INTERVIEW, July 1997
By: Women For: Everyone
Sarah McLachlan and Tracy Chapman take their hammers to the knotty question: Why a womenís festival?
When Lollapalooza, H.O.R.D.E., Skoal, and other summer music tours started turning into macho mosh pits, lyrical Canadian musician Sarah McLachlan felt it was time for an alternative to the so-called alternatives. Her brainchild, the Lilith Fair, which begins this month, is an all-female affair of good music and good vibes. It is not, however, a traveling girlís ghetto. Since we live in a time when pop democracy makes it possible for both sexes to create music that is either tremendous or horrendous, gathering the best women naturally also meant netting many of the most important performers, period. The lineup so far: Sarah McLachlan, Jewel, Tracy Chapman, Fiona Apple, the Cardigans, the Indigo Girls, Suzanne Vega, Paula Cole, Mary Chapin Carpenter, Shawn Colvin, Sheryl Crow, Joan Osborne, and Emmylou Harris. Here concert organizer McLachlan talks from Vancouver with one of Lilithís troubadours, Tracy Chapman, who is in New York City a couple of months before the fairís opening date. Though they speak across a three-hour time difference, it feels like early morning to both of them. Interviewís Alison Powell places the wake-up call.
Sarah McLachlan: Tracy! How are you doing?
Tracy Chapman: Oh, pretty good.
SM: So, whatís going on for you this week?
TC: Well, Iím in New York recording, and Iíve been doing a lot of traveling lately. What about you?
SM: Iíve been in the studio working on my new record.
TC: Oh, great!
SM: Weíre almost done, and I had a wedding reception -- mine -- to come home to this week.
TC: Congratulations! When does your record come out?
SM: If all goes well, around the fifteenth of July. And then of course thereís the Lilith tour. You know, I havenít been this excited in a long time. Iím so happy you said yes to coming along.
TC: Well, it sounded like such a great idea when you mentioned it to me.
Alison Powell: When was that?
SM: I met Tracy for the first time at Christmas. Iím pretty shy, but I just bowled into her dressing room and said, "Hey, how ya doiní? Whatíre you up to this summer?"
TC: You didnít seem shy at all!
SM: I think I kind of freaked you out. Iím sorry, I was a little over the top. I was nervous to talk to you Ďcause Iím no good at seling myself. Gosh, itís so bloody early in the morning.
TC: How early is it for you?
SM: Itís nine.
TC: That is early. Itís noon for me in new York, and even that seems early.
AP: How about this for a wake-up question: If the established tours, like Lollapalooza and H.O.R.D.E., hadnít become so masculine in recent times, do you still think there would be a Lilith?
SM: Oh, definitely. Lilith Fair was only slightly begun for reactionary reasons. I think itís been coming for a long time. In fact itís odd to have to put this out as something new a different -- Tracy, I think youíll understand this. People ask, "So what do you think about this new fad of women in music?" And I think, What do you mean, fad? Have women never made music before?
AP: I think what people noticed was that there were suddenly a lot of women clustered at the top of the charts.
TC: The chart position is what makes it.
AP: Tracy, you were a part of that.
TC: Yeah. But I think I know where Sarah was going with what she was saying. Of course women throughout history have always been making music, and crossing genres too, but itís only in recent years that the press has made it seem as if these movements are moments in time when women are somehow becoming more popular, or in some cases, dominating the industry, which of course is far from the reality. But there are more opportunities out there right now for women who writhe their own songs and play on their own records.
SM: Yeah. If we had tried to put together a womenís music festival like this five years ago, the promoters wouldíve laughed at us. now theyíre so excited about all these women -- itís nice to see that some things can turn around quite quickly. Who knows why? I guess people just had a desire to hear something different, and women were offering it.
AP: But Sarah, that was hardly still the early days of the womenís movement.
SM: Which is pretty sad.
TC: Yes, but even though I think all women owe something to the womenís movement -- the right to vote, to own property, and to have control over our bodies and lives -- the music made by the women who are part of this tour doesnít necessarily have anything to do with politics. The position we are in also has a lot to do with the pace of music -- a lot has happened in it.
SM: The curious thing about all this is that the idea for Lilith came from a humble idea, which was: Wow, wouldnít it be fun to get together with a bunch of women I love and admire and have a tour? I never get to see anybody play live, so itís really a selfish act.
TC: I was thinking that too. I havenít seen a lot of the women whoíll be playing on the tour. It reminds me of when I did the Amnesty International shows. Iíd never seen Peter Gabriel or Bruce Springsteen or Sting play live, so as much as I was a participant I also felt like a fan, and I feel the same way about Lilith: Itís a free concert every night.
SM: Yeah, thatís the prime motivator for me. Then along came all these huge feminist undercurrents, which of course are going to exist. But like Tracy said, the important thing to focus on is the incredible diversity of music thatís happening.
AP: Do you think Lilith Fair will test how well people can set aside their views on how whatís happening onstage is related to sex?
SM: Well, women are women.
TC: You canít completely ignore it.
SM: Thatís a huge part of who we are.
TC: Right, and what we write about.
SM: Thatís our perspective.
TC: And how weíre positioned in the music industry.
SM: And the world. I appreciate what you said, Tracy, about the fact that this didnít start five or ten year sago. A lot of young women today donít realize that eighty years ago we couldnít vote. Weíve got it relatively easy compared to back then, so we really have to pay homage to those women, and remember them in all of this too.
AP: Thereís also a generation of women who didnít go to high school at a time when it was considered rebellious to pick up a guitar. There are different role models now.
SM: I had Pat Benatar.
TC: Right, and Joan Jett, those were the rockers. And Chrissie Hynde is from Ohio, like me. Thereís Heart, too, and Patti Smith and Blondie. Women were definitely out there being successful. So maybe, like you were saying, the only reason why women seem to be so strong now is the chart positions and the number of women artists being played on the radio.
SM: When weíre talking about Lilith, most interviewers ask, "Why do you think there are so many women happening now?"
TC: Thatís why I would say weíre just talking about music and what people want. Audiences listen to the radio stations that play the records they like. Itís not about whether itís a woman or a man singing. Itís just a matter of "Hey, I like that song."
SM: Exactly. Itís not that women have completely dominated the charts. I hate to use the word, but thereís a little more "equality" now.
TC: One thing Iíve never really liked is categorizing "womenís music," or even "womenís culture." I think thereís so much diversity I the world that even if youíre talking about people who have some commonality, a term like that can never full describe what something or someone is. So I think in the case of Lilith Fair, the only real link is that weíre all musicians.
AP: I would guess the women on the bill are people who would hate to be lumped together just because theyíre women. How have you dealt with that?
SM: I just love women. It just so happens that a lot of the songwriters and performers and musicians I like right now are women Ė and again, the tour was put together for selfish reasons. I never get to see anybody play live because Iím always on the road. And yeah, I think women deserve to be celebrated; I think people in general deserve to be celebrated. "Iím a humanist before Iím a feminist, or anything else" Ė that quote came from the first press release for Lilith, which my promotion company strongly recommended I do, because they were afraid it was going to turn into this big hard-core feminist rally. Thatís the last thing I want. I love men, I love people, and I donít think this is about excluding anybody Ė itís simply a celebration. We probably should have just said it was a celebration of music. But of course, you know, we are women.
TC: The other thing, and Iím not trying to speak for you, Sarah Ė
SM: Oh, please help!
TC: I just think youíre right. Thereís nothing wrong with a celebration of any kind, and certainly nothing wrong with celebrating women. I think itís worth pointing out that often women are not celebrated in this culture. And they arenít celebrated in the music industry. Truthfully, women are treated differently than men are, and it makes sense to bring a positive force into our representation and to be active participants in it. I mean itís great that you did that press release, that you had an opportunity to explain your reasons for putting the tour together Ė
SM: Before all the misconceptions came.
TC: Right, and I think the tour itself can do the same thing. We as women will get an opportunity to provide more information to people about who we are, and to explain and describe ourselves instead of being explained and described by other people, who often misinterpret us.
SM: Songwriting is a big part of what we give to the world. I donít know about you, Tracy, but that too is a selfish act on my part.
TC: Oh, completely. [laughs]
SM: Itís pretty much therapy, and then once I feel good about what Iíve made, itís a gift to everybody else Ė the gift of myself. Iím writing from a human perspective, but Iím writing from a womanís perspective as well.
TC: I understand you, and to follow up on what I was talking about just a few minutes ago, I tried to do something I thought would be beneficial not only to myself but also to the whole musical process I was involved in, and that was to create opportunities for people in my touring band and in my crew. That meant opening up the selection process not only to women, but to people of color and younger people who might not have a lot of experience but who have a lot of energy and bring a lot of passion to their work. Those are important actions to take, because itís a way to respond to a world that doesnít always create opportunities for people like them.
Anyway, given the ticket sales for this event, it seems thereís a lot of interest in seeing all these different women together on one stage at the same place and time. Thatís not to say there arenít great men out there, or that they couldnít be on the stage with all of us at some point in time. Itís just that this is, once again, a way to represent ourselves and to do so in a positive way.
AP: Do you expect to have a lot of men in the audience.
TC: Well, I always have men at my concerts. I mean, I get all different kinds of people, so Iím assuming itíll be the same on this tour.
SM: I think so too. We did sort of a trial run last year of four shows, and it was the same audience I usually get: lots of man, lots of women, very varied in age and everything. And as Tracy was saying, about being able to give something back and trying to change the system from within: One of the things we want to do is to showcase young artists, so thereíll be a B stage as well. The reason Iíve been successful is not because of radio stations playing my songs, but because I got out there and played and played and played live, for two or three years at a time. If youíre good live, people are going to get into you and want to buy your record. So itís a bit like getting played on the radio, only better.
AP: How will you decide whoís performing when? For example, who goes last?
SM: Well, personally, I donít like going on last, so I hope itís not me! Tracy, are you going on last?
TC: Am I? No!
SM: I donít want to go on last either! I like going on second to last.
TC: I like that spot as well. But Sarah, people might expect you to go on last because itís your idea and your show.
AP: Well, at Live Aid, Bob Geldof went on like fifth.
SM: Thereís only five acts in each Lilith Fair show.
TC: Right, so Sarah can go on fifth.
AP: But thatís last Ė
TC: Shhh! We donít need to say that.
SM: Oh, itíll be great. I canít wait. I want to get on the road right now. Tracy, take care, and weíll see you in a couple of months. Donít work to hard.
TC: You too. Bye!
Webmaster Julian C. Dunn ([email protected])