tour before that with Solace, I had people...l hated myself at that point in time, I was just railing myself over and over. And I still had fans coming to me, oblivious to that and telling me how wonderful I was and I was so pissed off with them. It's like, how can you be so fucking blind?" she laughs.
I am such a terrible person, I mimic.
"I am such a terrible person, what is wrong with you that you can't see that? Ya, so that's my own shit that I'm projecting of course. Touring is easier now. I'm usually good for about a year and a half before I start to crack. And I'm much stronger now than I was in those days. You know, I did some really fantastic therapy last year that very much helped me. It gave me some good tools to stay in my centre. It helped me write the record [Surfacing], too," she laughs.
We get on a roll. That's a good thing, I sav.
"Ooooh, I think everybody should be in therapy, I really do."
I'm with ya on that one girl.
She laughs again, "We'll will it on the world."
We should all get a coupon at birth...
And it'll say, good until you die, redeemable at any point...
And just use it as necessary.
MacLachlan concludes, "There ain't no textbooks for most of this shit, that's for sure.
She's right, though, about what she said before. Millions of fans can't (or won't, but we get to talking about that angle of it later) see that she's "such a terrible person." At twenty-nine years old and four full-length albums along in her career, Sarah MacLachlan is now an internationally recognized singer and musician. Her last album, Fumbling Towards Ecstasv, sold between two and three million copies and her newest, Surfacing, out this July, is one of the most anticipated releases of the year. Literally dozens of Internet websites are specific to information and photographs of her (if you search on her name, over 9,000 site listings appear). Her adoring audiences are pan-gendered and pan-aged. But whv? What is it about this young woman, born and raised in Halifax, now resident of Vancouver, that inspires such devotion?
So I ask Sarah MacLachlan just this, and I suggest that in the world of pop music, where there is so much contrivance and posing, listeners are both endeared and grateful for someone who comes across as being genuine and uncontrived; that apart from appreciation for her music, that this is what the audience grooves on.
"I just do what I do, and that's the only way I know how to do it," she states matter-of-factly, as if there could be no other choice. But then reflects, "Just to play devil's advocate, that whole thing is seeped in misconception as well, that love and adoration of the fans."
Hmmm, because they're loving what they see rather than who you are?
"Ya, they're loving their own projection. Which serves them very well. Which is what most people do," she laughs. "But I'm only saying...and I'm not dismissing that love by any stretch of the imagination...I'm simply saying, that love is their projection. For me, being on stage and wanting is all about breaking down walls. And when I'm on stage, I think I really am just me, I'm who I am. And then as soon as I come off stage...it's just one facet of my life. people see that and then perceive that as everything, and I guess that's what I mean about misconceptions.
There is the sense here that MacLachlan is walking a fine line between public recognition and personal space, between showing enough of herself to maintain her own integrity, but not so much revelation that she has nothing left of her own. Fame brings the perqs, like enough commercial clout to organize and headline the Lilith Fair, the all-women music festival currently touring North America; but it also brings the shit, like the young man who wrote obsessive fan letters to her, whom she took to court to force him to stay away from her, who later tried to sue her for allegedly using his words in her song, "Possession," and who ultimately killed himself in the midst of the legal turmoil. So I try a different approach to figuring out how her relationship with her adoring fans came to be. Privacy.
"It's still fine," she says with a tone which insinuates that the fine-ness may change soon. "I've gotten some really great press for Lilith and my face was on the cover of Entertainment Weekly along with Sheryl [Crow] and Fiona [Apple] and Joan [Osborne] the other day, but it doesn't look like me, I look like a country singer which is great. My hair is all in my face. I've got that kind of country singer 'do. " [MacLachlan alone was on the cover of Time magazine, July 14.]
"I can't say that I don't want it [recognition] because a big part of me enjoys that recognition. But, at the same time, fame in our society and celebrity in our society is so twisted and so weird and that's definitely something that I struggle with. But I'm getting better. It's not something anybody I think should become very used to or comfortable with."
"But you know, I just don't go out very much, I'm a hermit." So you don't feel suffocated by the recognition stuff? "No, in some ways it's been a great gift because it's really forced me to become a more private person, which is where I think I wanted to be. It makes me want to stay home more, be home and focusing on me, which I often forget to do. " I ask her about sanctuary and she pauses for a second. "I lived out of a suitcase for eight years with lots of roommates and never had a real home. We [MacLachlan and her husband/bandmate, Ash Sood] just bought a house a year and a half ago." She laughs, "Once you get your sanctuary you never want to leave it."
Okay, I think, how do I, a member of her appreciative record-buying public (granted, this is but a polite way of saying "honkin' huge fan") feel about this artificial relationship with an artist I have only just met? I momentarily zone out here (you know how your brain can flash through a dozen points in about two seconds - ya, that kind of zone) and think about my own connection to MacLachlan's music.
One of the things that has struck me about her songwriting, listening to the evolution from Touch through Solace, Fumbling and then Surfacing, is that her songs seem to be very personal and passionate expressions of herself. They articulate a spectrum of honest emotion (a couple of years ago MacLachlan said that "Ice Cream" from Fumbling was the closest she had ever come to writing a love song; that has certainly changed with the release of Surfacing which is packed with hymns to love) in a language we all understand; like any connection with an artist's work, your willingness to embrace that language determines your appreciation of it. Her subject matter: a mixture of personal snapshots held up to the world in the form a song (like "Hold On") with social commentary softened by a focus on emotional response ("Shelter" or "Back Door Man") with loud boisterous expressions of young life (like "Steaming"). Also significant and refreshing is the obvious maturation of her music and the fact that, despite the focus of her songs becoming less generalized; and more about sornething in particular, they're still able to reach out to so many sets of ears.
There's a question here somewhere. As our lives change, as we get older and we experience different things, the ways in which we express ourselves and the things we have to say also change. So I asked MacLachlan if she feels like the recent events in her life, I guess specifically her marriage, have changed the kind of music that she writes and performs?
"Well, I think that having that support and unconditional love behind me has made it a helluva lot easier for me to go re, those places in myself and look at those things in myself I didn't want to see. A lot of work I've had to do on myself in the past couple of years just to...like these old patterns that kept coming up that were just very unhealthy and finally starting to look at them and sort of accept things in myself and say yes, I'm not perfect, none of us are, but there are these things that I don't like to see about myself, but I have to. And I think those places were a lot easier to go to because of my marriage."
So does that make the music on Surfacing a different kind of music than the music on Fumbling?
"I think it's more of a continuing path. The process of making each record for me is a quest, as you get closer to that honest core, a place I want to get to myself where I can feel a little happier with myself. And a lot of writing has to do with that. And definitely this record, very autobiographical, probably more blatantly so than the others. This one pretty much is me.
"I mean I've always put myself into them, but I only have my own experiences to draw from. That's all we ever have. I can say I'm playing a character but it definitely is me, just tends to be a little more cloaked." Hmmm, I need to think about this some more, but we're running out of time, and there's still the topic of the Lilith Fair to get to. MacLachlan first put together a smaller scale Lilith last year that played a handful of medium venues with the same guiding principle as this year's version: a festival of female singers and musicians. This year, the media is treating the estro-event like a trip to Mars - thanks, in part, to the high profiles of many of the performers (the lineup changes as the festival tours around North America - the Toronto version of Lilith includes MacLachlan, the Indigo Girls, Shawn Colvin and Jewel). There has been so much press and hype around the tour, it almost insinuates a discovery of awesome proportions by the mainstream media that sisters can do it for themselves.
So, really, why did she do it? What compelled MacLachlan to organize a femme-festival? Feminism alone? Is she one (a feminist, that is)?
"Most definitely. I call myself a humanist first and foremost, which I think is a feminist in most forms. Because a humanist believes in total equality of everybody, and just wants everybody to have a fair shake of things and respect everybody and I think that's the basis of feminism as well."
A bit more prodding. Do you think organising Lilith was a way of expressing woman power and energy or have more to do with being a cool opportunity to have a great time on stage with a bunch of girl musicians?
MacLachlan laughs her easy laugh. "Well, I'd have to say a little of both. And quite honestly I'm teaming a lot about my own desires and reasons for doing this as we along. Because often when I....I live my life on a pretty instinctual level, I often don't think about what I'm doing, I go on gut, if it feels right, I do it. I don't really question it. And I went about this in pretty much the same way, and I've been forced to become very analytical about the whole thing because I'm doing so much press. It's been a great learning experience for me to realise not only how great this is for me, selfishly, but it's so cool to be able to bring all these women together.
As she is speaking, her commitment resounds loud and clear in her voice. It's not just clout that brought Lilith together, but down and dirty determination to do something that you believe in. "Four years ago if we had tried to do this, we would have got laughed at by promoters, we could not have done it. Now, the only way that society recognizes people any more, unfortunately, in many circumstances, is because we have now become a viable commercial commodity. Brass tacks. It's a crass way to look at it, but we cannot be denied. Women are making a whole shitload of money and that money gives us power. And it gives us respect to a certain degree, too. And I think we can go about it in a positive way which I think Lilith certainly is doing, not male bashing and 'I hate men and 1 want to chop off their dicks' kind of energy. No, this is simply a celebration of the fact that women finally have a strong voice. God, everybody should want to celebrate that."
We're outta time. Damn. MacLachlan has to move on to the next of probably a dozen interviews that day, so I relinquish my space in line with a "thank you" and some well-wishes for the tour.
It's funny, you know. Despite the pointed questions, I'm not sure that I got any closer to understanding the essence of the warm intimate embrace given so freely by MacLachlan's fans. But, then, maybe that's the point. It's instinctual, not logical. Much like the nature of love.