In The Garden
By Kurt B. Reighley
Sarah McLachlan's last full-length album, Fumbling Towards Ecstasy, came out in 1994. It's since sold over 1.4 million copies in the United States alone, but it also kept her on the road for over two and a half years. Now, after a debilitating bout with writer's block, followed by a self-imposed exile of six months, she's finally completed her fourth studio album, Surfacing (Nettwerk-Arista). Meanwhile, she saw the revolutionary Lilith Fair, a summer concert tour with an all-female line-up--and a nightly headline spot for McLachlan--from daydream to reality. Oh, and she got married. And all this without the benefit of bionic powers...
Pause for a moment and sift through your impressions of Canadian singer/ songwriter Sarah McLachlan. She's a charismatic performer, blessed with an expressive, dexterous voice and impressive facility on both the guitar and piano. She has a gift for composing songs that top the pop charts without compromising her bracing honesty and frank perspective. And she's a beautiful woman, with a lithe figure, casual manner and flaxen hair. So whom do you reckon young Sarah admired as a girl? Who were her role models? Carole King? Try again. Anne Murray? Puh-leeze.
From the comfort of her temporary home in Montreal, McLachlan slowly scrolls off the short list of answers. In light of her musical trajectory over the course of the last decade, the first heroine makes sense: Kate Bush. And considering that McLachlan turns 30 next year, and got her start fronting a new wave band in the mid-'80s, the next two--Pat Benatar and Blondie's Debbie Harry-- are pretty obvious (in hindsight), too.
Suddenly McLachlan perks up. "Oh. and there was Lindsey Wagner!" she exclaims. "She was pretty hot." Somewhere in TV land. Jamie Sommers's bionic ear is burning.
Sarah may not have battled any beautiful androids or Eastern Bloc spies, but just like the heroicJamie in her weekly television exploits. McLachlan had to meet her share of arduous challenges in order to complete Surfacing. And scariest of all. an insider had set most of the obstacles blocking her path.
When Sarah released her debut album Touch in 1988, she stepped onto a merry-go-round that's just kept building up momentum with each passing year. Buoyed up by the success of her single "Vox," McLachlan quickly became a star in her native country. Her subsequent album, 1991's Solace, addressed some of the consequences of losing your innocence to the limelight. She might have been feeling victimized, but that didn't stop her from growing artistically, and new songs like "Into The Fire" and "Drawn To The Rhythm" displayed a maturity missing from many of her earlier offerings. Fans south of the (Canadian) border and on distant shores began to take notice, and Sarah found herself touring for 14 months.
After that journey wrapped up, she embarked on another, accepting an invitation from World Vision to host a documentary on Cambodia and Thailand. Unsure of what lay ahead, she soon found herself in brothels, concentration camps, women's shelters, even the killing fields. Afterwards, she took a much- needed vacation in a more luxurious region of Thailand, and began sorting through what she'd seen and felt these many months. When she returned to Canada, she moved out on her own for the first time, and began composing the songs that would form Fumbling Towards Ecstasy (as well as its companion disc of alternate versions, The Freedom Sessions).
First "Hold On," a moving confrontation of a loved one's mortality, appeared on the Red Hot Organization's No Alternative compilation. Then came the finished album, an outpouring of emotions in all shapes and sizes: "Ice" examined the complexides of drug addiction; "Possession" pushed a devotional love song into stalker territory; the title cut celebrated Sarah's increasing confidence as an artist and an individual. She hit the road in support of Fumbling--and the returns, in the form of increased album and ticket sales, slowly began piling up. So she stayed on tour. And stayed. And stayed.
"The thing about being on the road is that often you might have only 15 minutes to yourself in the day," McLachlan notes. "And my problem is I forgot to give myself that time. That's sort of the story of my life. So the more I wasn't alone, the harder it was to tell myself to be alone.
"The trouble is you book tours six months in advance," she adds. So if she felt a nervous breakdown breathing down her neck, she just beat the beast back into whatever cave it sprang from, since the alternative meant wrestling with it through half a year's worth of sold-out crowds and lonely hotel rooms. And regardless of how lengthy her itinerary is, Sarah claims touring is always an "all or nothing" undertaking. "I can't write, I can't even really think much when I'm on the road, because I'm too full of input all the time. So I just chock experiences away, and deal with them later. That's why I need the down-time [afterwards] so much. Just to go back and sort through where I was, and how I felt, and what happened to me--and become centered again. And then, from that point, it's easier to write."
Her travels finally wrapped up in January of 1996. But after two and a half years of being uprooted and constantly performing, her "Deal With It Later" file was stuffed to the gills. That April, she was scheduled to commence writing and recording a follow-up album. But she hadn't even begun to decompress.
"When I got off the road, I thought Fumbling was my swan song, [and] I'd never make another record ever again. I felt so dried up, I couldn't imagine writing another song in my life. I had a huge psychological block for a long time." On a huge chalkboard in her mind, Sarah had scrawled a theorem that read "Making Record = Touring, Therefore Never Make Record."
But she couldn't bite the hand that fed her. The market might not wait for the muse to recuperate. She entered the studio, and tried in vain to eke out new material, but the well was bone dry. "I was there going 'Fuck, what am I doing here? I don't know what I'm doing with my life--why am I hating this?"' She knew in her heart that she couldn't write until she'd resolved all the accumulated experience from the tour, but found it nearly impossible to reconcile the need for time off with her guilt about taking it.
"After I had my terrible spell of going 'I'm supposed to be writing, but everything I'm writing is shit, because I don't want to be writing,' I finally just said 'so don't write, it's okay.' Which was really hard for me to tell myself, but it was the best thing I could do." McLachlan feared that if she didn't climb right back on the horse, her blue-ribbon days would draw to a close. "You're like, 'oh God, this is my art, it's my passion, I'm supposed to be living and breathing this all the time."'
"Well, that's just not the case with me," she finally concluded. "I need to do other things as well. And my life had been focused for so long on the music and on touring, that everything else--my own life, my own development--took a real side turn."
"I felt about ten years old, I felt so out of control of my own life. And so many times I just felt like I was this little flea, just trying to hold on for dear life to the ragged coat of this dog running like crazy." Finally she summoned up the courage to call her manager and admit thing's weren't working in the studio. "And he just said 'Well, come home then.' And I was like 'Really? It's that easy?"'
She sighs now at the recollection. "It's really sad that I needed to get the permission from him, as opposed to just going 'Fuck this, I want to go home!' I knew instinctively what I needed; I was just denying myself it. I wasn't allowing myself the freedom to say 'I don't want to be here."' So she left the Montreal region where her longtime producer and collaborator Pierre Marchand is based, and returned home to Vancouver. "That was a real step in healing myself, that empowering thing of going 'I'm going home. I don't want to be here. and I'm making this decision for myself."'
"I took six months off and just did nothing but planted vegetables and made a garden," she admits. She and her sweetheart, drummer Ashwin Sood, bought a puppy and settled in for a long spell of domestic bliss. (The couple tied the knot in March, after eloping to Jamaica.) And slowly, she began to feel comfortable in her own skin again. The creative process of digging in the dirt ("to quote Peter Gabriel")--"getting into myself, pulling myself inside out, and seeing what's there, what's hiding'--slowly began to unfold.
Although she repeatedly stresses that what she uncovered in her psyche seemed disturbing and difficult to embrace, McLachlan is reticent to name her individual demons. "We're all fucked up in some ways," she hints. "I'm as fucked up as the next person, and I've got a lot of work to do on myself. When you're putting yourself out there. completely vulnerable and naked every night, you're really letting yourself open to a lot of beautiful and fantastic things--and a lot of shit. My whole struggle has been 'Okay, build up a wall to protect yourself, but don't let that wall affect your performing.' You have to keep honest."
With the help of various tools, including a psychotherapist and the popular book The Artist's Way (a guide to unblocking creativity), Sarah began regaining her sense of self-control, learning to confront her problems more directly. Her therapist taught her the shortest distance between two points is often divined from a few simple questions. "Basically, most problems tend to spur From relationships, whether that's with a friend or lover or parents, whatever. Because they're this mirror. Every time somebody pisses you off, they're giving you a gift. If you're pissed off at something that [someone] said, that's because there's something you need to deal with in yourself. Ask yourself, 'Why am I feeling this way? When was the first time I felt this way?' And remember that place where you felt worthless and insecure and useless, and your mother was yelling at you, whatever, and go to that place and give that little kid what she needs. It sounds corny when I reiterate it, but it's really powerful stuff."
Ultimately, learning to confront that "powerful stuff" fortified her artistry. "These [lyrics] are a little more straight-ahead, a little more concrete in their content," she says of the ten new songs on Surfacing.
"The way I work through things [now] is really different from the way I did a year or two ago. My thought processes are different, and I'm writing less from [the point of view of] 'oh, poor me.' When I was writing about me before, and didn't feel comfortable, I put myself into characters." Now she's more willing to expose her weak spots; if an impulse feels honest but unpleasant, she'll admit "this is ugly, and I'm not hiding from it."
When McLachlan resumed writing the music that would ultimately form Surfacing, she completely disregarded all the material from the first, fruitless sessions. She concedes there may have been some melodies worth salvaging, but the lyrics were "coming from this terrified little girl who had her head stuck so far up her ass she didn't know which end was up." The writing for the new album kicked in for real with "Angel," one of its most affecting cuts. "That was one of the first ones I wrote, and it was a real joyous occasion," she admits. "I really loved it, it came out easily, and that just solidified my faith again. I still have stuff to say and there's still stuff that I can write that's good."
"Angel" deals with why people in the limelight turn to drugs for solace. "I hate to pinpoint it like that," McLachlan dissents. But the inspiration did stem from reading a "series of Rolling Stone articles over the past year and a half typically about heroin in the music industry, and all these people who, one by one, are getting picked off by it. And I just felt a really great empathy in some way for these people. I've been in that place where you're so fucked up and you're so lost that you don't know who you are anymore, and you're miserable--and here's this escape route. I've never done heroin, but I've done plenty of other things to escape."
The only other song on Surfacing that came relatively easily, the captivating "Building A Mystery," is also the album's first single. She was playing a little guitar rift one evening back in Montreal, and Marchand strolled in, pronounced it a keeper, and immediately pulled out some lyrics he'd been sitting on. "And then we just sat at the computer the next day, thought up a bunch of crazy lines, and the song was born pretty darn quickly. And it was fun. There was no 'Oh my God, we have to write a single!' It was so boneheaded, it was quite liberating." Although her acute personal observations of emotion are one of McLachlan's most distinctive trademarks, she doesn't find singing Marchand's lyrics now and then uncomfortable. 'Tin pretty close to unconditional love with him." she claims. (In addition to "Building A Mystery," the pair also collaborated on two other songs, "Witness" and "Adia.')
The completion of Surfacing means that McLachlan must once again confront the evil "Making Record = Touring" equation. But this time, the odds are stacked a little differently. A couple years ago, after countless confrontations from promoters who discouraged her from engaging opening acts like Paula Cole, because ostensibly audiences didn't want to see two women artists back to back, Sarah began envisionlug a concert tour composed exclusively of female performers. Last summer, McLachlan recruited Cole, Suzanne Vega, Patti Smith. Lisa Loeb and others for four shows,just as a dry run, "and they were hugely successful." So she turned to her manager, her agent and her tour manager, gave them a wish-list of artists from Queen Latifah to Emmylou Harris to The Cardigans, and dispatched the team to pull her dream tour together.
She christened it the Lilith Fair, in honor of the first truly independent woman in mythology, Adam's wife before Eve, Lilith, who wouldn't lie with him in sin and split Eden for good, only to be demonized (or ignored, depending on your faith) by the Christian patriarchy. Boasting a rotating line-up of local and international talent, the Lilith Fair kicks off July 5th in Seattle, with Jewel, Vega, Tracy Chapman and Aimee Mann rounding out the bill. In keeping with McLachlan's innovative spin on the Lollapalooza paradigm, corporate sponsorships have been downplayed (and those that did sign on had to promise to give back to host communities via charitable donations), and the arts and merchandise mall promises to boast more than just tie-dyed shirts and fried dough.
But quit scrambling to cover your family jewels, fellas. "I want to let people know that this is not a hardcore feminist, man-hating tour," McLachlan emphasizes. "This is simply about celebrating women. Men are more than welcome; I totally want them to be there. They should want to celebrate women as much as anybody does. What would they be doing without us? They'd be dead in a hundred years," she adds with a robust laugh. After Lilith she'll continue with a solo tour, but Sarah swears she has "basically put a ceiling of a year on touring." And she plans to stick to that commitment. "I have much better control skills now. I worked on myself long and hard these past months, and it's definitely paid off. I've found my center again."
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