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.

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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