Warm sunlight streamed through the windows onto the gently stained wood floors of Sarah McLachlan’s West Vancouver home on a recent Thursday morning. The lady of the house was in her kitchen, making truffles.
“Organic raw chocolate!” she enthused, pouring the confection into a mold. Later, after saying goodbye to her yoga partner and sharing a few choice hugs with her 3-year-old daughter, Taja, the singer-songwriter would pack those sweets in Tupperware and bring them downtown to a band rehearsal for her summer tour headlining the revived Lilith.
What a life. It almost felt like a setup, staged for a visiting reporter: the pop star as deeply fulfilled mom, surrounded by friends and family and the flowers in her lovely garden, with a recording studio in the guest house and three pianos scattered throughout the property for whenever inspiration strikes.
Yet this 42-year-old working mom has troubles others will recognize. Taja is an easy kid, but her older sister India is “challenging.” Grandpa, who lives five minutes away, suffers from Parkinson’s disease. Family demands are “the reason it takes so damn long” to make music, said the singer-songwriter, whose June 15 release “Laws of Illusion” is her first all-original album in seven years. Another imperfect reality has bought her more time alone: McLachlan recently split from her husband, Ashwin Sood, the longtime drummer in her band.
“There are not many benefits of separation,” McLachlan said. “One small benefit is that my daughters go to Dad’s a couple of days a week. And so there are those mornings when I wake up and have the place to myself.”
McLachlan isn’t much for complicated ruses or dark secrets. When she became a star in the 1990s, some faulted her for being the most facile member of a class of strong women artists that included thornier singer-songwriters such as Tori Amos and Polly Jean Harvey.
“That’s the way I am in every element of my life. I’ll talk to any stranger about everything. I’m not guarded,” she said.
On “Laws of Illusion,” McLachlan’s lack of pretense serves her well. It’s a vulnerable and clear-headed set, putting McLachlan in the company of Court Yard Hounds, Tracey Thorn and Erykah Badu, a vanguard of artists getting at the complexities of feminine adulthood.
“It’s terribly pedestrian,” said McLachlan of the life that’s inspiring her current music. “There’s nothing special about it. Half the bloody world is going through a divorce, more than that are having children. All of us have parents who are dying, or have died. It’s just the life cycle.”
McLachlan wrote “Laws of Illusion” with her longtime producer Pierre Marchand, but the mood that rules the album is not the swooning romanticism that made her 1990s albums so beloved. Instead, it has the sober-minded insight that comes after some hard knocks.
Even the sugar-poppy “Loving You Is Easy,” about a post-marital romance that’s over, was born of McLachlan’s doubts. “I thought, I’m 40, and I’ve got two little kids,” she said. “It doesn’t matter how successful I am, how famous, how wealthy. I’m 40 and I’ve got two little kids! My friends all shook their heads and said, that’s crazy talk. But I didn’t feel that way. And it took a good while for me to come out from under that and feel good again.”
I came up to Vancouver to find out how McLachlan had created the most emotionally direct music of her career, and why she and her partners at the Nettwerk Music Group were bringing back Lilith, a festival that made McLachlan a household name and greatly aided the rise of women in pop during the 1990s but whose purpose may not be so clear now, when female artists dominate the Top 40.
Talks with McLachlan and Nettwerk Music Group cofounder and Chief Executive Terry McBride revealed that a long road led up to Lilith’s revival. For McBride, Lilith is a business opportunity that realizes several goals: doing work that’s politically progressive; responding to the Internet’s global reach; and making possible the work-life balance Nettwerk’s flagship artist demands.
“Part of the conversation now with Sarah is, ‘I can only tour in the summer because I’m not going to take away from my kids,’ ” said McBride in an interview at the Nettwerk offices in downtown Vancouver. “But you can’t run a tour like that. Especially based in Vancouver. The only way to put Sarah in front of a whole pile of people in a short amount of time is Lilith.”
McLachlan values the flexibility Lilith offers — if her dad’s health declines, she could take a few dates off and other acts on the tour could take the final slot. But she’s also eager to stress Lilith’s ideal of female-centered community — not the end of men, but maybe a break from them. Equally important to her is the roving community Lilith creates. It’s a realization of an approach to life that puts connections with other women, and the feeling of family, at the fore.
“Maybe with Lilith, there’s not so much of a need,” McLachlan said, acknowledging that more women are out front in pop today than when the festival launched in 1996. “It’s more of a want. One of the things I remember the most about Lilith, and that I yearn for, is that sense of community. We are in an age of technology where we sit in our little cubicles and we IM each other and Skype each other and never connect as human beings. There was an incredibly powerful and intangible feeling of being with these women.
“I just spent five days with 21 women on an island in the Caribbean for a friend’s 40th birthday,” she said, connecting her Lilith experience to her life among Vancouver’s professional elite. “It was powerful. There were some really great conversations and connections. There were a bunch of PhDs there, and heads of NGOs … and four lactating women with babies under seven months. It just felt so good to be with your clan. The sisterhood!”
Lilith was always both the embodiment of an ideal and a brand: a very 1990s blend of identity politics and niche marketing. McLachlan is involved in the business decisions, designs merchandise (full disclosure: Susan Fiedler, McLachlan’s longtime collaborator on Lilith’s jewelry line, is my friend) and consulting on the lineup, but her most important role is anchoring the tour as an artist. McBride, along with Nettwerk President Dan Fraser and booking agent Marty Diamond, handles Lilith as a product.
That product is facing a tough marketplace. The concert industry is suffering this summer, and Lilith has already had some very visible problems. Dates in Nashville and Phoenix were canceled (though the latter, McLachlan says, was in protest against Arizona’s controversial illegal immigration law), and Norah Jones has left the tour amid rumors that more dates will be dropped. Live Nation, the tour’s promoter, has been offering discount tickets for Lilith along with many of its other current offerings.
Asked about the discounts, McBride got a bit defensive. “How do we respond to fans when they bought tickets and resold [tickets] for 500% profit, and none of that went to the artists,” he said, perhaps unintentionally conflating fans and ticket scalpers. “All we’re doing is reacting in a very honest way to market conditions.
“This summer is going to be a grind,” he admitted. Then he scrambled back to his positive stance. “I think next summer will be even more magical. Lilith in 1997 was not that big. In 1998 it grew by 50%.”
McBride and McLachlan did choose a tough year to revive Lilith. “Sarah and Lilith shouldn’t feel that they’re suffering alone,” Billboard magazine editor Craig Marks said in a phone interview. “It could be the economy, or ticket prices, even with those that are lower. And there are a lot of shows this summer.”
“Laws of Illusion” sold 94,000 copies to debut at No. 3 on Billboard’s Top 200 chart. And McLachlan is far from the only artist on the tour. Its 34 dates feature a diverse revolving bill. In San Diego and Los Angeles, Mexican American regional music star Jenni Rivera will appear alongside Emmylou Harris, Brandi Carlile and Miranda Lambert.
Rivera feels that she fits right in with the new Lilith. “My fan base is 75% if not 80% female,” she said in a phone interview. “I have always sang to a majorly Hispanic crowd, but my fans are really excited to see me in this context.”
For McLachlan, diversifying the Lilith roster — something partly made possible by the emergence of major female stars in nearly every category of pop, a goal Lilith helped accomplish — is a form of just desserts.
“One of the biggest criticisms the first time around was [that Lilith was a] white chick folk fest, " she said. “Right. But let’s talk about the fact that we tried to be [diverse]. We asked every artist from all genres of music, and got who said yes. Now there’s a wider range to choose from.”
Going beyond the soft-and-gentle Lilith stereotype satisfies McLachlan’s expanding sense of herself and reflects today’s no-boundaries attitude about women in music. It’s also part of McBride’s master plan.
“There is definitely a strategic plan where, two years from now, there will be 20 to 25 international Lilith shows, where headliners in their own country play as not a headliner in a different country,” he said. “We’re looking at the world as being flat, not as being round. And if we can bring that flavor into Lilith, we’ll have a magic that hasn’t been seen within a musical world that has until now been very North America-centric.”
As McBride dreams of green, progressive, culturally sensitive world domination, McLachlan’s thoughts are always returning to home. What she’s ready to admit after her long time mostly out of the spotlight is that for her, that home is onstage too.
“When I sing, it’s just … comfort is a stupid word, but it is,” she said. “And singing to somebody else — I close my eyes and I sing, and there are other people there, and it’s this amazing unseen connection that happens. And it’s profound.”