I didn't know what box to put Sarah McLachlan in the first time I saw her video for "Building a Mystery" in 1997. At 29 years old, she had the wholesome face and slicked-back hair of a Seventeen cover model. But intelligence gleamed from behind her iridescent green-lined eyes. The song was delicate folk-pop, but there was darkness in the lyrics: McLachlan was singing about some vampire-like person who built up an aura of inscrutability with voodoo dolls and suicidal poems. Even though she could see right through all that artifice, she also embodied it, in a goth black-and-red dress whose skirt bloomed into a glittering mountain.
The vision confused and bewitched me. It may have even tricked me, a 13-year-old fan of Nirvana, Hole, and the Sex Pistols who fancied herself a true punk rocker, into giving McLachlan more of a chance than I otherwise would have. I discovered that she was a songwriter who could dig deep into love and friendship, two kinds of relationships I wouldn't understand well until years later. For the girls who wore long skirts and cultivated hippie-ish affectations like incense and scarves — don't tell Johnny Rotten, but I was briefly one of those too — she was a gentler guide through adolescence than Courtney Love. (I'm not the only listener she recruited from across genres: Darryl McDaniels of Run-DMC credited McLachlan's "Angel" with saving him from suicide, and the two later collaborated.)
"Mystery" was a single from Surfacing, which dropped just as McLachlan's female-forward touring festival Lilith Fair was becoming the summer's hot ticket. My friends and I dreamed up elaborate plans to attend, even though there was no way we were getting there. We weren't conscious of it at the time, but I think we were less excited at the prospect of seeing any particular act — even though the lineup included Tracy Chapman, Jewel, and Fiona Apple — than at the idea of being in a rare space that catered to women who loved music. In the context of pop-culture misogyny, Lilith became a bit of a punch line. (Insert hilarious armpit-hair joke here.) But when it comes up in conversation now, especially when I'm talking to women who grew up in the '90s, everyone goes starry-eyed. If someone says she actually made it to Lilith, we ask the same questions we might ask of someone who'd visited Charlotte Perkins Gilman's all-female utopia, Herland.
Which explains why I was so excited to speak with McLachlan, in advance of her upcoming Christmas album, Wonderland, about a 30-year career that's consistently been as bold as Lilith Fair and as uncategorizable as "Building a Mystery." She was at home in Vancouver, looking out at the Pacific Ocean and looking forward to a paddleboat outing, when I called her from New York earlier this month.
Judy Berman: You're an incredibly successful artist, but you don't play by the rules of the music industry. For most of your career, you've released an album every three to six years, rather than cranking out one record after the next. You're moving at your own pace. How have you managed to do that — and if the market isn't driving you, what makes you sit down to write?
Sarah McLachlan: I was lucky early on because I was an artist on a small, independent label that didn't put any requirements on me. They just said, "Make the music you want to make," so I was given the opportunity and the time to discover who I was without any pressure. I write from an emotional point of view. I write about things that affect me, that affect others, that make me feel. It's probably my best way of processing information. It's very cathartic, because it's a lot of sorting through my own emotions.
JB: Does performing the songs have a similar effect?
SM: Absolutely. The act of playing music, especially a song that has real meaning to me — there's joy in it, even if the song is sad. There's a release in it, too, because it's something that I've found a way through. It's an amazing gift, remembering and recognizing the journey. Here I am today, having gone through that, feeling so much better and stronger. I really love singing live, playing with other musicians. I love the energy that is shared — that's the place where I feel like I'm part of something bigger than myself. You get to be with a group of other people, like-minded, who are all experiencing something together. It's like church for me.
JB: Does the meaning of your songs evolve and change for you as you play them over the years?
SM: There are songs from the first and second records that I don't play because I don't feel a sense of connection to them and it feels very disingenuous for me to try and play those songs. I have tried because people ask for them and I want to please my fans, but I also have to be honest to myself. I can't find the place where I can put myself into those songs anymore. The songs I feel closest to are the ones from Fumbling Towards Ecstasy on. Certainly there have been times in my life where I've revisited a song, especially if I've had a breakup or something. I'll play it again and think, Oh, yeah, this works for this one too. You apply that new heartbreak to the old heartbreak, and it's like it's all fresh and new again.
JB: Speaking of songs that seem tied to specific experiences, I've always loved "Adia." I must've been thirteen the first time I heard it, and it was one of the first songs I ever encountered that sounded like it was about a friendship between women. You've also said it's about the way you always feel responsible for other people.
SM: I've always been hesitant to tell the true meaning behind that song because it doesn't paint me in the nicest light, but I'll tell you: I slept with — I fell in love with — my best friend's ex. Which is a line you try very hard not to cross.
They'd been split up for a year. Ash was the drummer in my band, and we came home from tour and to a situation where we were all living together — my best friend, Ash, me, and my boyfriend who I was breaking up with. None of us were actually together anymore, but we were all in the same place. Ash and I ended up going out because we didn't want to be in the house. We'd become very close on the road, but more like brother and sister, so it was a shock to both of us that it happened, that we fell in love.
It was meant to be, but it was also a difficult time for me and my girlfriend. I betrayed her. She was my very best friend, and she's still my very best friend, but we had about a year where we didn't speak. I was a little bit callous at the beginning. She had told me they were over and that she had moved on, but she hadn't really moved on, and she didn't tell me that. I allowed myself to feel hurt by that.
It took her reaching out to me, because she was pregnant, to rekindle our friendship and move forward. I was at my godson's birth, and we've been at all of each other's births since then. We've worked through it and talked a lot about it, and we are stronger because of it. We're like sisters now.
JB: So you were holding yourself accountable for a choice that didn't turn out to be a mistake, but that you could've handled differently.
SM: Yeah. There is a bit of creative license in the song as well, other things that aren't necessarily about that. I'll write a song over eight or ten months, so other story lines tend to sneak in.
JB: "Adia" is also a great example of what strikes me as one of the greatest themes in your music: hope. Is that important for you in your writing?
SM: It's important for me in my life. I'm a very optimistic, hopeful person. I believe in redemption. I believe in giving people the benefit of the doubt. I believe in our ability to change. I'm constantly disappointed, but I keep hoping. It's important for me to infuse hope into my songs, too, especially because often the subject matter is a little bit dark. It's hard to write when you're happy because you just want to be in it. It's fleeting, and when you start picking it apart, you're going to lose the joy and effervescence of it.
JB: There's not much complexity to tease out of happiness.
SM: Exactly. It's easier to write about loss and sadness and suffering. That's a meaty, juicy subject that we all have a lot of experience with, because life is hard. All these beautiful moments are juxtaposed with a lot of shit that we all have to go through. The hard parts in our life define us more than the easy bits.
JB: Activism has been a huge part of your career since the beginning. In the early '90s, you made a documentary on child prostitution and poverty for World Vision. More recently, you've worked with the ASPCA, and you started a music education programin Vancouver. You don't just give money — you do a lot of legwork.
SM: Yeah, you've got to show up. I was all of 22 years old when we made the documentary. It was a huge eye-opener for me because, coming from a conservative middle-class upbringing, I had been fairly sheltered. I spent a day with twelve- and thirteen-year-old girls who were prostitutes. They were sold into slavery, basically. I went to the National Pediatric Hospital in Phnom Penh, and I was put into a hospital room with a mother whose baby was dying of dengue fever. I realized, Wow! I have so much, and there's a responsibility for me to give what I can. And that I had this great platform. Because I was a musician, I could even make an even bigger difference.
JB: You started Lilith Fair a few years later, in 1997. The festival was another form of activism. What convinced you it needed to happen?
SM: The original desire was simply: "I want to go out on tour this summer. I don't want to bear all the weight of a tour by myself. There's a lot of summer concerts out there, and they're all male-dominated. Yet there's this wealth of amazing music being made by women. So, why don't we just go do it ourselves?" We had a bunch of promoters saying, "You can't do that. You can't put two women on the same bill. People won't come." That was the fire for me, because I was like, "Well, excuse me, I've actually had a bunch of women open up for me and people did come, and that's the most asinine thing I've ever heard. I'm going to prove you wrong." By God, we did.
It made me realize, Wow! The music industry still is really sexist. Because my label gave me complete freedom, didn't tell me what to wear, or how to cut my hair, or "Can you open up those top two buttons on your shirt, please?" I naïvely went along, thinking there was no sexism in the music industry. Then Lilith happened, and there was wall after wall after wall of men saying, "Why do you hate men?" I'm like, "What does celebrating women have to do with hating men?" I said, "That says a lot more about you than anything else."
JB: In 2016, we're still arguing about whether you can elevate women without hating men.
SM: I think you can, but there's always going to be people who feel emasculated by that. Over the past 50 or 60 years, women have gone from being barefoot and pregnant in the kitchen to CEOs of corporations and presidents of countries — which is amazing, but it's a massive, seismic shift in culture. There's been very little work done to help men come around to that. They have thousands of years of caveman dominance in their genes. That's a hard shift, to go from "I'm in charge" to "Oh, I'm supposed to stay home and change diapers, and you're going to run the company?"
I see a lot of young men who really are egalitarian, and I think that's because mothers and fathers are teaching their children that this is how it should be. But it takes many generations for that change to penetrate. Look at Trump. Look at the bigots and the racists and the hatred that was simmering underneath the surface. He's given them all a voice. As much as I'm horrified by Trump, it's good that he's done this because it's brought everything to a boil. We need to talk about that and try and fix it.
JB: You brought back Lilith in 2010 but ended the festival for good the next year. At the time, you said that too much had changed for Lilith to survive. What did you mean by that?
SM: A lot of the women who came to Lilith in college or in their 20s now had children and mortgages and weren't keen on spending $150 to stand in a hot field all day when they would have to pay for child care. There's also a lot more music being made by women now. Some of it's great and some of it's shit, but that's the way it's always been.
People ask me almost every day, "Will you bring Lilith back?" Honestly, I think the only way Lilith could come back and be successful is if someone of this generation championed it. Nobody cares about me anymore. I don't mean that in a derogatory way — I just mean I had my moment in the sun, and it was beautiful, but I don't have the same power that I used to have. In order to pull something like Lilith off, you have to have power, and you also have to have the need and the desire. A lot of the women who are really successful now have created their own platform and they're selling out arenas on their own. They don't need Lilith.
JB: Thirty years into your life as a professional musician, do you find it's been more rewarding to have a long career — to build a body of work and earn loyal fans — than to have just one fleeting moment of celebrity?
SM: Absolutely. I got both. I got that great moment in the sun with Lilith, which catapulted my career into a whole different orbit, and I got to ride that wave for a long time. I'm still riding it. I'm still able to play shows and make a great living and fund my school and put money away for my kids for university and live a great life. I'm so grateful every day that I still get to do this. I have a completely charmed life. I've had my fair share of heartbreak, too, but that's par for the course.
This interview has been condensed and edited.
Judy Berman is a writer, editor, and unrepentant child of the '90s who lives in Brooklyn.