Sarah, Smile

Can Sarah McLachlan's creativity survive a bout with happiness?

At first glance, "Lilith Fair" may seem to be an unusual name for a music festival showcasing today's best female singer-songwriters. But considering that Lilith was the world's first feminist, it all begins to make sense. The story in the Bible goes that Lilith was Adam's first wife, but she was so headstrong and independent that God cast her out of Eden in favor of a more submissive Eve. Now she's being celebrated in one of the summer's most-talked-about tours.

Lilith Fair, billed as "a celebration of women in music," makes a stop at Desert Sky Pavilion on Thursday, July 10. The driving force behind the festival is 29-year-old Canadian Sarah McLachlan, who embodies not only the spirit of Lilith, but also the crest of the current wave of female singers dominating the music landscape.

The past three years have seen an explosion of outstanding female singer-songwriters, many of whom write about angst and heartache. Sarah McLachlan is a solid fit in that category. But while some artists, such as Ani DiFranco, rely more on fury and attitude to get their point across, McLachlan conveys an air of grace and elegance, and can juxtapose beautiful, flowing melodies with gut-wrenching lyrics.

She doesn't write love songs, and few of her songs are what you would call upbeat, but she knows what it takes to get a strong emotional reaction from a listener. Whether McLachlan's writing about a boy who died of a brain tumor ("Ben's Song"), or a lover who's dying of AIDS ("Hold On"), or feeling unworthy of being loved ("Ice"), her music is sort of like therapy for the broken-hearted.

Still, many of her songs are hopeful in a way. As McLachlan told an interviewer recently: "I think sometimes all you need is to hear someone else say the same thing that you're going through to realize that you're not alone. I try to put some sense of hope into the songs, into whatever the situation is so that it's not just dirt, drudgery and a life of misery. You've got to try to find a flip side to everything, the good side."

All of which might make it seem as if McLachlan's really an unhappy person, though one wouldn't think so considering her personal successes. She's recently married, to her drummer and longtime partner Ashwin Sood, and she has spent much of the past year putting together Lilith Fair. And that success may be part of the problem.

Lately, McLachlan appears to be happy, and her songwriting has suffered. She hasn't had an album of original material in three years, and went through a period of writer's block while working on her new album (Surfacing, due in stores July 15). In the meantime, her fans have had to be content with two albums of remakes and reworkings of previously recorded songs.

McLachlan was born and raised in Halifax, Nova Scotia, the youngest of three children, and the only girl. She joined a punk band at age 17 and soon drew the attention of a record company. McLachlan wanted to sign right then and there, but her parents insisted she finish school first. Although angry, she obeyed their wishes and says now that it was the right decision. "I was completely screwed up at 17," she said in the July issue of Request magazine, "and I just wanted to get the hell out of Halifax and away from everything." Two years later, the record company came calling again with another offer, and this time she took it.

McLachlan's first album, Touch, was released in 1988, when she was just 20. A highlight of the album is the aforementioned "Ben's Song," a tribute to a boy McLachlan knew who died of a brain tumor at age 11. It's a haunting melody, with equally haunting lyrics--"On a windless day/I saw the lifeblood drained away/A cold wind blows on a windless day."

On her follow-up album, Solace, in 1991, McLachlan continued to explore the darker side of human emotions, from her feelings of self-doubt in "Black" ("If I cry me a river of all my confessions/Would I drown in my shallow regret?") to remorse over a love affair that ended too soon in "I Will Not Forget You" ("So I ran like the wind to the water/Please don't leave me again, I cried/And I threw bitter tears at the ocean/But all that came back was the tide").

McLachlan's breakthrough finally came with 1994's Fumbling Towards Ecstasy. By this time, she found that success can also have a downside. McLachlan had been victimized by a stalker prior to recording Fumbling, and had to get a restraining order against the man. She was able to overcome the situation by writing a song called "Possession," in which she turns the tables on her tormentor. When she sings "I would be the one to hold you down/Kiss you so hard I'll take your breath away," she literally means she'll take his breath away--permanently. (For those who think it's a love song, listen again. It is called "Possession," after all.)

While "Possession" is one of McLachlan's more self-affirming songs, there are still hints of her feelings of unworthiness elsewhere on the album, as in "Ice," where she sings "Offer what you can, I'll take all that I can get/Only a fool is here to stay." Fumbling Towards Ecstasy stayed on the charts for more than 50 weeks, and gave notice that McLachlan was a singer-songwriter to be reckoned with.

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