Sarah McLachlan’s Re-‘Surfacing’
Seven years after her last studio album, the pop pianist returns with Lilith, new music and her own sexual healing
Published Thursday, 03-Jun-2010 in issue 1171
“Loving You is Easy” isn’t just Sarah McLachlan’s long-awaited single from her first all-original studio album in seven years. It’s also what many of the fans she’s courted – and soothed and depressed – in her two-decade career would say about the musician herself.
She’s been a shoulder to cry on, a fierce philanthropist and a rare find among her celebrity chums – famous for her pure voice and lovely piano laments instead of paparazzi-baiting nights on the town. The Canadian chanteuse is also notorious for taking long leaves, closing her latest with Laws of Illusion and, to coincide with the June 15 release, the return of the Lilith Tour, a celebration of female musicians with a lineup that includes Queen Latifah, Kelly Clarkson and the Indigo Girls.
It’s been so long, McLachlan – a longtime “dykon” – has so much to tell you: how good sex led to the album’s first single; what she thinks of lesbians lusting to her music; and the power of female performers now.
Gay & Lesbian Times: What took you so long?
Sarah McLachlan: Which part (laughs) I have two small kids, so that’s my big excuse.
GLT: What’s it like being out of the spotlight?
SM: Blissful! I have no interest in being famous whatsoever. I picked the wrong career for that. I am ever thankful for my success, but boy, it’s nice to be able to take the hat off and just be a little normal for a while.
GLT: You seem to be able to avoid controversy – unlike many celebrities. What’s your trick?
SM: Well, I don’t go out without undies on, for instance. I guess that’s a good place to start. (laughs). I don’t court it; I have no interest. I don’t live in Los Angeles, so that’s a big part of it. I live in Vancouver, and I live a really simple, quiet life. I’m usually in bed by 9.
GLT: That early?
SM: Oh, I’m pathetic. I’m such a little old lady. I put the kids to bed, I answer my e-mails, and I’m done. It’s a simple existence, and I’m really happy with it (laughs). But I feel like I’m so lucky, because I get to straddle both worlds. I get to keep my toe in the water, and I’m going to put out this record, which I’m so, so happy with.
GLT: You say you’re alive and on fire on “Loving You is Easy.” What made you so happy?
SM: (Long pause) Um, well, it’s self-explanatory, isn’t it? Without being blunt, getting laid is pretty fabulous. I’m sorry, that’s really crass. But yeah, I had a foray into dating and that feeling of, ‘Wow, there is life after separation! This feeling still exists!’ That was really what the song is about more than anything else. Don’t say it’s about getting laid, because that’s crass.
GLT: But it sort of is. The sex is an extension of the dating.
SM: It sort of is (laughs). But it’s more about that feeling of passion, like you’re in high school again, and, ah, this feels so good and so fresh. Life fell apart as I knew it, and then there was a chance to grow again and to feel again.
GLT: What other feelings fed this album?
SM: I was way more in the moment with this record. Obviously a lot of the songs are about experiences I’ve been through in the last couple of years with life becoming completely altered as I knew it. You know, the white picket fence – not that my relationship or my marriage or my life was normal per se, but the idea of the fairy-tale life: You’re not going to be the one who gets divorced or separated; that’s not going to happen to you. And you set your life that way and let a lot of things go.
Just having all that change at 40 years old is pretty overwhelming (laughs). I was depressed and sad, and so a lot of the songs mirror that. But in that sadness, there’s a lot of growth and creativity that comes from it.
GLT: One of your earlier records, 1993’s Fumbling Towards Ecstasy, was named – and I believe you know this because it’s been brought up elsewhere – one of Out magazine’s 100 Greatest, Gayest Albums of All Time a couple of years back.
SM: I don’t think I knew that! But I don’t retain information very well. I probably forgot about that. Gayest album? Why?
GLT: Apparently a lot of lesbians like to get it on to some of the music from it.
SM: Oh, fabulous! Any way I can be of help to people’s passionate lives, I think that’s fantastic.
GLT: And it’s coming full circle with “Loving You is Easy.”
SM: Uh, yeah! This is pretty much pure feel good. And it was the way it was recorded. I wrote it quickly, and then we did six songs in five days. It’s a completely different way of recording than I’ve done. Total raw, live, fun energy. Here are the songs, here are the chords, go! There was no preparation. And there’s just a really raw, slightly primal energy to that. It was perfect for the song.
GLT: How did going mainstream with songs from 1997’s Surfacing– like “Angel” and “Building a Mystery” – change your approach to music and the pressure to live up to other people’s standards?
SM: I sure hope it hasn’t. I don’t think that really had any effect at all, and I say that because I’ve been incredibly lucky to be signed to a small independent label that from the get-go gave me 100-percent creative control.
There was a brief time with my second record (1991’s Solace) when I remember the record company was saying, “We need singles. I don’t care what you do, they just have to be singles.” I retorted, “Don’t these songs make you feel something?” Their answer was: “That’s not the point.” And I thought, “Well, what the fuck? What is the point then? Of course that’s the point! And if this is your world, I don’t want to live in it.”
Luckily, my manager had a little chat with (label head) Clive Davis, who thankfully – and to his credit – gave me carte blanche and said, “OK, you make your record, and we’ll see how it does.” Luckily, it did really well, so I really feel like I’ve continued to make the kind of music I want to make. I don’t tend to edit myself. I don’t limit myself or not go down certain roads because my fans aren’t going to like it. When I think about these new songs, I think, Wow, I might alienate a few people with this song because it’s so damn happy.
GLT: It was a little surprising – and refreshing at the same time.
SM: This is what I figure: People might say, “Where’s the sadness?” Don’t worry; it’s there!
GLT: You support many causes, from women’s rights to animal cruelty issues. A lot has happened with gay rights since your absence from the spotlight. As an ally, how do you feel you play an important part in that cause?
SM: Am I an important part?
GLT: You’re a supporter, right?
SM: Absolutely! I am very quick to speak out against anything that doesn’t feel good or right or fair to me. Gosh, I don’t know. I don’t really know how to answer that. I do what I do, and I believe that everybody, of course, should be treated completely equal.
GLT: For a while you weren’t even considering doing Lilith, right?
SM: No – I needed the time in between. I needed all these years to forget about how much work it was (laughs). It’s like giving birth – there’s a lot of pain, but the benefit is huge.
GLT: How will Lilith be different now than when you first launched it in 1997?
SM: It’s going to be very much the same. The mandate’s the same. The desire to create a really interesting, diverse musical show is the same. The ideas of the charitable elements are the same.
GLT: How about the mission, because Lilith was trying to prove that women were just as big of a draw as men in music?
SM: Yeah, and I think we proved that. But it only became part of the mandate because people were saying we couldn’t do it. I never doubted the success for a second. I didn’t go into it thinking. Wow, we’re going to make all this money and we’re going to have all this media attention, I just thought it’d be fun, and of course people will want to come because it’s a great lineup. And honestly, I didn’t take it much past that thought.
GLT: What part of being on the road again are you most looking forward to?
SM: Playing. Getting to sing these new songs. I’m really excited about that, and I’m really excited about seeing a lot of these bands and maybe getting the opportunities to play with them. That’s such a huge part of a musician’s life – that community.
GLT: Lilith is known for joining female musicians in some really cool collaborations, so how about a duet between you and Mary J. Blige?
SM: (Laughs) I’ll knock on her door the first night and go, (sheepishly) “Hey, can we sing together?” Yeah, I’m a little bit intimidated.
GLT: How do other female artists inspire you?
SM: Honestly, I’m inspired by artists in general. I’m inspired by anybody who’s out there and active and following their passion and breaking down walls and boundaries as an artist. Erykah Badu with her video (“Window Seat”) – which, of course, has caused all sorts of controversy – is basically going, “I am Erykah Fucking Badu, and I’m badass and I’m going to take off my clothes and who’s going to stop me?”
GLT: You’ve been naked before in a music video, too. Just not in public.
SM: She’s got way more ovaries than I do. I could never do that!
GLT: Do you think women are more powerful in music now than they were in the ’90s?
SM: Absolutely! And there are more. The ’90s was fantastic for music. For women now, a lot of doors got opened up. I think a lot more doors could get opened up, but I could say that about all genres of music – male or female. Radio is still limited, yet we have all these avenues now to get music out there, which is great.
For me, putting on Lilith again is another avenue. There are still some festivals going on out there, and they’re still fairly male dominated, so let’s celebrate women. I like women. I love men, but this is about women right now. And that’s OK.