Sarah McLachlan: Artist of the Year
Chart Magazine #91, January 1998
Unless you're TIME magazine, year-end proclamations are risky propositions. Critical acclaim and commercial success are see-through criteria used to make up for a lack of new releases at year's end (or to redeem editors who overlooked breakthrough recordings the first time around). So when Chart considered inaugurating its first-ever Artist of the Year, we sought to honour a Canadian who had truly made an impact on the music community in 1997. It was a short brainstorming session.
Interview by Liisa Ladouceur
The Vancouver singer/songwriter didn't simply become one of the few Canadian acts to be heard on commercial radio outside of the country (including U.S. television appearances like Saturday Night Live). She didn't just sell almost 400,000 copies of Surfacing. What Sarah spent most of 1997 achieving was the launch of a full-scale touring festival (which the organizers of R.O.A.R. will tell you is no small feat). Only the blind and deaf could have missed the attention Lilith Fair generated -- voers of TIME and Entertainment Weekly (the mag that listed Sarah at #60 in its MOst Powerful People in Entertainment list) discussed not only the unabashed trumpeting of an all-women line-up as the middle-of-the-road acts chosen to play.
In its first year, Lilith visited over 30 cities and overshadowed almost all other summer concert tours. If it set out to entertain the masses, including many music fans turned off by boisterous rock crowds (yes, some people actually want to sit down on the lawn), it succeeded by attracting over 750,000 audience members. If it set out ot change the rules for women performers in the music industry, it did that too, proving that an all-female bill was as good for the business section as the entertainment listings. And Lilith mutated into local action: in several communities, independent acts busked outside the gates, and here in Canada Kinnie Starr, Oh Susanna and Veda Hille launched their own "Scrappy Bitch" tour.
As if Sarah wasn't busy with her own exploding musical career (not to mention a new marriage), she will begin 1998 by overseeing the release of a live Lilith Fair record and planning for next year's festival (details of which were to be announced December 16.)
At the only hometown stop on her sold-our arena tour (which featured guest appearances by her faithful dog, Rex), Sarah took time out to talk about 1997 and what the hoopla all means.
You've spoken before about not feeling worthy of adoration. Are you starting to feel more worthy of the accolades you receive?
I suppose I feel more worthy because I'm really proud of what it is I'm doing. Not that I wasn't before, but the praise and adulation can be strange if you're not feeling good about yourself. I feel so proud to be a part of Lilith, so in that sense, I'm fine with it.
Was there a particular moment, or a struggle you overcame that was a defining point in the year, either with Lilith Fair or your album?
I have this amazing ability to forget anything bad that ever happens to me, so when people ask these questions I have a hard time answering. I know there were hard things to get over, and luckily I write journals, because I completely forget. The album was really difficult, because I expected myself to go back into the studio but I felt so empty and drained. I just needed to get grounded. I was in ten pieces. The hardest thing for me was to allow myself the time to not write. It's so weird now, it seems so obvious, but I couldn't tell myself that I didn't have to write. I thought I had to, because everyone else was saying that I had to get a new record out really quickly, and I was trying so hard, but I was so completely in denial about everything. I was fearful that I had nothing left to say, that that was it. There's a big pressure there, to get over that.
Do you ever worry that Lilith will start to overshadow Sarah McLachlan's music?
I don't worry about that. I can only do what I do. I please myself first and foremost, and hope that people get something out of it, whether it's from the greater scehme of what Lilith represents or from the music.
Is Lilith inherently political?
No. It's inherently musical. [laughs] THat was one of the interesting things when I started doing all the press, it became about so many other things that what I initially, in my small, naive way, my idea... I thought it would be fun, to put together this festival with all these women. It was selfish; I wanted to meet them and get to know them. It's a weird and lonely industry and I thought it would be great to try and create a sense of community. And, you know, there was the reactionary thing that there were all these festivals out there and women were not being represented.
How do you feel about the media calling it things like "vulvapalooza"?
You know, I don't even know if I want to comment on that, 'cause it's just lazy journalism as far as I'm concerned. A lot of the media hype is the most frustrating thing for me to deal with, again because I was so naive, I didn't even think what they would take this to be. I understand that it can't be just a music festival that happens to be all women, there has to be an exciting angle to it, like "grrlapalooza" or "the gals take over." It's always a sensationalist bent on the story to make it more sexy. I was really surprised by that, because were simply trying to ... well, we weren't trying to do anything. It was, like, "Let's celebrate women, the fact that we're finally tipping the scales and things are being a little more balanced in the music industry." You know, everyone who thinks we're taking over and pushing men out, they don't know what they're talking about.
In terms of the criticism about the bill's homogeny, I'm thinking you have the right to pick whoever you want, because you're doing all the work.
Do you feel pressured or obligated to be representational?
I fluctuate back and forth on that. I'm calling it a celebration of women in music, and I wanted it to be as diverse as possible. But the bottom line is, when you're putting together a festival tour, you have to make a bill that isn't so skewed that people will say "I like that band, but I really don't like that band, so I'm not going to go." Any summer festival these days is a risk for the promoters, the artists, and anyone who is involved, because it's big business.
Do you believe it was a diverse bill?
Yeah. I think some cities were more diverse than others, and I think a lot of the frustration that people in the media had with some of the bills not being as diverse as they could have been, was maybe only in that one city. Definitely it had a singer/songwriter bent more than anything else. That was the bigger picture. But to our credit, we invited everybody. We invited people from all different kinds of music. But you're right, I wanted music that I liked. So for me to say, "O.K., I want to have a band out there because it's going to be politically correct," fuck that. I don't agree with that. It takes it out of the realm of what we wanted to do in the first place. But it's hard, because you're getting bombarded from all sides: "Why isn't it more like this, or that?" Well, you try to go out there and put together something like this and see how easy it is! As far as diversity, every bill was made up of whoever said yes. Summertime is a busy time, and even though we planned far in advance, it was the first year we had done this, so some people just said, "Oh, well, we'll wait and see."
Now they're calling you.
Yeah. Which is great. Everybody we had on last year wants to come back. There's a whole bunch of new artists that want to come out. So it's a new juggle, trying to make it a cohesive thing.
As it gets bigger, how much ownership do you have to give up for it to grow?
I don't think it's going to grow in a negative way. As far as the amount of artists, we will have three stages, with 11 acts every day as we did last year. I think for what the general public get out of it, it's going to be the same vibe, and I want it to stay that way. I want to have corporate sponsors involved, because then we can give a shitload of money to charity, and they can help us finance it as well.
The charities didn't get that much attention.
It's funny. I was watching one of the big news shows here in Vancouver, and they were talking about Lilith Fair. They said we made over $700,000. No, we raised over $700,000 for charity. But what they said was that we made that off the shows. We didn't. We gave away more money than we made. But I'm quite happy to be quiet about that stuff, because I'm not doing it to seek publicity. It's something that I believe in and have done in my personal life. It's great to have this platform so I can go into a community and make a difference.
Lilith was also a springboard for local action.
I think that's so great. And really, it's not about the conglomerate of Lilith. It's about just being community-oriented and celebrating everybody. The competitive thing really bugs me. And that's one of the fun myths to break down in doing this thing, the bullshit that all women are all competitive against each other. That just didn't happen at all.
What about next year? How will you continue to use the Internet, for example.
Oh, the Web site is still up and running. Obviously, there's nothing happening right now with Lilith, but all the stuff from last year is still there. It's a great way to get it out there. There are so many people who came out to Lilith, or played on it, who email me and say they've been on the site every day.
When did you decide that you wanted to make the Lilith record?
We just wanted to document the whole thing. We recorded the whole show from day one, whether it was just for archival purposes. We filmed a lot of stuff, too, for the Web page or whatever. We had nine cameras, and a six-camera shoot for two weeks. We wanted to document this, especially the first year. Because I know that this is going to go on, and we knew it was going to be a lot of fun.
Is Sarah going to play every year?
I think the year I decide not to do it, there's not going to be a Lilith Fair. I want to keep control over it. I want to be a part of it. I'm selfish.
Liisa Ladouceur's favourite Goddess is Circe.
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