The Second Coming of Lilith Fair
BY David Michael Conner
May 06 2010 5:05 PM ET
Sarah McLachlan knows what people expect from her: ethereal vocals tethered to lyrics about the worldly complications of living. Her last album of original tracks, 2003’s Afterglow, produced singles called “Fallen,” “Stupid” and “World on Fire.” But after a long hiatus from the public eye — during which McLachlan reared her daughters and split from their father (and her former drummer), Ashwin Sood — McLachlan is back with an uncharacteristically up-tempo (and relatively upbeat) new single, “Loving You Is Easy.”
“Shocker!” the singer says, punctuating her excitement with a great belly laugh. “I think when you go into a dark place for a while and you come out of it, the lightness that you feel is ... euphoric. My marriage collapsed a couple of years ago, and it was a long, dark road, and for me, it’s like all that going into the muck is all about self-discovery and moving forward and finding the silver lining in the cloud, so to speak. Finally coming through that and knowing that life is going to be OK, life will go on, and that there’s actually a possibility of love happening again is ... just deliriously heavy stuff.”
And by deliriously heavy, McLachlan means to say that “Loving You Is Easy” by no means sets the tone for her new album, Laws of Illusion, which is set for a June release. “Oh, no, no, no!” she explodes at the suggestion that she seems to be going the way of lofty inspirational music instead of her characteristically honest-to-the-point-of-being-bleak records. “There’s still lots of good sadness,” she says.
So good, in fact, that McLachlan compares Laws of Illusion to the album that arguably defined her career. “Funnily enough,” she says of the time she spent composing both albums, “it’s the only other time in my life when I was single.”
In 1993, McLachlan released Fumbling Towards Ecstasy, a critically acclaimed emotional journey of songs that proved McLachlan was not only a great vocal artist but also a poet. An instant success in her native Canada, Fumbling took off in the United States and abroad, and suddenly Sarah McLachlan was the female artist of choice for millions, a relief for people who tried really hard but just didn’t “get” the kooky ways of Tori Amos. Sarah was just as talented, but more grounded, less obtuse.
The Sarah-Tori comparison may be a bit tired, but it is an important point of reference, especially for the iGeneration — or whatever today’s up-and-comers are called. They download their music one song, not album, at a time. And those songs are just as likely to come from female artists as male ones, anyone from Lady Gaga and Ke$ha to Mary J. Blige or Lea Michele, the breakout star of Glee. But back in the day — and that day was only a little over 10 years ago — Sarah McLachlan was told by radio programmers that her songs could only be played so often because playing two female artists back to back simply wasn’t done.
In Amos’s memoir, Piece by Piece, the alt-pianist reveals her constant behind-the-scenes battles with record executives, as she fought throughout the 1990s — and still fights to this day — for recognition and independence. McLachlan chose another path, calling for solidarity with other women artists, and in doing so she breathed new life into a long-forgotten legend named Lilith. Lilith, McLachlan taught us by bombastically creating a woman-centric festival tour called Lilith Fair, was the Biblical Adam’s first wife; she was the original female half of mankind, ousted from Paradise for refusing to submit to Adam and replaced with the subservient Eve. Lilith was demonized by cultures for thousands of years and then all but forgotten. That is, until McLachlan and her Lilith Fair partners came along.
Lilith Fair seemed destined to be frozen in time, like a 1990s version of Woodstock. Something that helped to define a generation and its music, with singer-songwriters like McLachlan, Jewel, Sheryl Crow, Fiona Apple, Joan Osborne, Paula Cole, Lisa Loeb, and scores of other dazzlingly talented women musicians appearing on Lilith’s stages in 1997. In 1998 and 1999, Lilith diversified musically and ethnically with additions like Erykah Badu, Missy Elliott, and Queen Latifah. And then in 1999, Lilith Fair wrapped, and that was that.