The Second Coming of Lilith Fair

By David Michael Conner

Originally published on Advocate.com May 06 2010 6:05 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.

A Long Time

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.

Until now.


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“I’d like to think that it’s one of those ‘What came first: the chicken or the egg?’ things,” McLachlan says when she's asked about the advances women in music have made since she last took Lilith on the road. “The success of Lilith was based on the artists who came out and supported it and were part of it. And the audience that followed it and listened to it. We certainly did break down some barriers in the radio world — you know, [I was told] you can’t play two women artists back to back, you can’t put two women on the same bill, people won’t come. And it really helped to sort of redefine the face of the music business and to allow for more inclusivity. I think in the 11 years it’s been away, a lot of doors have opened up, a lot of doors have closed, as far as women in music. In the same way as women in most industries, there’s still a long way to go, there’s still inequality. But that is not the primary focus of this tour. The primary focus is putting on a great, diverse musical show.

“Eleven years have passed, and there’s a ton of new artists, new acts,” McLachlan says. And her excitement is palpable as she rattles off names, practically singing about some of the new additions or reuniting with original Lilith artists.

“Colbie Caillat! Sugarland is a new huge hot, new country act. Miranda Lambert was on the tour last time, A Fine Frenzy ... we’re lucky to be getting back a lot of the artists who were there the first time ... Sheryl Crow, Erykah Badu, Queen Latifah, Emmylou Harris ... but you know, like, the Go-Go’s are coming this time. Mary J. Blige is doing a bunch of shows this time ... wicked. Loretta Lynn. And Heart. The Indigo Girls are coming back, Kelly Clarkson is a great new artist, Jill Scott, Beth Orton is coming back, Cat Power, Missy Higgins! I should have the whole list in front of me."

As McLachlan talks, she gives the sense she’d love nothing more than to gush about all these musicians all day long. A cynic might think, Well, why wouldn’t she? They’re helping McLachlan pay for her two girls’ college funds.

But those cynics should take note of McLachlan’s honesty. Though promoting Lilith might provide an easy opportunity to pander to her LGBT fans, McLachlan speaks her mind and heart, not talking points.

“I think of people as human beings. I don’t think of them as gay or straight. I don’t think of people as black or white. They’re just people. And those are labels.”

Coming from most other people, this might seem like a pat, canned response. But anyone who has listened to Sarah McLachlan’s music will understand that “human beings” is simply her worldview.

“As much as there are definitions, there are defining characteristics as well, but if I think, Oh, I have a big gay following and how do I tap into that? I just ... I don’t think that way. Gay or straight, it’s all about love. It’s about feeling love and being loved and giving love. And that’s pretty much the main theme of my music. And self-discovery and all the messy, gooey stuff that goes along with it. And being in relationships and trying to figure out how to navigate that, whether you’re gay or straight, it’s tricky stuff."

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The Man With the Plan

Although one may get the sense McLachlan has more business savvy than she lets on, it is clear that one of her Lilith business partners is looking ahead at what Lilith Fair could be, not backward at what it was pre-Y2K.

Meet Terry McBride: CEO of Canadian record label Nettwerk Music Group, owner of the YYoga wellness center chain, 2003 Ernst & Young Entrepreneur of the Year, cofounding Lilith Fair partner, and personal manager to McLachlan.

Unlike McLachlan — who says she “doesn’t do demographics” — McBride thinks in terms of marketing, referring to the festival as “the Lilith brand,” England as “the U.K. marketplace,” and the band La Roux as “a La Roux,” the indefinite article revealing that each piece of the Lilith puzzle has a purpose. Although the first run of Lilith Fair lasted just three years, McBride says the four principal partners (McBride, McLachlan, Nettwerk president Dan Fraser, and Marty Diamond, a talent agent) are thinking ahead this time.

“We’re definitely thinking 2010-2011,” he says. “And then we’re expanding it outside of North America. We’re going to Australia in September and the first week of October. We’re going to the U.K. marketplace indoors in late October. Then over to Japan and Asia in March. Back into North America for the summer of 2011. And what we’re trying to do is expand the Lilith brand and concept because this concept can work anywhere. It just has to be the people with the will and the desire and the passion to make it happen.”

But international expansion isn’t the only big change in store for Lilith Fair.

“In 2012, Lilith will switch from being a traveling show to being a destination,” McBride says. “So maybe three North American shows — so maybe one on the West Coast, one on the East Coast, and one in Canada. By that time, maybe we’ll have developed about 20 international marketplaces. And what I love about that is that, you know, a show that you do in England, a show that you do in Finland, would be very culture-coded by the artists of that area, with a few international artists coming in. And what I love about that is that, over time, those international artists get a footprint and can come to North America. For a lot of people, this will probably the first time that they’ll see a Gossip or a La Roux or a Grace Potter or any of these artists. And that’s really, really cool. We can put on Kate Miller along with Missy Higgins knowing that they’re going to be key to a Lilith Fair in Australia.”

Of course, a lot has happened in the decade since the last Lilith summer stages were dismantled. The Twin Towers fell, followed by the traditional recording industry model and then the world economy. But McBride sees this as a time of renewal and a chance to open up Lilith Fair to a whole new fan base.

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“I’ve always gone to concerts with friends — it’s always been tribal. The good thing with the online networks now, with the digital age, is that that tribe can be even bigger. And I think that’s an awesome thing. I think we’re going to see different tribes traveling to different Lilith Fairs based on the artists that are at different Lilith Fairs. There’s no show that’s the same as the last one.

"Maybe we overdiversify — who knows? But if we picked a number of artists who were all very similar and had them all play the same bill, then obviously we’d amplify that tribe. But when you put a Sarah, Kelly Clarkson, Miranda Lambert, and a Queen Latifah and then you throw in a Suzanne Vega and a La Roux, that’s a very different show. It’s a show that you’re not going to see anywhere else. When we started putting this together, we said, this isn’t so much about 2010 as it is about 2015. It’s like, you know, how can we have truly international lineups? It’s not just diverse musically; it’s also diverse culturally.”

Just a Bunch of Canadians

If the marketing talk were coming from Donald Trump or Donny Deutsch, it would be tempting to think that the term “diverse” is code for “diverse portfolio” — appealing to the greatest number of people possible, to secure the bottom line. But despite McBride’s strategic thinking — and despite the occasionally transparent spin, such as his suggestion that “Ke$ha is today’s Christina Aguilera” (!) — his heart seems to be in the right place, which is to say not in his wallet.


In fact, McBride is a lot like McLachlan.

Take, for example, his response when asked about Christian musician Jennifer Knapp, who recently came out as a lesbian.

“Big deal.” he says. “I’ve been working with Jennifer for quite a long time. You have to realize the way we look at Lilith. We don’t look at what side of the fence you’re on. We look at music. People are people. And musicians who make great music, we’d like to have on Lilith.

“You know, I knew Jennifer was [in the] closet, like, six, seven years ago. I’m quite sure within the Christian scene it’s a big deal, but to me, it was a complete ... like, why’s it even an issue? Just know that for the four people who run Lilith, it’s not a big deal."

But surely McBride recognizes Lilith Fair’s enormous LGBT following?

“You know,” he says, “even when the press were like, you know, this is a lesbo, hairy-armed festival. You know, if that’s your perception of it, that’s great. Our perception is, this is 11 artists playing in a safe environment. Wow. Show me where that happens every day. It’s kind of funny. We don’t look at it the way everyone else does. This is just a great music festival. How can we put together 11 great artists and make it fun?”

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Creating Foresight

The second-generation Lilith Fair is more than just a revival. Whether they’re “just a bunch of Canadians” or just feel an obligation to do more than hoard their loonies, the Lilith partners have literally incorporated their foresight of a better world into their plans for Lilith with a new program called i4c.

“In ’97 through ’99,” McBride says, “we would give a dollar per ticket to a local women’s charity — a battered women’s center or something of that nature. And we’d select those by looking in the phone book and phoning around and asking. There was no Google then. There was no way to socially engage in it. But what we saw was that when we gave that check, when the person who ran that organization would start crying because to them the check meant keeping the doors open for another six months, that’s when the press galvanized into critics going, ‘This is what Lilith can do.’ This is the power that we have.

“The one thing that really bothered the four Lilith owners was that the charity stuff we did ended with it. So we wanted to do two things: First off, on the local charity, we wanted to turn it into a community event. We wanted the communities to help us pick the charities. Rather than us just picking one and then everyone finding out about it the day of the event, by creating this choose-your-charity program, multiple charities within that city would get awareness that they ordinarily wouldn’t get. And then the other angle is called i4c, which stands for ‘I foresee change.’ We thought, OK, how can we create an ongoing charitable element to Lilith when Lilith goes from being a traveling festival to being a destination event? So, OK, why don’t we take a dollar from every event and invest it in a venture-capitalist fund? And why don’t we invest in triple-bottom-line companies — companies that are green, socially conscious, for profit. Companies that are only doing good things. Then why don’t we take the return from those investments and put that in an ongoing charity fund?’ Our goal is to create a self-sustaining Lilith charity fund. And I really believe that when we nail this, some of the larger artists will go, ‘Hang on, instead of me supporting a charity for my tour, here’s a great way to create something that goes on past my tour, that continues to give.’ It’s the same dollar per tour locally, but now involving the community in a very active way. And then creating a sustainable charity element for after the Lilith tour has ended.”

In the end, it is clear that Lilith Fair has one
true driving force, and that is Sarah McLachlan. The revival would not
have happened without her involvement, and it was planned to coincide
with her new album, set for a June 15 release.

“Being a new mom, she wasn’t going to do 18 months’ worth of
touring,” McBride says. “What was the most fun she ever had touring?
Lilith. She absolutely loves it. She doesn’t have to do a
two-and-a-half-hour set. She gets to play with other artists. She gets
to be a music fan. She loves Lilith. It’s just such a great energy
for her. So if you give her any option of how she’d like to tour, at
the top of the list would be Lilith.”

McLachlan, for her part,
can’t wait.

“I’ve had my head stuck in my nether regions for the
past couple of months trying to get this record done,” she says with a
giggle. She’s looking forward to getting out of the studio.

“There’s
an amazing bunch of new artists out there to help build it and just
bring along the legacy and renew it again and make it bigger and
better.”

Most artists invest all their energy in promoting a new
release, but Sarah McLachlan seems to work in short, nearly manic bursts
of activity and then disappear to gestate new music. This is one of
her creative moments, and one of the most ambitious points in her
career. But she doesn’t seem to feel any pressure.

“It’s an
exciting challenge.”