Sarah, Smile

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

McLachlan casts a wide creative net. She paints, designs jewelry, and designs the tee shirts sold at her concerts. She's even directed some of her own music videos (including the Canadian version of "Possession," in which she spends most of the video locked in an embrace with a man who appears to be dead). And now she's a festival organizer, too.

McLachlan created the all-woman Lilith Fair in 1996 as sort of an alternative to testosterone-fueled concert events such as Lollapalooza (some people have taken to calling Lilith Fair "Girliepalooza").

But even though the distaff touring festival is pro-woman in theme, McLachlan is quick to point out that "it's not in any way male-bashing. It's a fun poke at the music industry where for many years, it was unheard of for women to be successful, except for a select few," she said recently. "You look at Billboard now and many of the Top 10 is female. . . . So I think it's a timing thing."

The 1996 edition of Lilith Fair was an abbreviated tour of selected cities in Canada and the United States, and included such artists as Paula Cole, Aimee Mann and Lisa Loeb. This year's version promises to be bigger and better, stopping in 35 cities across North America over eight weeks. Cole is scheduled to be on the Phoenix bill, along with such rising and established stars as Jewel, Mary Chapin Carpenter and Suzanne Vega. (The tour features a revolving-door slate of artists from city to city, with only McLachlan performing at all of them. Other dates on the tour will include the likes of Tracy Chapman, Shawn Colvin, Indigo Girls, Fiona Apple and Joan Osborne.)

With so much going for her, McLachlan would seem to have achieved enough success to be content. But for an artist whose forte is heartache, that could be a bad thing. In a 1992 interview with Rolling Stone, McLachlan described the double-edged sword of having to feed off negative emotions in order to excel at her craft. "Depression does tend to get your juices flowing," she said then. "I would like to be able to write about happy things, about positive things."

But even now, with all the accolades she has received, there still seems to be a bit of the fear and insecurity that have propelled her career to this point. In one of her newer songs, "Full of Grace," she sings: "I feel just like I'm sinking/And I claw for solid ground/I'm pulled down by the undertow/I never thought I could feel so low/But oh, darkness, I feel like letting go."

For songwriters like McLachlan, happiness may be bittersweet, but she would have plenty of company in that respect. After all, Lilith found paradise elusive as well.

Sarah McLachlan is scheduled to perform as part of Lilith Fair on Thursday, July 10, at Desert Sky Pavilion, with Jewel, Mary Chapin Carpenter, Paula Cole, Suzanne Vega and others. Showtime is 4:30 p.m.

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