The Rocket, No. 256: on the cover "Won't you smile with me, Sarah..."
Cover design by Stewart Williams.
Sarah is on the front cover, a close up showing her face and a shoulder with insets of Jewel, Tracy Chapman, Suzanne Vega, and Paula Cole.

Issue Title: My Fair Lady: Sarah McLachlan leads Lilith Fair to the Northwest.

Pictures of Lilith

There's a quick charcoal drawing of Sarah as a backdrop.

Sarah McLachlan's Summer Fair by Andrew Strickman

It's the calm before the storm and Sarah McLachlan is doing what comes naturally.

She's not in a strategy session for her upcoming Lilith Fair festival tour, which promises to be the best --- if not the hottest --- ticket of the lucrative summer season. She's not in mixing sessions for her first album in nearly four years, -Surfacing-, due out July 15. She's not even taking time off to honeymoon with her new husband (and drummer in her band), Ashwin Sood.

Nope. She's baking oatmeal cookies in her Vancouver, B.C. home.

"Shit! I think I just burned them," she says, cradling the phone on her shoulder as she pulls the pan out of the oven. "Not to worry, they're just a little brown; it was the last of the batch.

McLachlan is remarkably calm, considering that this summer will likely be the most important of her professional life.

It was her last album, 1994's -Fumbling-Towards-Ecstasy-, that gave the 29-year-old songwriter a rabid following and the industry heft to mount Lilith, a celebration of women artists with nary an ounce of testosterone at the fore. The continually pleasing -Fumbling-, her third album, went double platinum in the U.S. after three years, on the heady strength of "Possession", McLachlan's eyes-of-a-stranger look at the fan who stalked her. The dark, lush song with a stoned hip-hop beat was a hit on the radio and it still regularly appears on playlists nearly four years after its release.

But the 24-month tour that followed the album's release put McLachlan on a collision course.

"After getting off the road in January [of 1996], I was expecting to go into the studio in March," she remembers, not fondly. "I was thinking, 'I have nothing to write about', I didn't ever want to go on the road again."

McLachlan took eight months off and had little to do with music. The idea for the Lilith Fair came to her during the respite, and she decided to give it a try; the test run consisted of four dates, with different artists on each bill. The results were overwhelmingly positive.

"The music industry is still a boys club," she says. "Three years ago if we'd tried to put together a show like this, we'd have been laughed at."

The laughter was a consistent burr in McLachlan's relatively smooth ascent to headliner status. When she mounted her 1994 North American tour, she chose to take emerging songwriter Paula Cole on the road as her opening act. Bringing Cole, an unknown quantity at the time, was proclaimed the kiss of death for McLachlan, who had not yet scored major success in the States, though she'd sold more than 2.5 million copies of - -Fumbling- in Canada.

Yet, it came as no surprise to McLachlan that her dates in medium-sized theaters were selling out left and right. It not only gave her the bargaining power to push Lilith Fair into outdoor amphitheaters this year, but it gave Cole an incredibly devoted fan base that began gobbling up her sophomore effort, -This-Fire-, the day it was released last fall.

Cole's album, including its overplayed first single, "Where Have All the Cowboys Gone", has started a steady trek up the charts. The success of -This-Fire- --- which has already sold more than 500,000 copies --- is certain to figure prominently in the success of the Lilith tour.

The other artists on the tour --- which kicks off July 5 at the Gorge in George Washington --- include a bevy of longtime charters as well as new blood that has risen in the wake of the veterans' successes. Industry mainstays Tracy Chapman, Sheryl Crow, and Suzanne Vega will be joined by a new generation of voices including Fiona Apple, Lauren Hoffman, Leah Andreone, and other artists on the near-side of age 20 --- a fact not lost on McLachlan, whose first album, 1988's -Touch-, was recorded when she was just 18.

"I think women are developing different senses of self, and it's reflecting in the music", she says of the relative youngsters. "Women are finally seeing that they're allowed to have this voice and speak out. We're still living in a world of inequality."

The Lilith tour, named for the first wife of Adam and affectionately nicknamed "Vulvapalooza", was not planned as a jab at the dearth of estrogen in rock'n'roll.

"It's not about dissing men", she says. "The music is the first and most important thing; it's fantastic. You look at any of the lineups - --- just as a music fan --- and I'd go to see any of those shows.

"Three years ago you couldn't have put two songs by women on the radio back to back, and you couldn't put two women on the same concert bill. Certainly, the putting on of Lilith is a step in a great direction."

But there is far more at stake as the 35-date tour looms. Generally when an artist tours behind new music, the album is available to fans and recent radio converts alike. A quarter of the Lilith Fair tour will be finished before -Surfacing- is released.

All that anyone has heard of the album at this point, including the execs at Arista, is the first single, "Building a Mystery" --- a not to subtle jab at a person who lives a life of surface lies.

It's vintage McLachlan, ripe with electric guitar bumping up against brooding, quiet vocal passages in her trademark soprano (check it out at www.sarahmclachlan.com). An interviewer in -Elle- last month wrote that it was a pointed reference to a "male music icon, who dates groupies half his age."

"I'm going to throttle the little shit who wrote that", she responds, laughing, when asked who the "icon" might be. "the song is merely about people trying to create really interesting facades for themselves. It's about that on a deep level, but also on a light level it's a playful song --- beautiful, fucked-up people. It's about me! About all my friends!"

If she's nervous about the release of -Surfacing-; you couldn't tell. She readily admits that the new album is not a grand step in a new direction, rather, "It's a departure in a sense, because I've come from a completely different place, but it isn't that far from [the music of] -Fumbling-."

The Halifax, Nova Scotia native returned to the studio with the majority of the band that recorded -Fumbling- intact; Sood on drums, Brian Minato on bass and guitar and producer Pierre Marchand playing bass and keyboards, while helming the boards for the second time in as many records.

Although McLachlan says she has come out from behind the murky emotions that have previously enveloped her music, the autobiographical nature of the songs keeps her in a less than settled place --- a place she doesn't mind being.

"I think you need both happiness and struggle to create. For me I've had a lot easier time looking at the dark sides of myself when I had the love and support of a great relationship", she explains.

To mangle another bard: from her only love springs her only hate?

"That's my stuff --- that's my personal stuff. Suffice to say it's good and depressing, but in a beautiful way. If you love large, you've got to hurt large. If you've got a lot of light, you've probably got an equal amount of darkness."

McLachlan has seen love from both sides. Growing up, she became the vessel into which her mother poured her emotional turmoil of a distant husband and a career shelved in exchange for raising a family.

Although her parentally-imposed classical training gave her the building blocks to launch a career full of fluid soundscapes, it never allowed the burgeoning songstress to escape her demons the way she could with rock'n'roll.

On the eve of -Fumbling's- release, McLachlan said to Billboard editor Timothy White, "Well, I'm 25 years old...so what the fuck would I know about life?"

She now admits that her life lessons started much earlier, and they have given her a more developed sense of self.

"I know more, and so I know less", she says. "I've had incredible life lessons; the road is a great teacher if you choose to learn from it. How can you remain in your center throughout it all?"

At the end of the -Fumbling- tour, she admits, "It took me eight or nine months to get grounded again. I tried writing a lot in those times before that, an it was just terrible; I didn't know who the hell I was. It was victimizing and horrible --- eucchh.

"I thought -Fumbling- was my swan song. The voice in my head was saying, 'Quit while you're ahead, 'cause the stuff you're putting out now sucks.' I said, 'No, just be patient and trust yourself and it'll come back.'"

She admits that she felt similar distress at the end of the tour behind -Solace-, her second album. "I hated touring and I hated myself, and it took me a while to get over that."

After spending nearly four of the last five years touring, it's not surprising to hear McLachlan's displeasure of the road. Yet, her 1992 concert in front of a few hundred people at Boston's Charles Playhouse ranks as one of my top concert memories of all time; her hand was on fire, and McLachlan exploded with energy and a seemingly impenetrable happiness.

"Going out there and laying yourself naked emotionally in front of a thousand people every night can be pretty draining", she explains, "but it can also be very fulfilling".

"What I fear most in the coming months is burnout and not having the opportunity to enjoy it, which is a big part of the reason I wanted to do [Lilith] in the first place. I don't really know any of the entertainers out there who are my peers --- women. Sometimes I feel quite alone in my music making."

While McLachlan will finally get her wish to commiserate with her peers, it's only the first step in solving her creative dilemma: How can a songwriter who loves making music, and who loves playing that music for her fans, keep it all in check?

Having your best friend and lover on the road can't hurt. And when the going gets really tough, there's always oatmeal cookies --- with the occasional burned batch to keep everything in perspective.

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